Summer Before The Dark: Writing, alcohol and exile with literature’s émigrés in 1930s Belgium

Summer Before The Dark - Volker Weidermann - Hits the Fan - Dave Lancaster book reviewCelebrities – surely they’re invincible when it comes to the hardships faced by the rest of us. They occupy a bubble of life that is untouched by the wider concerns of the world. They must do. That’s why we escape through them, our flights of fancy piloted by the most experienced adventurers. Summer Before The Dark by Volker Weidermann explodes that myth with absolutely riveting results.

Perhaps the best summary I can think of for Summer Before The Dark is that it is a poetic documentary. The characters, places and backdrop depicting the genesis of the second world war across Europe is heartbreakingly real but Weidermann’s prose is more buoyant. It feels like Graham Greene and Walt Whitman joined forces to cover the war on a macro level, their magnifying glasses honing in on emotion, their pens quivering through history like welcome rivers through a desert. Indeed, Summer Before The Dark plays more like Death in Venice than Judgment at Nuremberg with its emphasis on emotion over action. It is the emotion that drives the eventual action via the men and women that populate Weidermann’s narrative are masters of emotion. They are writers.

Summer Before The Dark tells the story of two friends and leading authors – the outwardly successful but crumbling soul that is Amok writer Stefan Zweig and his outwardly catastrophic drunkard fellow scribe Joseph Roth whose drowned sorrows have blossomed into fine swimmers.

Zweig and Roth rekindle their estranged friendship in the seaside Belgian town of Ostend over one summer of 1936 as the world around them is threatening to erupt under Hitler’s increasingly erratic command. As their ties to the literary world snaps, their publishers flee and their audiences are denied access, the two friends occupy a strangely comfortable front row view from the cafes and beaches as more outcasts come to join them.

They read, they write, they drink, they have affairs, they probe, they hide, they hurtle towards their own oblivion, their lives “lived out, in order to be described”. They’re all penning their autobiographies but some of them decide to dress it as fiction. As Weidermann so wisely describes the writers’ drive to continue in the face of adversity, “the stories they tell will be the fragments shored against their ruin”.

Weidermann’s history lesson is filtered through this ripple effect of the printed word, uncovering its effects on both the audience and the authors themselves. Before the book burnings by the Nazis, Zweig and Roth’s words were already incendiary. They were the by-products of men whose mistakes have marooned them on a dead calm sea under a darkening sky that places the arms of the shore beguilingly out of view. As the summer draws to a close and the light subsides, the folly of the likes of Zweig, Roth and more émigrés is illuminated so brilliantly and acutely by Weidermann.

Edvard Munch - Melancholy (1894)
“There’s a length of rope in the suitcase, but nobody talks about it” – Summer Before The Dark

And so these victims of their own passion gather closer within ever decreasing social circles, bolstered by booze and primal attempts to resuscitate a simpler, more affluent time. You can’t help but be caught up in their plight. A war story that forgoes trenches, bullets and explosions but retains a palpable sense of devastation, Summer Before The Dark is a masterpiece of disintegration to rival Ford’s The Good Soldier or Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

Weidermann, of course, sums it up best with “tears in the diary, merriment on the postcards and laborious efforts to arouse envy”. It turns out that the celebrities that we so often turn to for an easy escape are just as complex and troubled as their fans. They just hide it more eloquently.

Pushkin Press have done the literary world a huge favour releasing this slim, insightful novel. It serves as both a primer for those looking to take the plunge into Zweig or Roth’s works or as a deeper contextual exploration for existing audiences. After previously ignoring these authors’ works and then feverishly reading Summer Before The Dark I find myself excited to fall within the former category.

(Summer Before The Dark by Volker Weidermann translated by Carol Brown Janeway, available now via Pushkin Press, RRP £8.99, 176pp) Read the first chapter on the Pushkin Press website here.

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