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  • Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann
  • Ian Reifowitz
Volker Weidermann. Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016. Pp. 164. Hardcover $24.95. ISBN 9781101870266.

I am a sucker for Joseph Roth. I have to admit that up front. I read almost all his stories and essays for a paper I published in 2000. Radetzkymarsch, his 1932 masterpiece, is the one book—if a person could read only one—I would recommend to someone who wants to really understand Austria-Hungary in its final decades.

Roth’s writings, when read in the order in which he published them, reveal his gradually increasing disconnect from reality. His depiction of Habsburg Austria goes from clear-eyed and balanced in Radetzkymarsch to hackneyed whitewashing in his final novel, Die Kapuzinergruft. In Ostend, Volker Weidermann depicts that same decline in Roth, with the author himself now a protagonist on the page. Reading about it this time affected me no less deeply.

Weidermann details the summer of 1936 at the beachfront resort of Ostend, Belgium. Although other individuals appear, the heart of the book is the relationship between Roth and his wealthier, more successful fellow author and fellow Jew, Stefan Zweig. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the Jewish identities of these two figures as presented by Weidermann.

The author’s presentation of them mirrors the men themselves. Weidermann mentions Zweig in the second sentence of Ostend. The first mention of Jews takes place fifteen pages later, in the author’s characterization of Brody, Roth’s Galician birthplace and hometown, as “the home of poor Orthodox Eastern Jews, the embarrassing distant kin of the assimilated Western Jews in Vienna.” (18) To this point there had been no acknowledgment that Zweig is a member of the latter group, or that he was a Jew at all.

Within a page of his first mention, however, Roth is identified by Weidermann as being Jewish. (19) Even when the author gives a brief biography of Zweig’s lover, Lotte Altmann, she too is identified as a Jew in the second sentence. (32) Weidermann relates Zweig’s attempts to have his books continue to appear in Germany after Hitler took power, which proved ultimately unsuccessful, yet there’s no mention as yet of Zweig’s Jewishness.

It comes finally on page 43, after the author quotes a letter from Zweig to Roth in which he calls the latter “in material terms, a poor, small Jew, almost as poor as seven million others.” Weidermann continued: “Zweig had put a name to the root of what divided them, the deep gulf that yawned invisibly between the assimilated western Jew born to wealth and the poor eastern Jew from the far frontier of the Monarchy.” To be sure, most anyone who would pick up this book would already know that Zweig is Jewish. My point here is not to criticize Weidermann, but in fact to praise the way he handles the matter of Zweig’s Jewishness, both by leaving it below the surface and by emphasizing how the “gulf” between Zweig and Roth reflected something crucial within the European Jewish community.

Another wonderful section on their relationship describes how Roth helps Zweig write a passage containing a detailed depiction of a particular religious [End Page 204] ritual. Zweig needed Roth’s knowledge in order to give the scene the realism it required. Despite this contribution, as well as many years of friendship, Zweig eventually found Roth too much of a burden to bear. Roth’s financial dependence and his alcoholism overwhelmed Zweig, and after this one last glorious summer together, Zweig decided to remain apart from him.

It is in the last section of the book, after that summer has come and gone, that we see Roth begin to crumble. He returns briefly to the Galicia of his youth and, in a very moving section, expresses deep yearning for the life he left behind. Finally, on the eve of the Anschluss, Roth meets with Otto, the putative Habsburg heir. Together they cook up a scheme in...


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