Category Archives: Bell, Anthea (translator)

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.

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

It is so very easy to deceive children

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig

Burning Secret is a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig. It’s the first Zweig I’ve read, and it’s brilliant.

Secret is the story of essentially three characters. There is the baron, never named, a suave young man who amuses himself by seducing women and is rather good at it; Edgar, a bookish twelve-year old who is recovering from an illness; and Edgar’s mama, a woman no longer quite as young as she was but not yet so old as to have put all thought of adventure behind her.

All three are at a mountain spa, the mother accompanying Edgar, the Baron for relaxation. Unfortunately for the baron, he has arrived at the wrong time of year, his friends are absent, and so he has to make his own entertainment. He decides to do so by seducing Edgar’s mama, and his chosen route to conquest lies through Edgar himself. Befriend the boy, and wait for him to make the necessary introductions.

Soon, to Edgar’s delight and confusion, this polished and urbane nobleman is acting as if nothing could give him greater pleasure than to pass his time in the company of a lonely young boy. Edgar is entranced, the baron’s scheme is set in motion:

He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word – and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful mama”. He was certain that his talkative friend wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to lift a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.

The baron’s plan, naturally, works and before long Edgar has forged an introduction. Having done so, Edgar himself of course becomes redundant, the baron only has so much appetite after all for spending his days with a child. Quickly, although he has done nothing wrong he can think of, Edgar finds that his marvellous new friend seems no longer to have any interest in him. Worse, it seems his mama has stolen his friend from him, sharing some secret with the baron that neither of them are willing to let him into.

Where Burning Secret truly shines is in its psychological nuance and accuracy. The baron is merely bored, a man about town with no town to go about in. He feels some small guilt when he realises how much he has hurt Edgar, but he is a man focused on his own desires and his concern does not detain him long.

Edgar’s mother by contrast is aware of her own fading youth:

…at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.

What is not dwelt on, but clear, is that she is also of quite a different class to the baron, a bourgois who speaks in French to her child though she doesn’t command the language sufficiently to converse in it at any length. The baron is younger than her, better travelled, aristocratic. For a woman open to a last chance of adventure, he’s a dangerous and seductive lure.

And, of course, Edgar. Edgar is at twelve on the cusp of adolescence, moving from the certainties of childhood to the ambiguities of adult life. He has not yet moved far, but there is an irrevocability even to the small steps he is here taking. When Edgar is described, words like hot and burning are constantly used, referring to his heart, his hands, his tears. Everything for him is absolute, passionate, intense. When he realises the adults are excluding him, he is not merely disappointed as an adult might be, he hates them with all his force:

So they’d got away from him after all, by means of a lie as mean as it was vile. He had known since yesterday that his mother told lies, but the idea that she could be shameless enough to break a downright promise destroyed the very last of his trust in her. He didn’t understand anything at all about life, not now he knew that the words he thought had reality behind them were just bright bubbles, swelling with air and then bursting, leaving nothing behind. What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves?

He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.

As the novella progresses, Edgar decides to revenge himself on the adults, accompanying them at all times, speaking about his papa (he doesn’t know why it disturbs them, but notes that it does), disrupting their plans with his presence and his scrupulous yet truculent obedience. To their frustration, he does nothing that would give an excuse to punish him or send him away to his room. They become his prisoner, but the dynamic between the three keeps shifting, they understand and can counter each other’s actions, but none of them understand the other’s motives.

For Edgar, those motives are particularly obscure. The adults have a burning secret, something between them so momentous that they will lie to children over it, meet in secret, behave incomprehensibly. When the baron tries to lure Edgar’s mama down to a secluded part of the woods, Edgar wonders if he intends to kidnap her, but instinctively it seems to him that’s not quite right. He knows the baron has some other purpose, and that if could but comprehend the burning secret of that purpose the doors of the adult world would forever be opened to him.

