A summer of sun for despondent exiles.
In July 1936, the Austrian-Jewish writers Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Joseph Roth (1894-1939) met in Ostend, Belgium, a seaside resort town that promised them a respite from the political turmoil perpetrated by Nazi Germany. As Weidermann, literary director and editor of the Sunday edition of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, portrays them in this taut, novelistic history, his first book to be translated into English, both men were facing personal and professional crises. Although Zweig was an enormously popular writer, his German publisher had just dropped him, and his latest book, on Calvin, elicited wrathful reviews. He wanted to wrest himself from his domineering wife and “dependent, needy, vain, useless” daughters to run off with his young, adoring mistress. Zweig was “tired, irritable, and depressed. He was sick of literature,” sick of politics, sick of life. Roth, who had been supporting himself as a journalist, was distraught when his two recent novels were banned and burned in his beloved Austria. An angry alcoholic, he yearned nostalgically for the past, for “an old Austria and its monarchy, its empire,” for “the great, glittering capital” of Vienna as it was in his youth. In lyrical prose, Weidermann re-creates the atmosphere of an ephemeral moment for both writers and the disillusioned men and women who gathered with them: German playwright Ernst Toller; Czech writer Egon Erwin Kisch, who was virulently anti-fascist; Hungarian-born journalist Arthur Koestler; Zweig’s diffident lover Lotte Altmann; and Roth’s new lover, Irmgard Keun, a beautiful, feisty woman who had sued the Nazis for damages when her novels were banned (she lost). Weidermann’s focus, though, is on Zweig and Roth: Zweig, “self-confident, worldly, with a firm stride, like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best”; and Roth, dumpy, unkempt, “like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”
Evocative, sharply drawn portraits and a wry, knowing narrative voice make for an engrossing history.