November is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.
The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.
The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath. In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:
After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.
Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune, Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.