Of course, he’s quite correct. The fire that motivates the adults is one he is as yet untouched by, he can’t understand it because he doesn’t yet feel it. Part of his fury is his knowledge that his own lack of comprehension means he is still a child, as long as he doesn’t understand the burning secret, he can’t be considered grown up.

Burning Secret is brilliant. Superbly well written, filled with nuance regarding age, class, intensity of emotion (to the baron it’s all a mere diversion, to the mother a last opportunity, to Edgar it’s his whole existence if only for a brief while). Among all this Zweig manages to bring the setting to precise life (what is it with German speaking authors and mountain sanitaria by the way? They seem very fond of them), and he packs it all in to less than 120 pages. I’d heard Zweig’s reputation, I’ve been missing out though on not starting to read him sooner.

Burning Secret (along with most Zweig’s), has received a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere. Dovegreyreader covers it here, Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader here and Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian writes about it here. Bizzarely, John Self of The Asylum hasn’t written about it, though he has seven other Zweig’s. Clearly I’ll have to buy him a copy for his birthday sometime…

Burning Secret is published by the ever reliable Pushkin Press. It’s in their small, gem, format and is as ever physically a pleasure to hold and read. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and while I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the origiinal (and there’s big questions of course as to what it means to be a faithful translation) it flows smoothly and I’d consider her name on other books a definite bonus.

On a final note, I’ve mentioned before on this blog writers whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, Zweig is another of them. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing as did so many others that the Europe they loved was being lost to barbarism. Pushkin Press has brought writers back into the light who we could easily have lost in the English speaking world, and I continue to be grateful that they do so.

Burning Secret

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

Dying

Dying, by Arthur Schnitzler

I’ve read two Arthur Schnitzler’s now, first his 1924 novella Fraülein Else and now his earlier 1895 novella Dying. Having read both, I’ve become something of a fan.

I wrote up Fraülein Else here, it is an extraordinary novella that pulls off the difficult trick of being written entirely in the form of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness when she is faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s a remarkable book. Dying, written 29 years earlier, for me doesn’t have quite the sheer wow factor Fraülein Else did (which was partly a result of the sheer technical skill that later work showed), but it too is remarkable.

Dying is the story of two lovers, Felix and Marie, both young and both passionate about each other. As it opens, Marie is meeting Felix for the evening and finds him distracted and upset, he reveals that he has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live, that he will in fact be dead by next Spring. Marie, devastated, swears to die with him, a promise that will become less romantic and more burdensome as the year continues. Will she keep to her promise, will he hold her to it? Those questions add drama throughout, but the real tension comes from the ebb and flow of emotions, the strains Felix’s approaching death puts upon them, the sheer horror of their situation.

Here, Felix tries to get Marie to understand his news, the reality of his situation:

“I know it’s hard to believe, darling. At this moment I don’t believe it myself. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? Just think, here I am walking along beside you, speaking words out loud, words that you can hear, and in a year I’ll be lying cold in the ground, perhaps already rotting away.”
“Stop it, stop it!”
“And you’ll look as you do now. Just as you look now, perhaps still a little pale from weeping, but then another evening will come, and many more, and summer and autumn and winter, and another spring – and then I’ll have been dead and cold for a year – what’s the matter?”
She was weeping bitterly. Her tears ran over her cheeks and down her throat.
A despairing smile passed over his face, and he whispered through his teeth, hoarsely, harshly, “I’m sorry.”

At the outset, Felix sets out to be stoical, resigned, philosophical about his fate. He intends to leave a will that will be a “quiet, smiling farewell to the world over which he had triumphed.” Triumphed, because he believes that by the end he will have learned to despise it, to have become detached, to accept the inevitable with an equanimity which the common run of man never achieves.

At the outset, of course, death is still a year away and his health still good.

As the novella continues, Marie tries to bolster Felix’s spirits, and to deny the facts of the situation. She looks desperately for each of his better days, hailing it as the start of a recovery and downplaying the days where he is weaker. She seizes on any sign of hope. Felix himself tries to disdain hope, to face up to the facts, but even so fear smuggles hope in however much he knows it no longer has any place in his life.

