Genius, Obsession, Suspense: Stefan Zweig’s Spectacular “Chess Story” (1941)

That’s a student of my dad’s, Leon Luke Mendonca with Garry Kasparov in Hong Kong. (Credit: Lyndon Mendonca)

My father is a chess player with an international (“FIDE”) rating. He got the passion from his grandfather, who had passed away before his birth. My dad discovered the old pieces, heard the stories as a little boy. He then taught himself the game, learning some German and Russian in the process to be able to read the best literature available on the subject. In his prime, at his peak—in the 70s and 80s—when the sport was not as commercialised as it is today, he was India No. 10. Now he coaches kids (mostly over Skype) who regularly compete at tournaments and championships in Europe and Asia.

Naturally, I grew up in a house that buzzed with lengthy lessons and discussions on strategy and tactics, that was filled with encyclopedia, periodicals and manuals containing names like Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, Fischer, Lasker, Spassky, Bronstein, Karpov, Polgár, Capablanca, Ruy López…The great tragedy is that I am unequipped to understand these luminaries, I myself know almost nothing about the magnificent game they play/have played. Reason? My elder sister and I were a very physically violent duo, we fought everyday over nothing and everything. In chess, you need to contain your aggression, channel every ounce of your competitive spirit onto the board. Fully aware that his daughters would end up drawing actual swords if they attempted his beloved game, my dad did not insist we learn it.

Chess by Stefan Zweig (1941) translated by Anthea Bell (2006, Penguin)

That said, I remain attracted to the poetics of chess, its colours and structure. On a visual level, the game has been a constant and powerful element in the fabric of my domestic culture. Although I am not versed in its technicalities, I love its theatre—Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), unsurprisingly, is one of my absolute favourite films.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (1941) translated by Joel Rotenberg (2005, NYRB)

Recently I discovered another great work of art on the game, a novella called Schachnovelle (1941) by Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), known in English as Chess Story or The Royal Game.

Born in Vienna to a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig became a prominent figure in his city’s cosmopolitan environment. In 1934, after the rise of the Nazis, he fled Austria, moving first to England, then the US, finally Brazil. He was very popular as a writer, both in America and continental Europe. In his final years, he grew increasingly depressed about the state of Europe. He was found dead along with his second wife Lotte on 23 February 1942 in the city of Petrópolis, northeast of Rio de Janeiro. The couple had overdosed on barbiturates in a double suicide. Stefan Zweig has been in the news of late due to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) that was inspired by several works of his.

 

Stefan Zweig (standing) in Vienna with his brother Alfred, c. 1900, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Stefan and Lotte Zweig (credit: Acervo CSZ) by User “University of Salford Press Office”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr

 

A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (1941) translated by Alexander Starritt (2013, Pushkin Press)

Schachnovelle begins upon a passenger steamer sailing from New York to Buenos Aires. Aboard is Mirko Czentovic, a young world chess champion of rural Slavonian background—a cold and distant fellow who won’t play for free or divulge details about his personal side. On the deck, also, is Dr. B, from an affluent family who, back in Austria-Hungary, had managed the funds of the monarchy and the clergy. He’d been forced into frightening solitary confinement by the Gestapo, during which he’d miraculously stumbled upon a book of chess games. It immediately became his salvation. But later, when he began imagining matches of his own, he found himself with a split head, an absurdly bifurcated personality of Black and White—a psychological failing from which he was mercifully able to recover. Upon the ship, when Dr. B almost accidentally reveals his forte, he is invited to compete with Czentovic. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Just for one time? Or more? Can he defeat a real opponent in a real match? Or will he again succumb to that old paralysis?

The dramatic tension unfolds with an elaborate discourse on the beauty of the game, its mind-sharpening potential, also its addictive side, its power to possess and destroy. Through the symbolism of chess, I believe, we are given an exciting yet terrifying vision of the capabilities and limits of logic itself, particularly as it is played out in the political arena (given that this book was written during the Second World War). In the beginning it is fine and clear, it is fun. You perceive the other, you are not him/her/it. You two must compete. You sharpen yourself, work hard, win over. You repeat it, repeat it, slowly abandoning all temperance and discipline. Then suddenly the feeling you get by attacking and disarming your competitor turns into a drug. You go on recklessly…ready either to crush the other or to be annihilated yourself. Tragically, difference becomes a rationale for force that knows no end.

I loved this entertaining novella for its psychological depth and will surely be reading more of Stefan Zweig.

 

Set of Six Postcards on The Chess Story/The Royal Game by German artist Elke Rehder (born in Hamburg, 1953) [Used for Illustative Purposes only]. See Rehder’s website for more information.

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Three great excerpts (from the Anthea Bell translation)-

The Beauty of the Game…

From my own experience, I knew the mysterious attraction of the ‘royal game’, the only game ever devised by mankind that rises magnificently above the tyranny of chance, awarding the palm of victory solely to the mind, or rather to a certain kind of mental gift. And are we not guilty of offensive disparagement in calling chess a game? Is it not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance—but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.

 

“…limited to geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile…” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

The Horror of Solitary Confinement…

‘A room of your own in a hotel—it sounds very humane, doesn’t it?’ However, you may believe me if I tell you that when we “prominent people” were not crammed into an icy hut twenty at a time, but accommodated in reasonably well-heated private hotel rooms, they had in store for us a method which was not at all more humane, just more sophisticated. For the pressure they intended to exert, to get the “material” they needed out of us, was to operate more subtly than through crude violence and physical torture: the method was the most exquisitely refined isolation. Nothing was done to us—we were simply placed in a complete void, and everyone knows that nothing on earth exerts such pressure on the human soul as a void. Solitary confinement in a complete vacuum, a room hermetically cut off from the outside world, was intended to create pressure not from without, through violence and the cold, but from within, and to open our lips in the end.

 

“Solitary confinement in a complete vacuum, a room hermetically cut off from the outside world, was intended to create pressure not from without, through violence and the cold, but from within, and to open our lips in the end.” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

The Madness of Chess Played with Oneself…

If Black and White were one and the same person, you’d have the ridiculous state of affairs where one and the same brain simultaneously knows and doesn’t know something, and when operating as White can forget entirely what it wanted and intended a minute ago when it was Black. Such dual thinking really presupposes a complete split of consciousness, an arbitrary ability to switch the function of the brain on and off again as if it were a mechanical apparatus. Wanting to play chess against yourself is a paradox, like jumping over your own shadow. Well, to be brief, in my desperation I spent months trying to achieve this absurd impossibility. However, I had no option but to pursue it, if I were not to fall victim to pure madness or see my mind waste away entirely.

To learn more about Stefan Zweig, check out these features on BBC Culture and The New Yorker. For more English translations of the author’s works, see this page from Pushkin Press. Perhaps you’d like The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig.

 


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