Ever since reading Stefan Zweig’s longest novel, Beware of Pity, I tend to pounce on any book I find by this early 20th century Austrian author. Chess is what may be called a “slim volume”, being only 73 pages long, but readers of Zweig will be used to slim volumes – for with such a small oeuvre, publishers seem unable to resist issuing Zweig’s novellas and short stories in small portions.
Regular visitors to A Common Reader will know that I don’t hesitate to comment on the physical attributes of a book – binding, cover art, price and anything else that strikes me about the production before me. In this case, while the production is excellent the price is silly – I am only grateful to ebay which enabled me to pick up Chess for £0.99 rather than the £5.99 cover price allocated by Penguin.
Quibble over, the novella is as well-nigh perfect as might be expected. A wealthy passenger on a Buenos Aires bound ship, discovers that a famous chess-master Czentovic is also on board. Czentovic, the chess-master was an infant-prodigy peasant with no education or talent in other fields, but has risen to prominence in the world of chess with this single talent which has failed to civilize him in other ways, leaving him brutish and insensitive.
The narrator decides to challenge Czentovic to a game, but the chess-master replies that he is unable to play any game for a smaller fee than $250. The narrator clubs together with a group of aquaintances and take on Czentovic as a team, only to be roundly beaten and in very few moves. During the next game, a mysterious stranger approaches the group and offers advice, leading to a draw, much to the surprise of Czentovic.
The unknown stranger, by this times known as Dr B, seems strangely humble, and also reluctant to play another game, despite his success. Later, the narrator tracks Dr B down and they sit together in deck-chairs and Dr B tells the narrator his personal history, leading to a very unusual explanation for his prowess at Chess.
At this point I have to stop describing the story, for to go any further would ruin it for other readers. Suffice to say, it is a remarkable story, and I was reminded slightly of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The book has the usual Zweig psychological intensity: few writers invite one into the deepest recesses of a troubled mind as does Zweig. The game of chess is a small part of the story, and Dr B’s experiences carry the reader into a world of mental torment far removed from this pleasant sea voyage. It has been suggested that Czentovic is a representation of Adolf Hitler who rose to prominence from similarly ignoble stock and remained solidly brutish during his rise to power. The game of chess thereby becomes an analogy for the second world war with the ineffective opposing team representing the Allies (Zweig died before he knew the outcome of the war).
I would say for a Zweig fan, this book is a must-have. Zweig packs more in this novella than many writers do in a much longer work. Having said all that, it would be much better as one item in a volume of “collected works” than this rather ridiculously thin volume which gets so easily lost on my shelves.
In these days of computer games its easy to forget how large a part chess used to play in many people’s lives. There are many literary references to chess – even Wikipedia has a page of these although I am sure there are far more than are listed there.
I read Chess last week while laid up with an injured knee (now much recovered) and felt inspired to take up Nintendo chess again. This passed a few hours but left me feeling that there is nothing like playing a human opponent with real carved wooden pieces.