a case of chess poisoning

Chess, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Anthea Bell

I loved Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret. It was melodramatic, but successfully so with Zweig painting a subtle but intense psychological portrait of obsession and desire. I agree with Michael Hofmann that Zweig’s no Arthur Schnitzler, but literature isn’t a competition.

Anthea Bell is among my favourite translators. In fact, seeing her name on a book makes me more likely to read it. She is extremely talented and chooses interesting works to translate.

Chess (also known as The Royal Game, and as Chess Story) is probably Zweig’s best known novella. It’s a study of obsession, it’s translated by Anthea Bell. It’s been generally well received in the blogosphere by bloggers whose recommendations I put a lot of weight on. What’s not to look forward to?

Well, for me the answer was the plot, psychology and characterisation none of which worked. On a more positive note the translation is of course excellent and it’s short. Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.

The narrator is a passenger on an ocean liner. He discovers that among his fellow passengers is Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a Slavonian peasant by background, utterly lacking in the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication, but on the chessboard nobody can defeat him. Somehow this oaf has risen from remote obscurity to dominate his social and cultural superiors and to sweep all opponents before him.

For the moment he rose from the chessboard, where he was an incomparable master, Czentovic became a hopelessly grotesque and almost comic figure; despite his formal black suit, his ostentatious tie with its rather flashy tie-pin, and his carefully manicured fingers, in conduct and manner he was still the dull-witted country boy who used to sweep the priest’s living room in the village. To the amusement and annoyance of his chess-playing colleagues, he clumsily and with positively shameless impudence sought to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often vulgar greed.

… the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible knowledge that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.

What I find interesting in this passage is the extraordinary depth of snobbery it displays. I’m not immune to snobbery myself of course. My reaction might not be much different to the narrator’s (and obviously the narrator isn’t Zweig, though interestingly the text at times playfully implies it might be). Despite my own failings though the condescension is so dense here it suffocates.

As portrayed Czentovic is a peasant lacking any great abilities in life save one. Is it so blameworthy that he should seek to profit from that sole gift? Is it so praiseworthy that his socially superior opponents are more disdainful of money, a resource which unlike Czentovic they were born with? Czentovic’s real crime here is his “shameful impudence” in defeating men the narrator clearly considers his betters. The problem isn’t chess, it’s class.

The narrator is an amateur chessplayer himself and has an interest in obsessive personality types. He decides he wants to meet Czentovic, better yet play chess with him. Czentovic though only plays for money, his rates are high and he has no interest in small talk.

Luck strikes when the narrator discovers that he’s not the only one keen to see Czentovic play. In particular he meets a self-confident American engineer who wants to test his own ability against a master. A group of passengers forms, with the American paying Czentovic’s price, and a game is arranged.

On the one side then Czentovic, and on the other an alliance of players funded by the American and banded together to defeat this brute from Central Europe who scorns all values save victory. Obviously I’m not drawing any parallels here.

It’s no spoiler to say that Czentovic at first sweeps the board with them. The only obstacle to his relentless rise to domination comes from advice given to the allies by an onlooker who can’t hold himself back from commenting. When the allies follow this stranger’s suggestions they stop Czentovic’s advance and suddenly the allies have a fighting chance of holding him.

The onlooker is described in the text as Dr B, but who is he? How did he become so able at Chess that he can force a grandmaster to a draw, perhaps even defeat him, and yet nobody has heard of him? Can it be true this is the first time he has played in 20 years? These questions are the real book, to which all else so far has been just preparation. The narrator seeks out this anonymous master and discovers the terrible story of how he gained such extraordinary ability.

The line between terrible and silly can be a thin one. Here Dr B’s story involves confinement by Nazis, torture by way of sensory deprivation and chess as a means of intellectual escape. I won’t say more as to explain too much would risk damaging a future reader’s enjoyment of the book. I can say that it allows some nice ironies where chess with its constrained space comprised of set dimensions and permitted moves becomes a limitless domain of pure mind quite separate to the imprisoned self.

Zweig died in 1942. Chess was published posthumously. At the time of writing then he didn’t know that Hitler would be defeated. If one remembers that, this becomes a work of fevered despair. Czentovic is unstoppable, except by a man who is a psychological wreck. Dr B is in a sense the European intellectual (perhaps even more specifically the Jewish intellectual), able to outwit Czentovic but fragile against his stolid cruelty. That’s a lot of weight for a slight story though.

The parable is clever, but it hangs off the story, which rapidly becomes ludicrous. Dr B’s backstory seems initially improbable (were the Gestapo really so prone to subtly undermining their prisoners’ sense of self, rather than simply brutalising them?) and swiftly becomes quite incredible as chess becomes both linchpin and threat to Dr B’s sanity. Zweig’s writing depends heavily on both plot and characterisation, and I didn’t believe in Dr B and I didn’t believe in what happened to him.

That leaves just the writing. Zweig certainly can write, but this feels not quite finished and I wonder if he’d have polished it further had he lived. Certainly it would have helped avoid sentences like this: “And now, for the first time, such a phenomenon, such a strange genius, or such an enigmatic fool, was physically close to me for the first time …”

I’m in a distinct minority on this one. John Self of The Asylum liked it and found the plot ultimately plausible. Trevor of themookseandthegripes was taken by it, and so was Will of Just William’s Luck. Tom of A Common Reader liked it too (both Will and Tom’s reviews are particularly worth reading for their discussion of symbolic elements of the novella). The only blog I’ve found so far (though I’m sure I’ve missed some) that shared my concerns was Sarah’s at A Rat in the Book Pile. Links in this paragraph are to the various reviews mentioned.

