Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann, trans. by Carol Brown Janeway

This poetic contemplation in translation illuminates an uneasy creative community of artists and writers gathered one summer as fascism and Nazism are growing in Europe.


Volker Weidermann’s Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark is a glimmering work of language and an insightful tribute to literary friendship in a singular historical moment.

Stefan Zweig was a successful and popular Austrian writer; Joseph Roth was less successful but also gifted, a tortured, heavy-drinking writer whom Zweig called his “literary conscience.” When war loomed in the summer of 1936, Zweig returned to the Belgian seaside town of Ostend, where he had spent the summer of 1914. His work no longer welcome in Germany, his home in Salzburg defiled by police and his marriage collapsed, he nonetheless joyfully embarked on new work and new love with his secretary, Lotte Altmann. And he brought along Roth, supporting him financially and in his work (support that would strain their complex, fraternal relationship throughout). The troubled Roth, too, found new and rejuvenating love with a German writer, Irmgard Keun, one of the few non-Jews in their small émigré community.

Aside from brief background and epilogue, Weidermann stays within the boundaries of the summer of 1936–the summer before the dark, in which Zweig, Roth and an assortment of “detractors… fighters… cynics… drinkers… blowhards… silent onlookers” manage for a single season to love, laugh and exercise creative genius in a world rapidly falling into war and fascism. Translated from the German into lyrical, meditative prose by Carol Brown Janeway, Ostend is a brief but scintillating portrayal of this season, its spirit and a set of remarkable characters.

This review originally ran in the February 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 little schnapps glasses.

2 Responses

  1. So glad to finally enjoy this remarkable narrative, alternately described as historical non-fiction, literary non-fiction or non-fiction novel – ah, the silliness of categories; which suggests perhaps that creative non-fiction is not a term used in Europe?

    I must remark on how further relevant this social observation of 1936 has become for us in our own tortured era, just since Weidermann’s writing in 2014. This is a very rare example where I reached the end, and immediately began again from the start, better to appreciate the art, skill and importance in his telling this story.

    • Literary nonfiction is a label I hear a lot, too, and I think it does at least as well as CNF. Nonfiction novel seems like a terrible confusion to me. (It’s what they called Capote’s In Cold Blood, but that had some conjecture to it.) Historical nonfiction seems redundant; why not just say history? I think narrative nonfiction is a pretty good one, too, indicating that there is a narrative and therefore a narrator, rather than your dry history textbook.

      Yes, sadly, there’s a lot of that returning relevance. We watched Woman in Gold the other night, a good movie but more chilling in our brave new world. Glad you loved this book, though!

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