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Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 1

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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)

The 1924 Club : An Austrian Classic

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So much of the fun of the 1924 Club has been searching out titles to read and discuss; but one of the books on the Wikipedia list (which was where I started looking) was a work I’d read before and been mightily impressed by – Joseph Roth’s “Hotel Savoy”.

Like many of the works from that year, the book reflects the aftermath of the First World War; indeed reading the books I’ve chosen, it’s become crystal clear that the 1920s were the way they were because of that conflict, with each country involved reacting differently and recovering differently.

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My review of “Hotel Savoy” is here, and I shan’t add anything to it, except to say it’s an excellent book, powerfully capturing some of the post-war chaos in Europe – highly recommended as a 1924 read!

The Return of the Book Finding Fairy! (or, more Fun in Charity Shops)

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So there I was, congratulating myself on getting round all the charity shops in town and not spending anything. There was only one left, in the form of the Oxfam, but they haven’t had much new for weeks so I figured I was safe. And indeed, the Literature section, where I always head, hadn’t changed. However, I foolishly thought I’d cast an eye over the ordinary fiction…. Mistake!

First up, I spotted this:

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Having just finished my first Jansson book “Fair Play” (review  will follow soon, promise – I have a little catching up to do!), I was obviously keen to pick up another – especially for £1.99 and in lovely nick! As I’ve just watched the really lovely BBC documentary on Jansson, I’m fighting the urge to track down Moomins…..

Then I noticed this:

radetzkyRoth is on my ‘must-buy’ list when I spot his works in any of the charity stores, and I don’t already have this…..

So I thought I would have a general browse round the shop to see if there was anything else, maybe an old Enid Blyton or the odd vintage Pelican (more of which later) – and in the travel section there was this:

morrisIt’s a Notting Hill Editions book! It’s about William Morris travelling in Iceland!! It’s edited and annotated by Lavinia Greenlaw whose “The Importance of Music to Girls” I adored!!! What’s not to love at £2.49? I would only say – who was the twit who owned it before me and turned down a few corners? And why would you want to get rid of this lovely and the others above? Oh well – their loss is my (and Oxfam’s) gain!

As for the aforementioned Pelicans – well, I *was* very excited about the impending relaunch as I have a *lot* of old blue versions on my shelves. I ordered one of the new ones, “Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991” by Orlando Figes, to be delivered to my local Waterstones (as there was £2 off offer online) and called in on the off-chance – lo and behold, it was in! Despite not being published till next week!

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Isn’t it lovely? And look at the spine:

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Now I just have to fight the temptation to go online and search for old Pelicans……

Recent Reads – Confession of a Murderer (told in one night) by Joseph Roth

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Since my first read of a Joseph Roth book, “Hotel Savoy”, I’ve been keen to investigate more of his work – and so I used the excuse of World Book Day to send away for this volume, which sounded quite intriguing!

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Published in 1936, “Confession” is a short novel/novella (190 pages) set in Paris and narrated by a writer. The (unnamed) author lives opposite a Russian bar, the Tari-Bari, and spends much of his time popping in and out. It’s full of émigrés, eking out their lives in exile, but one particular character catches his eye. The habitués of the cafe don’t realise that the author can understand Russian and one day he overhears a couple of fellow drinkers referring to the interesting character as “our murderer”. But the ‘murderer’, one Golubchik (‘little dove’ in Russian) knows more about the writer than he thinks, and after the bar owner has closed and locked the doors, he settles down to tell them his story.

And what a story it is! Ranging from rural Russia, through the pre-War Okhrana Russian secret service, to Paris and then the war, the tale he tells is of a man born into poverty, denied his real heritage and seeking love and acceptance. I won’t give too much away, but this is a fascinating piece of storytelling – utterly gripping and involving. The story absorbed me, along with the other cafe habitues, until it suddenly switched back to the present for an unexpected and surprising ending!

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Roth is an excellent writer, and really gets inside the head of Golubchik. We feel his loneliness; the hurt and bitterness at being denied the use of the name of his rich (blood) father; the depth of his passion when he first falls in love.The prose is beautifully atmospheric, like this piece which describes the sense of being swept away from reality, isolated in the locked bar and detached from the rest of the world:

“…it seemed as though Time had ceased; and the hands on the white (clock) face were no longer simply black, but frankly ominous. Yes, they were as ominous as eternity. They were unchanging in their obstinate, almost treacherous, immobility, and it seemed to us as though they stood still, not because the clock work had stopped, but from a sort of malice and as if to prove that the story which Golubchik was telling us was an eternally recurring, eternally hopeless story, independent of time and space, of day and night. And since time stood still, the room too, in which we were sitting, became exempt from all laws of space; and it was as though we were no longer on solid earth, but floating on the eternal waters of the eternal sea. It seemed as though they were in a ship. And our sea was the night.”

