Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann

There are many things we have to thank Pushkin Press for (Gaito Gazdanov, Teffi, gorgeously produced books, to name just a few); but one of their major achievements is their part in the rediscovery and championing of Stefan Zweig, making available so many of his works in English.

Zweig probably needs very little introduction here as I’ve written about him before; his writings, once so popular, slipped into decline but have now come back into vogue, and there is a large selection available from Pushkin. He’s often bracketed with Joseph Roth, a slightly younger author from the same era (and whom I’ve also covered) and so when I saw that Pushkin were bringing out a beautiful-looking volume dealing with their ‘last summer’ in 1936 at Ostend, it was a must!

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This lovely little hardback (and the cover image is gorgeous) tells the stories of not only Zweig and Roth, but also their friends and colleagues in exile; from Egon Erwin Kisch and Herman Kesten to Romain Rolland and Arthur Koestler, as well as several others, some of whom I’d heard of and others who were new to me. The book also loops back to the past to cover Emile Verhaeren, Zweig’s early inspiration, and his second-wife-to-be Lotte is prominent in the narrative.

“Summer” is initially a difficult work to categorise as in some ways it almost reads like fiction. At first, the writing seems a little simplistic, but as the book progresses you find yourself gradually being drawn into the world of Zweig, Roth and co. The atmosphere of the times is brilliantly brought to life, and I found as I read on that I was visualising the seaside setting, the little cafes, the group of emigres eating, drinking, arguing and loving. Zweig and Roth really come alive as characters of course, but their friends are also brilliantly portrayed. Weidermann really captures the petty rivalries, the loves, the despair and the desperation that consume them.

… The more I thought about it, the more I realised that our spiritual world is made up of millions of atoms of single impressions, whose minimum number stems solely from what we see and what we experience – while everything else, the existential interwoven world, we owe to books, to what is read, transmitted, learned.

Central to the book is the relationship between Roth and Irmgard Keun (whom I’ve written about before). Their short, intense affair was pretty much the last love of Roth’s life, although the much younger Keun went on to have a long and fascinating existence, managing somehow to survive the war living in Germany.

circa 1940: Stefan Zweig (1881 - 1942) the writer, poet and translator of Ben Johnson. He was born in Austria but became a British citizen in 1940. He died by his own hand. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What’s fascinating is seeing how the emigres completely understand the threat of Germany and Nazism; the pain of having to leave their homeland or lose their lives is palpable, and it’s quite incredible looking back to realise that large sections of the world just ignored the rise of Hitler and his cronies, despite their despicable behaviour throughout the 1930s.

At one point, the author describes a photo of Zweig and Roth which was taken at the time by Keun, going into detail about the pose and what it says about the two writers, making you long to see it. It turns out to be a kicker of an image which appears on the last page and really hits you in the gut. The two men were obviously very different in background and temperament, and it shows, but they still managed to retain a connection and a fragile friendship based on their intellectual lives.

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Weidermann quotes a variety of sources at points through the book, from letters and biographies, and it’s clear he’s done much research to enable him to paint such a wonderful, impressionistic picture of this exotic group of people. I was mildly puzzled, therefore, by the lack of any notes or references at the end of the book; it’s the kind of thing I would have expected, to enable me to go on and explore further if nothing else, but there are none at all, meaning that the reader does have to trust Weidermann’s interpretations and accuracy.

However, this is a minor quibble, and what the book gives is a rich, moving and entertaining portrait of a wonderful group of artists in transit. At the end, we find out the eventual fate of each character, and in most cases it’s not pretty. It’s all to easy to forget how hopeless things must have seemed at some points during the conflict, and how it appeared that civilisation was going to hell in a handcart.

Alas, the world that was theirs has gone; Ostend apparently looks completely different, and I doubt any of the group of emigres would be happy with the direction we have gone in since. But this book takes you back to 1936 and lets you live through the times of Zweig, Roth and their friends alongside them. Another winner from Pushkin!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for very kindly providing a review copy)

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