I was drawn to Volker Weidermann’s Summer Before the Dark partly because of its translator, Carol Brown Janeway, who died last year. It was her work which made me understand that the translator is every bit as important as the author when seeking out books in translation. This may well be her last piece of work and so I particularly wanted to read it. There’s another reason but more of that later. The book is Weidermann’s account of the summer of 1936 when Stephan Zweig and Joseph Roth took themselves off to Ostend, joining several other writers and intellectuals fleeing the rise of Nazism in Austria and Germany.
Roth and Zweig are very different men. Fatherless and desperately poor, Roth comes from a small town in Galicia (now Ukraine) and has a number of failed novels behind him although two – Job and The Radetsky March – have been minor successes. The wealthy Zweig is a cosmopolitan Viennese, the successful author of several well thought of historical works. Roth idolises Zweig and the two have enjoyed a long running correspondence, Zweig eventually taking on the financial burden of the struggling Roth who has a tendency to drink away what little money he has. Both have chequered love lives – lovers and wives betrayed and left behind. After an estrangement followed by many pleading letters from Roth, the two have finally settled on Ostend to spend the July of 1936. Zweig revisits memories of his idyllic 1914 Ostend summer when he became seized with excitement at what he saw as a clearing of the decks ahead. Ostend has attracted several other émigré intellectuals and together they form a little community, somewhere to shelter from the creeping menace of fascism. Summer Before the Dark follows this often quarrelsome, frequently drunk, constantly debating little band through a strange sort of holiday as they look out into a world well and truly going to hell in a handcart, nervously wondering what will become of them.
Weidermann’s book reads much more like a novel than a piece of literary biography. It’s written entirely in the historic present which makes his protagonists and their lives strikingly immediate but can be discombobulating as he shifts his historical focus. Living with a contemporary historian, I’m used to this but others might appreciate a warning. Weidermann weaves his research lightly through his account, quoting from books, letters and diaries while painting vivid pictures of Ostend’s ‘white spun-sugar promenade’ and the émigrés who walk down it. Both Zweig and Roth are fascinating characters: Zweig’s ideals characterised by ‘conscience against power, humanism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and reason’ while Roth hankers for the old ways of his homeland. Weidermann finishes his book with a summary of what befalls this group of émigrés in the years after their Ostend sojourn – a litany of suicides, execution and murder punctuated by the odd long life. It’s an immensely engaging book and just as I expected, beautifully translated by Brown Janeway. Such a sadness that there will be no more from her.
And the other reason I was attracted to Summer Before the Dark? That’s much closer to home. Zweig lived briefly in Bath from 1939 to 1940. It’s where he married the self-effacing Lotte who joined him in Ostend. At least once a week I walk past their house, at the top of Rosemount Lane in Lyncombe, which has a discreet plaque on its gate post. Clive Davis has written a little about it here. Theirs was to be a short marriage. Two years later they were found dead, hand-in-hand, in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis where they had fled to escape the fascism which had finally engulfed Europe. Only Zweig had left a note from which Weidermann quotes: ‘I greet all my friends! May they all see the glow of dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, am going on ahead’.