Roth is often bracketed with Stefan Zweig although I must say that, having read their works closely together, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly alike. Zweig’s work is really, really intense – you could almost say overwrought – and I think too much at one time would be like having a fabulously rich meal at every sitting. However, Roth’s work, though it has passion, has somehow more depth – he is intense, but not too overdone!

“Confession…” was a great read – involving, intriguing, entertaining and with a cracking ending! Highly recommended, and I’ll definitely be reading more Roth!

Between The Wars: Roth and Keun

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As I posted last week, I picked these two books up on a recent flit through London. The Roth has been appealing to me for a while, and Keun had come up on an Internet browse as having had a temporary liaison with him. I thought therefore it might be nice to consider the books side by side. Firstly, though, a little about the authors from Wikipedia:

Joseph Roth, born Moses Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 – May 27, 1939), was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932) about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930) as well as the seminal essay ‘Juden auf Wanderschaft’ (1927; translated into English as The Wandering Jews), a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in the author.

Irmgard Keun (February 6, 1905 – May 5, 1982) was a German author noteworthy both for her portrayals of life in the Weimar Republic as well as the early years of the Nazi Germany era.

So perhaps they are unlikely compatriots – an Austrian Jew and a younger German – but nevertheless these works *are* interesting when set alongside each other.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

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Once again, Hesperus Press have done us a great service by bringing a work back from oblivion, and publishing it in a beautiful little edition with a striking cover image and French flaps! “Hotel Savoy” was Roth’s second novel, and it’s set in an unspecified border town (apparently based on Lodz, which is now in the Ukraine). Our narrator is Gabriel Dann, a ‘homecomer’ who has fought in the first world war and is returning from a Siberian prison camp. He stops off in town to visit relatives in the hope of finding some money, or even a place to settle, but this town is perhaps not the best place to be…

Dann moves into the hotel of the title, a formerly grand building which still has several floors of richer clientele, but also some upper floors which house a rich variety of characters – performers, money lenders, wanderers, mesmerists – and Stasia, who dances at the Variete and attracts Dann’s attention straight away. But he has a rival for her, in the form of his cousin Alexander. His local family members are that of his late mother’s brother, who seems to have been up to some fishy business with her money, and despite providing him with clothes and cast-offs, they are not forthcoming with any money. Our hero is running out of cash and may end up in hock to Ignatz, the lift operator, who seems to have quite a lot of control over events in the hotel, until an old friend turns up in the form of Zwonimir – a confident, imposing man who completely changes the dynamic surrounding Dann. The men look for work against the background of increasing civil unrest – this is an industrial town, and the workers are striking – and Zwonimir  (a Russian) is fomenting revolution. How will things pan out for Dann and his friends and colleagues at the Hotel Savoy?

Gabriel Dann is a fascinating character, a survivor of war, revolution and all their horrors, who is detached – possibly a condition of his survival. He has become some remote that he cannot even respond properly to Stasia and her love and it is only when he compares himself with Zwonimir and the latter’s camaraderie with those around him that he realises this failing:

“I am on my own. My heart beats for me alone. The strikers are of no interest to me. I have nothing in common with any crowd, and nothing with individuals either. I am a cold creature. In the war I never felt really part of my company. We all lay in the same muck, all waiting for the same death. The difference was that I could only think of my own life and my own death. I walked over corpses, and sometimes it troubled me that I felt no pain.”

Roth writes very beautifully, conjuring up the industrial town battered by the war and revolution; the population equally damaged, many hanging on by the skin of their teeth; the corrupt industrialists who will exploit the workers for whatever gain they can. And then there is Bloomfield – a local boy made good, who has gone to America with his fortune and whose return is the cause of much rumour and excitement. But Bloomfield was once Blumenfeld and his return is not intended to help the many people petitioning him for aid. It is only the local Jewish population who know the truth behind his visit.

The book is full of people yearning for a better world after the destruction of the First World War and revolution (at the time Lodz had been passing backwards and forwards between a variety of countries, and had a mixed populace of Germans, Russians, Poles, Silesians and Jews). It is not a coincidence that Zwonimir ‘s exclamation for something good happening is simply “America!” as that country was perceived by starving Europeans as some kind of promised land. After the climactic events of the book, some of the characters travel away by train in search of something new – the European equivalent of going west.

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This was an excellent, gripping read, capturing the dislocation of life post-war and the changing of the old social structures. Although a short work (just over 100 pages, like many Hesperus lost classics), it packed in much action but not at the expense of characterisation. And interestingly, I discovered after a little Internet searching that Roth was a friend of Stefan Zweig (whose books I recently discovered). Both men were remarkable writers, both suffered because of their Jewishness, both met a sad end – and both are excellent writers whose work I really want to explore more.

