It's the summer of 1936, and the writer Stefan Zweig is in crisis. His German publisher no longer wants him, his marriage is collapsing, and his home in Austria has been seized. He's been dreaming of Ostend, the Belgian beach town. So he journeys there with his new lover, Lotte Altmann, and reunites with his semi-estranged fellow writer and close friend Joseph Roth. For a moment, they create a fragile paradise. But as Europe begins to crumble around them, the writers find themselves trapped on vacation, in exile, watching the world burn. In Ostend, Volker Weidermann lyrically recounts the summer before the dark, when a group of found themselves in limbo while Europe teetered on the edge of fascism and total war.
Volker Weidermann is the literary director and editor of the Sunday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the author of a number of works of literary history and critical biography.
Read an Excerpt
It’s summer up here by the sea; the gaily colored bathing huts glow in the sun. Stefan Zweig is sitting in a loggia on the fourth floor of a white house that faces onto the broad boulevard of Ostend, looking at the water. It’s one of his recurrent dreams, being here, writing, gazing out into the emptiness, into summer itself. Right above him, on the next floor up, is his secretary, Lotte Altmann, who is also his lover; she’ll be coming down in a moment, bringing the typewriter, and he’ll dictate his Buried Candelabrum to her, returning repeatedly to the same sticking point, the place from which he cannot find a way forward. That’s how it’s been for some weeks now.
Perhaps his great friend Joseph Roth will have some advice. His friend, whom he’s going to meet later in the bistro, as he does every afternoon this summer. Or one of the others, one of the detractors, one of the fighters, one of the cynics, one of the drinkers, one of the blowhards, one of the silent onlookers. One of the group that sits downstairs on the boulevard of Ostend, waiting for the moment when they can go back to their homeland. Racking their brains over what they can do to change the world’s trajectory so that they can go home to the country they came from, so that in turn they can maybe even come back here to this beach on a visit one day, as guests. For now, they’re refugees in vacationland. The apparently ever-cheerful Hermann Kesten, the preacher Egon Erwin Kisch, the bear Willi Muenzenberg, the champagne queen Irmgard Keun, the great swimmer Ernst Toller, the strategist Arthur Koestler: friends, foes, storytellers thrown together here overlooking the beach in July by the vagaries of world politics. And the stories they tell will be the fragments shored against their ruin.
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. Until a few years ago, his life had been pure ascent—simple, greatly admired, and greatly envied. Now he’s afraid, he feels himself bound by a hundred obligations, a hundred invisible fetters. Nothing will loosen them, nothing will provide support. But there is this summer, in which everything might change. Here, on this extravagantly wide boulevard with its magnificent white house and its great casino, the extraordinary Palace of Luck. Holiday mood, lively atmosphere, ice creams, parasols, lethargy, wind, wooden booths.
He was here once before; it was the summer of 1914, when the disaster began; with the headlines and the newsboys all along the beach promenade screaming more excitedly with every day that passed, excited and joyous because they were doing the best business they’d ever had.
The majority of the bathers who tore the papers out of their hands were German. The boys yelled the headlines: Russia Provokes Austria; Germany Prepares to Mobilize. And Zweig too—pale, well dressed, with wire-rimmed glasses—came down by tram to be closer to the unfolding news. He was electrified by the headlines; they made him feel delightfully aroused and excited. Of course he knew that the whole drama would subside into a general silence soon enough, but right now he simply wanted to savor it. The possibility of a great event. The possibility of a war. The possibility of a grand future, of an entire world in motion. His joy was especially great when he looked into the faces of his Belgian friends. They had turned pale in the course of these last days. They were unprepared to join the game and seemed to be taking the whole thing very seriously. Stefan Zweig laughed. He laughed over the pathetic troops of Belgian soldiers on the promenade. Laughed over a little dog that was dragging a machine gun along behind it. Laughed over the entire holy solemnity of his friends.
He knew they had nothing to fear. He knew that Belgium as a country was neutral; he knew that Germany and Austria would never overrun a neutral country. “You can hang me from this lamppost if the Germans march in here,” he cried to his friends. They remained skeptical, and their faces turned grimmer as the days went by.
Where had his Belgium gone so suddenly? His supposed land of vitality, of strength, of energy, and the intensity of another kind of life. That was what he so loved about this country and this sea. And why he so admired the country’s greatest poet.
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