Much of the novella deals in the play of the pair’s emotions: Marie’s desire to sacrifice herself to ensuring Felix’s survival, her fears for him, her growing concern that he may hold her to her promise and her own shame that she might not wish to be held to it, her increasing wish to just go outside and live; Felix’s desire to die with pride and dignity, to die in accordance with his sense of himself as a sophisticated and cultured man, his increasing dependence on Marie, his jealousy of her continuing health, his growing resentment of how much he must rely on her and most of all his raw anger that she will outlive him so that her mere presence becomes a constant reminder of his own extinction. Felix’s attitude to death changes as it comes nearer, it is one thing to be phlegmatic when oblivion is yet a year away, as it grows closer however the terror becomes overwhelming:

“I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of the dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. And what about me? What am I doing? If I talk calmly to you about all kinds of things that are no longer anything to do with me, what exactly am I doing?”

“I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.”

Part of the sheer power of this novella is its portrait of the fear of death. Not just the natural and general fear that most of us have as a matter of course, few of us want to die. Rather, Schnitzler shows the specific yet inchoate fear of death held by those for whom it is no longer an abstract, no longer something to happen on some distant future day, those for whom it is now to come within the foreseeable future.

Also powerful is the increasing hopelessness Felix feels, the pointlessness. Felix is a writer, but why write when he will likely never finish what he is writing? Why read the news, when he will not be there to see how it turns out? As he comes to question, if you are dying, why do anything at all?

As time continues, everything becomes a mockery: an evening concert is a reminder that those attending will continue while Felix will not; an evening stroll is filled with crowds of the oblivious living: and as Felix’s health declines Marie of course remains a vibrant and healthy young woman, with her own desires however she may try to suppress them:

I shan’t of course speak to how it resolves, to what choices are made at the end or their outcomes, but it is no spoiler to say that as time continues the pair go through the full gamut of emotion, including of course for Marie the (to her) shameful desire to live again, to go out and dance and see crowds and not to spend her days ministering at a sickbed. At the same time, Marie is sick with grief, worn down literally by care:

She felt miserable, unutterably miserable. She would have liked to shed tears, but her emotion had something dry and withered about it. There was no comfort to be found anywhere, even in her own pain. And she envied him, for the tears flowing down his cheeks.

The novella captures brilliantly the guilt and conflict Marie feels, because she does love Felix, she does genuinely want to care for him, but it is a terrible burden and part of her cannot help but wish to have her life back, preferably with him but if that cannot be then without:

If only it were over! Yes, over! She no longer shrank from the idea, and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind. “If only he were at peace!”

Dying deals in issues which are genuinely painful. Felix and Marie’s predicament is a ghastly one, made all the worse for its credibility. It is in that sense not an easy read, though in quite another sense it is an effortless read being beautifully written and, in the Pushkin Press edition I enjoyed, being ably translated by Anthea Bell.

Dying has also been the subject of excellent writeups by John Self of the Asylum here and by Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life here. Lizzy also wrote up Fraulein Else at that same link. Lizzy criticises Dying for “a tendency to melodrama in some places”, which is probably fair though I think it’s only a slight flaw. She notes too though that it is never maudlin, a point I firmly agree with.

For me, Dying was a remarkable work by a novelist with genuine insight into some of the most painful emotions any human being might ever have to experience, the loss of a loved one, the shame and guilt when love is not enough to make things better, our fear of letting each other down, our fear of losing each other, the anger and pettiness that gets between us, the horror of death, the unthinking joy of life.

Dying is a novel about a terminally ill Nineteenth century Viennese man, put like that it sounds a fairly unappealing read. Pushkin Press have though, as they’ve had with other titles, my thanks for putting this back into print as it’s a work that for all the specificity of its setting and characters is human and universal. I look forward to buying and reading more of Schnitzler’s work, and of his contemporaries, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press is bringing these writers to our attention.

Dying

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Filed under 19th Century, Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur