Summer Before The Dark
Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936
By Voker Weidermann
Pushkin Press – £12.99
”Little lies. It was war. Truth was dead.”
There’s something extraordinarily expressive and expansive about the way friendship has been conveyed throughout this altogether elgaic book. Almost all of its 168 pages – with the 169th depicting a black and white photograph of the two prime protagonists – appear to be drenched in the sort fraught sincerity one doesn’t often hear about – let alone come across, today.
Anchored in the Belgian, seaside town of Ostend during the summer of 1936, Summer Before The Dark bequeaths the reader with coterie of artists, intellectuals, drunks and madmen, all of whom are essentially on the run from the vile powers that be.
At the vanguard of said posse of silent lunacy, are the two literary sensations, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, one of whom is (even) more off the rails than the other. But what makes the book so utterly rewarding, is its slightly warped and opaque description of an era underlined by desperation: ”Roth felt on the verge of death. His room, he said, looked like a coffin […] at some point there’ll be a return journey. But when? The more urgent this question becomes, the less often it is posed. With every day of this vacation that goes by, any return becomes less plausible. They all know it. But it’s never discussed. Optimism is a duty. There’s a length of rope in the suitcase, but nobody talks about it.”
Such descriptive nonchalance is what perhaps accounts for The Financial Times having written: A marvellous book… literary biography at it s best. Faithful to facts, it reads like a novel […] extreme personalities, tense political backdrop and tragic central relationships, it would make a terrific film – Death in Venice with more sex, more booze, more action and considerably more conversation.”
Sounds more akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but instead of Richard and Liz going at it, we have two fesity, ageing writers – flung together by way of jealousy and ambition, The Nazis and ultimately, love.