"I'm convinced nothing will befall the cheeky chutzpah-Jews," Joseph Roth wrote to friend, compatriot and fellow novelist Stefan Zweig in August 1932. Three years later Roth was just as optimistic, predicting that "Hitler won't last more than another year and a half."
But he did, and the Nazis cast a widening shadow, forcing Roth and Zweig — two displaced Jews from what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire — to remain in exile. A remarkable book by German writer and journalist Volker Weidermann tells the story of how both men reunited briefly in 1936 at a Belgian beach resort, where they tried to forget their woes and the mounting tension in Europe.
"Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark," beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a short but vital calm-before-the-storm history, one that shines a valuable light on two of the 20th century's finest writers.
For Zweig, 1936 is "a year of farewells and decisions." A global literary superstar in the 1920s and early '30s, his books are now banned and burned in the Third Reich. With his marriage collapsing and his Austrian home seized, he is "a man struggling to find a foothold." Roth's books have also fallen foul of the Nazi censors; he is a poor, alcoholic drifter, "slowly losing his mind and with it his art." The Belgian town of Ostend, with its sun, sand, promenades and bistros, promises to be an ideal summer sanctuary.
Weidermann shows the pair enjoying each other's company and mingling with émigrés. We meet Hermann Kesten, who published German texts in exile; Egon Kisch, the prominent German reporter of the day; plus playwright Ernst Toller and his glamorous wife, Christiane Grautoff. Roth finds an unlikely lover and a perfect drinking partner in the writer Irmgard Keun, while Zweig forgets his wife in the arms of his secretary, Lotte Altmann.
The group sits on the seafront sniping, laughing, writing (for Roth "a sacred duty"), despairing at the ominous news of the day — yet never discussing the difficult topic of a possible return to their respective homelands.
"Ostend" is, in places, an ensemble piece, but for the most part the focus is on its two star turns. Weidermann paints memorable individual portraits: elegant, wealthy, worldly Zweig, growing more and more exasperated with sick, needy, unkempt Roth, who looks like "a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land." Sometimes there is true camaraderie and all seems well; then Weidermann reminds us that they are "refugees in vacation-land" and fast running out of options. In a moving finale, we see how they finally depart, leaving Ostend and each other to meet separate tragic ends.
Weidermann has written a book steeped in melancholy but also rich in insight and empathy. This is a sparkling gem in which is reflected "two men, both falling, but holding each other up for a time."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.