language is our only home

Summer before the dark, by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Laneway; Messages from a Lost World, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press have done marvels in restoring an entire generation of lost voices to contemporary English-language readers: Antal Szerb, Ernst Weiss, Arthur Schnitzler, Leo Perutz, Joseph Roth and of course their greatest rediscovery Stefan Zweig.

I say lost voices, but really these are voices which were deliberately silenced. It’s no coincidence that most of them are cut-off in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The Nazis sought to intimidate and destroy all art and culture that wasn’t in service of their own horrific goals. For a while they succeeded, and it’s a tragedy that so few of these writers survived to see how brief that success was and how total the Nazi’s ultimate defeat.

In his Summer Before the Dark, Volker Weidermann takes us to a moment of peace before the coming destruction: 1936 Ostend where a group of émigré writers briefly gathered. Pushkin have simultaneously published Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig written from the dawn of the first world war to the depths of the second.

SummerBefore ZweigMessages

I’m reviewing these together partly as Pushkin Press published them together and partly because they are such natural companion pieces. Both, as you’d expect from Pushkin, are physically lovely: well made hardbacks with high quality paper and well judged cover designs. They’d make the perfect gift for a melancholic relative…

Summer takes the reader to Ostend in 1936. It’s a rather Proustian middle-class Belgian seaside resort of the sort common before mass cheap airfare existed. The rise of the Nazis has already displaced a great many German language writers with Zweig one of the last to find himself unable to publish in his native tongue.

Over one summer Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and many more find themselves briefly together enjoying the cafes and the culture that have always formed the backdrop to their lives. It’s civilised Europe in miniature.

Weidermann skilfully evokes both time and place. It’s easy to picture the writers having passionate arguments about how best to intervene in Franco’s Spain (Koestler is despatched as a sort of amateur-spy) while crafting new manuscripts and falling into new relationships.

The book opens with a previous visit by Zweig to Ostend in 1914. Back then he couldn’t believe war would actually happen and delayed departure, incredulous at the idea that anyone would move beyond posturing to actual conflict. On the last train back he saw cannons being moved to the front – a physical rebuttal of his belief that common interest would outweigh nationalist folly.

In 1936 Roth is again striving for optimism, though it seems to be getting harder. Zweig at this point is a literary superstar. He’s rich and his books are hugely popular and widely translated. Ostend is a haven from his recent troubles in Germany, troubles which he’s been better insulated from to date than most:

Stefan Zweig in the summer of 1936. He looks at the sea through the large window and thinks with a  mixture of pity, reticence and pleasure about the group of displaced men and women he will be rejoining shortly.

Summer reads like a novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are no footnotes or endnotes and there’s no references or sources cited. That raises occasional questions about how confident we can be as to its accuracy.

Take the quote above as an example. Zweig “thinks”, but how do we know what he thought? Barring temporal telepathy this is presumably based on Zweig’s letters or a diary or something similar, but letters have an intended recipient, diaries may be written with a view to later publication, neither is entirely reliable as a guide to someone’s actual thoughts.

The question of how Weidermann knows what he writes remains a nagging concern throughout the book. It’s one that the reader just has to accept – I’ve no reason to believe Weidermann hasn’t done his homework and realistically it’s not as if I would have checked the citations had he provided them. Still, it makes this a book better read to get a sense of mood and of the nature of the world that was about to vanish rather than as anything more scholarly.

Read as novelistic-history (ironically something which Zweig hated), Summer reads very well indeed. Weidermann is good at capturing his subjects. Zweig in 1936 wears a pale suit with a well-trimmed moustache and is described as “self-confident, worldly” and “like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best.” By contrast, Roth is  “hunched” and “potbellied”; his moustache is “unkempt” and he “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”

RothZweig

Zweig was one of Roth’s early literary heroes, and Weidermann tells a nice anecdote of how long before Roth met Zweig he went on a literary pilgrimage to Zweig’s apartment in Vienna but sadly missed seeing him. Zweig is now a lifeline as well as friend, providing Roth with cash and ensuring that he eats and takes basic care of himself.

Roth is an advanced alcoholic. His legs and feet are badly swollen, to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to put on a pair of shoes. For year’s now he’s had to throw up every morning, sometimes for hours. He eats almost nothing. Going out to a restaurant seems to him as an eccentric waste of money, that only a rich man like Stefan Zweig would dream up. Nevertheless, Zweig tries to convince him to eat a meal day after day. This summer in Ostend it even frequently works.

Both then and now Zweig suffers from being seen (rightly in my view) as the lesser talent. Zweig is a great writer of popular fiction, but Roth is simply a great writer. Still, they usefully collaborate: at one point Zweig struggles with an ending for a novel and Roth writes one for him, leaving Zweig to adapt Roth’s ending and craft it into his own book. I thought that lovely. Zweig gives Roth useful advice too (including on Weights and Measures, which Roth finishes too quickly desperate for the cash it will generate).

It’s no surprise that amidst all the literature and politics there’s sex too. Zweig is in Ostend with his secretary and mistress, Lotte, with whom he would spend the short few remaining years of his life (they ultimately committed suicide together). Roth meets Irmgard Keun (“the only Aryan here” she quips), a writer he encourages though without reading anything she writes. She later says of her first encounter with him “My skin said ‘yes’ immediately”. A line so good that on its own it’s persuaded me to read her work.

The contrast between the two central figures here couldn’t be greater. Zweig is civilised, urbane, bourgeois. No wonder history has been (until recently) a little unkind to him. Roth by contrast is a classic art-monster. He’s arrogant, passionate, filled with crazy dreams and absurd fantasies, self-destructive and yet attractive to women. Zweig has talent; Roth genius.

And yet. While Zweig is ultimately forced to abandon Roth fearing that otherwise he’ll be sucked down with him, overall he comes across as a man who does his best to live up to his own ideals. He’s a good friend to Roth for as long as he can be, and he’s a good man if perhaps a somewhat naive one. I prefer Roth’s work to Zweig’s, but I’d rather have Zweig as a friend than Roth.

It’s perhaps unavoidable in a book like this that reading it one rather wishes one could have been there, and yet the “there” weidermann describes is a terrible place. It’s a spun-sugar fragment of culture amidst an oncoming avalanche of barbarism, and within a few years nearly everyone he writes of will be dead and they’ll mostly die believing that everything they’ve worked for is in ashes.

I read Messages after Summer, and I think that may be the best way round. Messages is a well chosen collection of essays bringing out certain of Zweig’s core concerns: of the need for Europeans to find a common identity; of the merits of cosmopolitanism and humanism over insularity and fear.

Zweig’s themes resonate with me, and remain surprisingly timely as the UK moves towards a referendum vote on whether or not to stay in the EU. I know which way Zweig would have urged us to vote. From 1916:

… some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations has not through centuries of heroic endeavour; men who ardently believe that this monument must be brought to completion in our Europe, here where it was started, and not in foreign continents like America or Asia.

That quote shouldn’t be taken as Zweig disparaging America or Asia, but first and foremost Zweig is unashamedly a European and it’s Europe that concerns him. If he had lived to see a united Europe I’ve no doubt his ambitions would then have stretched further to a united world, but as he came to see even his little dream of a common European polity proved too much for the era he lived in.

Zweig returns repeatedly in the essays to the myth of the Tower of Babel. To him it represents a dream of human potential – first built in metaphoric stone and now in culture and civilisation. He sees the Tower as a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and put aside their differences, and as a caution showing how disunity can prevent us reaching the heavens.

The years up to 1914 Zweig sees as a metaphorical rebuilding of the tower, with Europe becoming more than merely a collection of individual nations through a cross-continent mingling of literature and music and art and science. Now as the tide of nationalism steadily grows over the course of these essays, he sees the foundation of the tower once more in danger.

Here’s Zweig in 1939 complaining of how history is taught in schools, and of how that encourages the very nationalism he deplores:

History, which ordinarily signified the highest objectivity, was force-fed into us with the sole aim of making us fine patriots, future soldiers, obedient citizens. We had to show ourselves humble before our own state and its institutions, mistrustful of other countries and races, and we had to agree with the carefully inculcated conviction that our country was better than all the other countries, our soldiers were better than their soldiers, our generals were more courageous than their generals; that our people throughout history had always been in the right and whatever might happen we would always be right: my country,right or wrong.

He goes on to talk about how he was taught history as a sequence of important dates and figures, most of them battles and conquerors. He could have written that about my schooling. Instead he would prefer a history that focuses on the truly important dates and achievements – scientific breakthroughs, notable medical discoveries, the scientists and artists. He wrote this on the eve of a war that would swallow the world, and he knew I think that none of this would be achieved anytime soon or even in his lifetime.

There’s the (very) occasional comic moment, such as in 1931 when he writes that “… the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors’ lives, is now over”, on which note I’m afraid I have bad news for him. Mostly however this is a passionately if impractically argued plea for us to be better than we are. In 1940 he writes of the Vienna that he loves and which is now lost to him, saying:

Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilisation.

