TagGerman Literature Month

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember 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.

german-lit-month2

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.

German Literature Month: Alissa Walser

Alissa Walser, Mesmerized (2010)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, 2012

This November, I am taking part in German Literature Month which is co-hosted by the blogs Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life. As part of my efforts to read more works in translation, this seemed a good thing to get involved in; so I scoured my shelves for books originally written in German, and have three more lined up for the rest of the month. This first one, though, is a book I bought especially for German Lit Month, because it intrigued me when I saw it in the bookshop.

Mesmerized is a fictionalised account of Franz Mesmer’s attempts to restore the eyesight of Maria Theresia Paradis, the court secretary’s daughter, a musical prodigy in Mozart’s Vienna. Mesmer’s methods are controversial, but they do seem to have some effect on Maria’s blindness  – possibly, though, at the cost of her musical ability.

mesmerizedI’d describe Mesmerized as a novel of fragments. Alissa Walser’s prose (as translated by Jamie Bulloch) is full of sentence-fragments, which clump together like iron filings attracted to one of Mesmer’s magnets. Here, for instance, is Maria experiencing music:

Those notes. Which flew away before they had properly settled. Blended into each other. As if each note were too large for a single pitch. As if several chords were flowing out of the note and in all directions. A fading polyphony. Almost sad. Sadly excited. [p. 58]

This style mirrors the coming together of disparate elements to form an individual’s perception, the different senses which make up Maria’s experience of living. It also creates a constant feeling of unease and instability, that all these fragments could just scatter if whatever keeps them in place disappears. This is what Maria feels when she starts to struggle with her music; and there’s also a sense that treating her is the only thing holding together Mesmer’s life in Vienna. So one might say the two of them are pulling in different directions – and Walser leaves us wondering to the very end who will win out.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Mesmerized: Iris on Books; Erykah Brackenbury at For Books’ Sake; 50 Year Project.
A sample from the book.

© 2020 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: