Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936

5921656Stoddard Martin at Literary Review:

Roth was one of the best German feuilletonistes of his generation. As a Jew, he was starved of outlets once the Nazis took control. There were émigré publishers, but circulation was small and profit scant. Roth’s fiction was less cosmopolitan than Zweig’s and could not gain a footing in the American market, let alone reach the benchmark set by, say, Thomas Mann’s. Was Roth a better writer than either? Like many who are alcohol-driven, he was brilliant at using language and in puncturing hypocrisy, but his work never aspired to the philosophical heft of The Magic Mountain. As for Zweig’s, it is now being rerated: biographies, reprints of his work and novels about him are proliferating. Is this due to a sense that his importance as a writer has been overlooked, an admiration for his humanist efforts in an age of intolerance, or just a slightly prurient fascination with his fate as a German-speaking Jew facing historic calamity?

Summer Before the Dark belongs to the last of these tendencies. Zweig, Roth and friends gather in Ostend for a month in the summer of 1936. They worry over the headlines of the day: the propaganda eyewash being prepared for the upcoming Berlin Olympics; the racial implications of Max Schmeling’s victory over the ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis in the boxing ring; the show trials of those who have been brave or rash enough to stay at home, among them Etkar André, a communist activist in Hamburg, who has been sentenced to death. A fearful, often self-pitying bunch, they loiter in cafes along the beach promenade, sporadically discarding their pessimism for hopes of political change, rushes of creativity or glissandos of joshing and complaints about absent fellow émigrés – Klaus Mann comes in for it for his forthcoming ‘novel of revenge’ Mephisto, the plot allegedly purloined from another of their number, Hermann Kesten. Zweig’s role as mother hen to Roth is countered by the pitying passion of young Irmgard Keun, the only writer in the group to leave Germanophone Europe by choice rather than necessity.

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