All of which is as true of Europe as a whole now as it was of the Vienna of his youth. I said above that his pleas were impractical, and often they are, but an excess of practicality can be the enemy of progress and sometimes we need a little impracticality if we’re to make any progress at all.

Other reviews

Not so many yet on the blogosphere that I’m aware of, but Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote up Summer here and Messages here and Lizzy Siddal positively gushes about Summer here (and in answer to her rhetorical question, if one can’t gush on one’s own blog where can one?). If you know of others please flag them (and feel free to link directly) in the comments.

Finally, I should just note that these were review copies sent to me by Pushkin Press. I also have a personal copy of Zweig’s World of Yesterday and having read these now makes me all the more enthusiastic to read that.

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14 Comments

Filed under Essays, German Literature, Pushkin Press, Roth, Joseph, Vienna, Zweig, Stefan

14 responses to “language is our only home

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Max and thanks for the links. I read Messages after Summer too, and I think that’s a good way to read them. Like you, I was a little disconcerted about the lack of sources in Summer – there were many quotes and I would like to have actually known where they came from. But I agree the book did capture the atmosphere beautifully and definitely Zweig was the nicer person of the two. I’ve read a couple of Keun books and have more on my TBR – I think she’s excellent.

  2. I absolutely agreed with both your reviews Kaggsy, I read them at the time and again more closely after I’d written most of this (I tend like most of us to avoid reading other people’s reviews too closely if I’m shortly to be writing my own).

    The point about the lack of sources I think is a good one (well, obviously I guess or I wouldn’t have made it but I agreed with it when you made it). That said as I say above it’s not like I’d actually have checked any of them. Still, it makes it all a bit more uncertain.

    That line about skin saying yes is just good writing. As I also say above, that alone sold me on Keun. I’ll check your back reviews for a good entry point.

  3. I avoided Summer before the Dark because I knew the fiction vs non fiction elements would nag at me. I read the Impossible Exile, and I highly recommend it BTW for its marvelous insight into Zweig. After reading that, I feel as though a novelistic-history book about Zweig would be beside the point.

  4. I’ll look back into Impossible Exile. From what I recall I can see it might make this redundant.

  5. Zweig committing suicide when he was safe in S America always puzzled me, and that was addressed in the book. Zweig is presented as displaced and depressed.

  6. I’m really glad you reviewed both of these books, Max. I listened to an abridged version of Summer when it was serialised on R4’s Book of the Week last month. It felt very poignant, all the more so because we know what’s about to happen next. I’m not sure if I’ll end up reading the full version, mainly because there are so many other books I’d like to read and time is short. Zweig’s life is of interest to me though, so I may well pick up The World of Yesterday at some point.

  7. A great comparison between fiction and non-fiction. I have a bit of a soft spot for all concerned, displacement, loss of ideals and hope played nasty tricks on them all.

  8. Jacqui, I think if I had listened to an abridged version I probably wouldn’t read the full either, a bit like Guy not feeling the need where he’d already read a satisfying book on the subject. It ends up getting repetitive, but it was new for me and therefore rewarding. World is supposed to be good.

    Thanks Marina. It is hard not to sympathise with them isn’t it?

  9. As Roth, Zweig and (latterly) Keun are among my favourite writers from the period, I’ve read Summer Before the Dark (I’d love to have read both, but didn’t feel I could stretch my budget to two hardbacks!) When I first heard about it I thought it was a novel, then it was presented as non-fiction. Does anyone know what the author intended?

  10. I certainly don’t. It reads in some ways more as a novel. That’s the trouble with narrated history, you’re never quite sure.

  11. Very thoughtful reviews.
    This sounds fantastic and it goes on the TBR. I can see why the lack of footnotes could be an issue. It’s a fascinating time.

  12. It’s definitely worth reading Emma and I think you’d enjoy it. Perhaps though read it as in part an imagining rather than as pure history.

  13. Having just finished Summer in the Dark, I thought I’d come back to re-read your review. (I doubt I’ll write about it myself as my review backlog is already out of control – and besides, you’ve captured the book so beautifully here!) I agree with your comments on the book’s strengths and weakness. Weiderman seems to catch the mood so perfectly, and yet it’s difficult to distinguish between known facts and fiction. Interestingly, the writer I’m most eager to read next is Irmgard Keun. She comes across as so feisty, so full of life. I love that line about her skin too. It’s a shame that her book ‘After Midnight’ seems so difficult to get hold of in paperback…

  14. I had the same reaction to Keun. I plan to read her in kindle since while she’s expensive in that format at least she’s available.

    Glad you liked the book too, though in some ways I do wonder if it’s best treated as a novel albeit one which may hew fairly close to the truth.

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