by Stefan Zweig (Schachnovelle, 1942)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (2005)
NYRB Classics (2005)
Here’s a short one (hardly a novella, more than a short story) that didn’t stay long on my “currently reading” list but will make its way there again. Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story (Schachnovelle, 1942; tr. from the German by Joel Rotenberg, 2006), published after Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil, “one of Hitler’s posthumous victims,” said Peter Gay in the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition. I’m not well informed about Zweig’s life or work, but it’s time I learned, and I’m glad to say I’ve begun. Before we begin the review, though, I want to highlight this magnificent cover, which features a fitting detail from The Chess Game, a painting by Vieira da Silva.
Chess Story begins and ends on an ocean liner going from New York to Buenos Aires. The narrator discovers that Mirko Czentovic, the world champion chess master, is on board. Czentovic has an intriguing story. Raised by a priest, he was basically forsaken as a child because he had no visible intelligence. He never learned how to spell or how to interact with people. But he watched the priest play chess and, for some reason, chess stuck. When the priest found this hidden skill he compared Czentovic to “Balaam’s ass!” Lacking most other skills, Czentovic quickly rose to become the best in the world, and with that rank came no little amount of pride. The narrator wants to meet Czentovic to attempt to understand him a little better.
Interestingly, Czentovic is not the book’s true subject, as I was led to believe at first. While the narrator and some other men are together playing against Czentovic, out of obscurity comes Dr. B, who helps the men achieve a draw with the chess master. The men immediately say that he must challenge the world master in a game just between the two of them. As it plays out, Dr. B is a man with an even more interesting story story than Czentovic, but he hasn’t played a proper game of chess in over twenty years.
“You see,” he added with a pensive smile, “I honestly don’t know if I can play a proper chess game according to all the rules. Please believe me, it was absolutely not out of false modesty that I said I hadn’t touched a chess piece since grammar school — that was more than twenty years ago. And even then I wasn’t considered a player of any particular talent.”
Yet Dr. B has come to know the game in a way that Czentovic never could. How Dr. B. came to learn chess is the main story here. Where Czentovic became proud and cold, Dr. B’s knowledge changed him in a different, more fundamental way. And in telling Dr. B’s story, Zweig indicts Nazi Germany. With a pace that keeps winding and winding in tighter and tighter circles, Zweig propels his story to its pleasing, disturbing denouement.
This is my first encounter with Zweig, an Austrian writer who apparently was one of the world’s most recognized and respected writers in the early 20th century. I have Beware of Pity on my shelf and anxiously wait to read it.