(As a side note, congratulations to Hesperus for putting a warning at the top of their foreword informing the new reader that plot elements are discussed – I nowadays often avoid introductions to books in case they give too much away, but it’s nice for the publishers to be aware of this too. The book is nicely translated by Jonathan Katz, who also provides the introduction).

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

“After Midnight” is a lovely little Neversink Library edition, translated by Anthea Bell (who has also produced works by Stefan Zweig) and with an afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The story is set a decade and a half or so after Roth’s novel, in a Germany which is becoming more and more controlled by the Nazis. The story is narrated by Sanna (short for Susanna), a young girl of 19 living with her half-brother Algin and sister-in-law Liska in Frankfurt. Sanna has fled her home in the country as she does not get on that well with her step-mother, initially lodging with her terrible Aunt Adelheid and cousin Franz, whom she is in love with. Sanna’s aunt is a horrid woman, tormenting Franz for a childhood tragedy that was in fact more her fault than anything. When she perceives Sanna is a rival for him, she denounces the girl who flees to Frankfurt, where she has settled down into a life with her family and friends, including her best friend Gerti. The latter is in a difficult position – in love with Dieter, a boy with Jewish blood, but with a family who want to marry her off to a nice SS man. As the girls travel across the city to meet him, they are blocked by a procession: the Führer is passing through.

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As the story unfolds, we meet other characters in Sanna’s orbit, including the cynical journalist Heini (whom Liska is obsessed with), and the Silias family, whose young daughter Berta has been selected to present a bouquet to Hitler. But Franz has reappeared and Sanna still loves him – how will the night progress; who will survive and who will not; do Sanna and Franz have any chance of a future?

I’m trying to discuss this book without giving too much away, because there are shocks and surprises as the story is told. “After Midnight” is wonderfully written, in the first person and in a very immediate way – we are following Sanna’s life and thoughts and it almost reads like a stream-of-consciousness narrative, so we feel as if we are experiencing the events alongside Sanna. We learn about her route to this point in time in a series of flashbacks, and become really involved with what is happening and her future.

Keun also manages to portray in a remarkably clever way what it was like to live in Nazi Germany; the creeping fear of denunciation; the random prejudice and violence; the way that nasty people could lie and inform on others with no basis; and the despair that overtook many of the independent, thinking people living in this kind of society. Keun never beats you over the head with this, instead using Sanna’s narration and viewpoint on things to demonstrate how it was, which is much more effective.

“It always used to be so cosy when two girls went to the Ladies together. You powdered your noses, and exchanged rapid but important information about men and love. And you combed your hair, and the pair of you wondered whether to let the man you were with take you home, and if they’d get above themselves, and want to kiss you when you didn’t. Or if you did, you’d be terribly worried the man might not think you pretty enough. You exchanged excited advice in the Ladies. It was often silly advice, but still, conversations in the Ladies were fun, and interesting.

But politics is in the air even in the Ladies these days. Gerti says she supposes it’s something if you find one without a lavatory attendant who expects you to say “Heil Hitler” and wants ten pfennigs into the bargain.”

Sanna is younger and in some ways more resilient – she is better able to cope with the complexities of this kind of life. However, Algin is struggling, having had his writings condemned; Heini, at Liska’s party, rather brilliantly dissects everyone there and has harsh words about Algin and his attempts to write acceptable works:

“The dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfections around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops.”

“After Midnight” shows very clearly and cleverly how hard it was for ordinary German people living under this regime; one where they were just as imprisoned as those who were transported. As one character comments, when considering the state of uncertainly they live in and the constant threat of fake informing,

‘Elvira,’ he says, this place is no better than a concentration camp.’

‘Fancy you not noticing that before,’ says I. ‘We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.’

Irmgard Keun
In some ways this is a bleak book, but it also contains optimism and demonstrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Sanna is a wonderful character who we really care for and hope will survive to make a new life. I’m so glad I discovered this wonderful author and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Reading these two books in tandem ended up being a fascinating experience. Although the two authors were only briefly linked, their novels do have a relevance in being studied together. In less than two decades, Germany went from a fragmented, crumbling nation trembling on the brink of revolution, to a united, warlike and powerful country controlled by a right-wing caste. The Jewish question and the subject of identity is a strong theme in Roth’s work, and the relevance of the shifting borders of the countries at the time of the story. Keun’s work is from a different point of view, that of an ordinary German girl, who nevertheless is struggling in a changing world. These two books reflect the differences between these two poles and show us how literature can help us to understand the transformations that take place in life. Both are highly recommended!

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