Exile on Main Street – “Ostend” by Volker Weidermann

ostend-pushkin-pressThis week’s instalment is following up on my review of Stefan Zweig’s novel Impatience of the Heart with a book examining Zweig’s and a group of fellow writers’ early years in exile.

The year is 1936. The Nazis, in power for a mere three years, have orchestrated the infamous book burnings and driven the vast majority of German literary intelligentsia out of Germany. For the time being, most have settled in adjoining countries such as France or the Netherlands, the latter home of the famous Querido publishing house, one of the very few publishers left for this group of writers. They are writing for an ever diminishing readership, waiting for news from home and hoping, against better judgement, that the Nazi spell will soon be broken.

In Ostend, Volker Weidermann provides us with a masterful snapshot of these times. He re-imagines, not without some sepia-coloured nostalgia, some sepia-coloured nostalgia, the travails of early exile placing a coterie of writers for one last summer at the swish Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, where they spend their time writing, having affairs, gossiping and talking politics. The writers, who are congregating by the sea, cover the whole spectrum of intellectual resistance against Hitler: there is the bourgeois humanist Zweig, the nostalgic monarchist Joseph Roth, his lover Irmgard Keun, a prominent proponent of what the Nazis derogatively labelled “asphalt literature”. They are joined by the communist faction around famous journalist Egon Erwin Kisch and “red media baron” Willi Munzenberg. Notably missing, though, are the two giants of literary opposition to Hitler-Germany: Thomas Man and Bertold Brecht.

Born in 1969, Weidermann is one of Germany’s best known literary critics. He is currently the cultural editor at the influential weekly magazine Der Spiegel, convenor of the TV talk show The Literary Quartet and author of a number of books on German literature. Books and authors blacklisted by the Nazis are topics Weidermann has tackled before. In 2008 he published a collection of sketches of almost 50 authors forced to leave Germany under the title The Book of Burnt Books, the last chapter of which focused on Austrian authors Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth.

Now Weidermann has returned to these two very different men and made them the centre piece of Ostend. It is around this unlikely pair that he arranges the panorama of writers in ever changing configurations, enjoying one last summer by the seaside, engaging in intellectual jostling (and gossiping!) over dinners and drinks, with the alacrity of high-wire artists who show off their art while always being in danger of falling into the abyss.

In many ways Zweig’s and Roth’s relationship is an unlikely friendship and in his understated way Weidermann excels in giving us a beautifully rendered portrait of these two complex men. On the surface it is difficult to see what drew the two characters towards each other: on the one hand there is the wealthy, urbane cosmopolitan Zweig, on the other the shambolic, alcoholic and parochial Roth. Zweig is a friend to Roth, but also a mentor and frequently a benefactor, picking up hotel bills and bar taps, the latter reluctantly as he quite rightly blames Roth’s drinking problem for his declining artistic powers.

The differences in their backgrounds frequently cause friction with Joseph Roth often feeling inferior to the more successful Zweig and Zweig sometimes regarding the demands by his friend as an imposition. Yet, the friendship persists, based on the mutual admiration of each other’s work and, maybe on a deeper level, on a shared sense of alienation, a melancholy longing of an idealised past: in Zweig’s case an idealised notion of European culture under threat from the barbarity of fascism; in Roth’s a gilded version of life under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At its core, Ostend is an elegy, a tender swansong about a vanished literary scene, about the heydays of the literary opposition against Hitler, captured just before war dispersed its protagonists into far flung corners of the globe and before disillusionment with life in exile turned into despair. The summer ends and the life of the characters in Ostend irrevocably changes with often tragic consequences, such as the suicide of playwright Ernst Toller, Roth’s premature death from alcohol abuse in Paris, the double-suicide of Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte in Brazil. Those who survived the years of exile and returned to Germany were largely forgotten or unwanted by the new post-war generation of writers. Weidermann’s Ostend succeeds in preserving their legacy and serves as a reminder that there is a group of authors worthy of a rediscovery by today’s readers.

Volker Weidermann. Summer before Dark – Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 (translated from the German by Carol  Brown Janeway). Pushkin Press.

In the US published as

Voker Weidermann. Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark (translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway). Pantheon.

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