So, Chess. It’s very short, most readers love it and you may do so too. For me though it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny. If you disagree, and if you’ve read it you probably do from what I’ve seen of other reviews, I’d be delighted to hear why I’m wrong.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

11 responses to “a case of chess poisoning

  1. Max: I have a NYRB copy of this. They’ve issued several of Zweig’s titles. I haven’t got to it yet but can’t help but wonder which side I’ll land on–positive or negative.

  2. “Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.” That really made me laugh.

    Like Guy, I have it on the shelf and I wonder whether I’ll like it or not. I’ve been relunctant to start it because of the chess theme as I can’t play but I heard there aren’t any long description of the game and strategies.

    Positive thing: now you don’t have any unread Zweig on the shelf and you can try A Journey into the Past or Letter to an Unknown Woman.

  3. I can not give any input on this although I have read it but too long ago, I think in school. I liked it then but found it very different from his other books, less emotionally engaging or psychologically captivating. However in Germany it’s generally considered to be better written than his other books, because it is less sentimental. While most of his other books are far less read, this one still is.
    Which, of course, doesn’t have to mean anything at all.

  4. can’t say a lot max I ve this one tbr pile unread I want to match it with another book on chess and do a post at some point ,all the best stu

  5. I’ve got a lovely copy of this from Pushkin Press, with them calling it The Royal Game and with a beautiful painting on the front. I love chess and I love Zweig so I’m definitely in the for category when it comes to this book. I agree the story and the character are completely implausible, but I was willing to ignore that and go with it, reading it not as anything close to realism. I look forward to WinstonsDad’s future post. Chess turns up in all kinds of places in literature (The Defence by Nabokov, for one) and there’s an interesting essay to be written there – I might try to give it a go myself at some point…

  6. I must have pulled this one off the shelf a half dozen times and kept putting it back — the concerns expressed in your review make a lot of sense, so I think I will simply leave Chess on the shelf for the next while. I do have Burning Secrets chairside for the next time I want a novella.

  7. Guy, I hope you land on the positive side, since that’s more rewarding. I’ll be interested to hear either way though.

    Emma, I couldn’t resist that line, even if it is a bit unfair. It’s not really a bad book, just a badly flawed one.

    Unfortunately I still have two more (I think) unread Zweig’s on the shelf. They must predate my current rule of not buying boks by an author when I already have unread books by that author. So far only Echenoz has really tempted me to break that, and I’ve resisted that temptation.

    Caroline, interesting. It would make an excellent piece for school actually. That’s not me knocking it, there’s a lot of symbolism packed in here that a class could really get to grips with. I found Burning Secret more psychologically nuanced though.

    Stu, matching is a lovely idea. If you do I’ll be interested in that post (even though I’m not particularly interested in Chess).

    Jim, with Pushkin Press one doesn’t need to say a copy is lovely, it’s a given isn’t it? I have huge regard for Pushkin Press. Well chosen titles beautifully presented. They’ve done a lot to bring Zweig back into view.

    I was expecting if not quite realism here at least something close to it, so perhaps my expectations were amiss. Read as a sort of fable it might work better. I’d still have an issue with the snobbery though (albeit being honest I’d have an issue with the snobbery because I don’t like the book, when I like a snobbish book I tend to forgive the snobbery).

    Anyway, thank you for defending the book. I’m delighted to hear other views. I note you mention Bely’s Petersburg on your blog. Have you read it? If so did you agree with Nabokov in the end? It keeps tempting me that one.

    Kevin, glad to have struck a chord. I’d definitely suggest starting with Burning Secrets since you already have it. Also, if you’ve not read it I reviewed Schnitzler’s Fraulein Else here which I’m reminded of and which is extremely good. No reservations there at all.

  8. Read would be too strong a word, I’m afraid. I gave Petersburg a good, solid flick to get a sense of the book for a short post but I haven’t gone further than that yet. It’s been staring at me from my shelves for a year or so. Everything about it makes me think I’ll love it, but the size more than anything else has stopped me reading it so far. But, following this exchange, I resolve to read it over the next couple of months and will post a proper review of it. Agreed, beautiful Pushkin Press book is a bit of a tautology. NYRB books are always nice too, I think, so I may hunt out its version of Chess, as mentioned in a comment above.

  9. That’s precisely where I am with Petersburg Jim. It looks tremendous, I’m sure I’ll love it, but it also looks dense and I already have several large books planned for this year.

    If you do read it I’ll be delighted to read your views.

  10. Max – What an excellent review. This is the review that I wish I had written! While our concerns are somewhat shared I was tentative in my conclusions, in the face of the almost unequivocally admiring response elsewhere. I would in any case have been unable to explain the source of my unease as persuasively as you have done.

    “it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny” is a perfect assessment.

    (And thanks for the link.)

  11. Sarah,

    I had the advantage of having read yours. It is difficult to go against a general consensus, but I thought you did so effectively and it’s not terrible after all. Just not great, not his best.

    Anyway, always nice to have company when out on a limb.

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