Battles lost and won

SS Normandie 1932-46

Chess by Stefan Zweig
(Schachnovelle 1941),
translated by Anthea Bell.
Penguin Modern Classics 2017 (2006)

I had projected the chessboard and chessmen into my mind, where I could now survey the positions of the pieces on the board by means of the formulae alone, just as a mere glance at a score is enough for a trained musician to hear all the separate parts of a piece and the way they sound together.

Chess is a taut psychological tale, fascinating for both its narrative and for its almost autobiographical character. Set on a liner going from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941, this is a novella of triumph and tragedy depicting a battle of wits between mismatched players, a parable of its own time and for all time. Knowing that this was the last fiction by the author before his suicide Chess takes on an extra piquancy, but the reader doesn’t need to be overly aware of this detail to appreciate the story for its own sake.

In this edition the novella is a scant eighty-odd pages, which allows one to see how the composition is structured, the major themes that are employed, the counterpoint which is brought into play and the key instruments, each with their own tone colour, that come to the fore as in a piece of chamber music.

Here is how things stand at the beginning. The unnamed narrator has his attention drawn by his equally anonymous friend to a celebrity coming aboard the ship, just before it sets sail at midnight. This personage is Mirko Czentovic, the uncouth world chess champion who, despite being basically untutored and unlettered, has proved himself a chess prodigy. This Croatian is the focus of the first third of the novel as passengers try to inveigle him to play, at first to no avail; but the mercenary chess master is finally persuaded to do so by a peevish Scottish engineer called McConnor for large sums of money.

Needless to say, despite advice from other amateur players McConnor loses his matches. During the course of one game a quietly spoken stranger who has been observing progress intervenes to direct moves, with the unexpected result that Czentovic concedes a game. Who this stranger is, and how he is able to achieve victory, takes up the body of the novella. The story of Dr B (for that is all we know of his name) is ,we discover, intimately bound up with historical events in Europe in the 1920s and 30s.

Here we start to understand the novella as a piece of autobiografiction. Zweig was from an Austrian Jewish family, and his background and literary achievements soon fell foul of Nazification processes. He left Austria, first for England — he lived for a while in Bath — and then finally to South America where, with his second wife, he committed suicide in 1941, the year this novella was first published as Schachnovelle (‘Chess-novella’).

In the character of the monarchist Dr B we see a stand-in for Zweig himself, though Zweig didn’t suffer the way his protagonist did. In the symbolic black and white chess pieces we understand the conflict between fascism and the individual, as also in the unsophisticated Croatian and the middle class doctor. In the printed book which Dr B surreptitiously studies during his solitary confimement, a detailing of a number of classic championship chess matches, we grasp that sanity of a sort comes at a price when the stakes in a game are so high. And in the highs and lows of the matches played after Dr B’s story is told to the narrator we start to understand the pessimism that led ultimately led to Zweig taking his own life.

One doesn’t have to be — as I am not — a chess player to understand Dr B’s internal conflicts as he tries to alleviate boredom and ennui; my entrée to this story was through music, hearing the sounds while silently reading a score, not through reliving classic games aided by the shorthand of chess moves. But anyone who enjoys reading can comprehend the tortures of months on end without any reading or writing material.

The metaphor of a ship sailing between ports, the voyage itself a time of limbo, its passengers de facto captives, forms an unspoken backdrop to this short fiction. And for the short time it takes to complete the novella it’s very possible for the reader to be captivated too.

When the hurly-burly’s done
When the battle’s lost and won.
Macbeth, I i

18 thoughts on “Battles lost and won

    1. Thanks, Kaggsy, and I agree about his end — clearly he saw no good conclusion to the world conflict, and even escape to England, and then to South America, didn’t remove the existentialist threat to him as a critic and a Jewish persona non grata. Nevertheless, I shall look out for more work by him now.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating, Chris! I will definitely be reading this. By the way, have you heard of Witold Gombrowicz? He wrote a novel “Transatlantic” which to an extent covers similar topics, although in a more sarcastic, wilfully absurd way.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I’d be interested to read a non-Polish view on Transatlantyk, but I worry it might not be very accessible. It’s a masterpiece that deals with our national obsessions and insecurities, and for that it is seen as subversive by the right-wingers, and so it goes on and off the list of novels approved for reading in schools 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I see a secondhand hardback edition of this is available, and it’s also on Kindle — pity I don’t like using Kindles… Maybe sometime I’ll get round to it, the premise has definitely piqued my interest, and I can also see the parallel with Zweig’s experience.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. This, I’m afraid, is where browsing in an actual bookshop leads one, Laurie — different authors, different books, the latter using every trick in the book (cover, blurb, review quotes, skimming random pages) to persuade me to purchase something: what a sneaky underhand practice! 😁 Also, being a novella, this was quite short…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Akylina

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on ‘Chess’, Chris – such a slim yet thought-provoking book, wasn’t it? Zweig’s writing is truly mesmerising and I’m always amazed at how aptly he conveys his characters’ (often complicated) feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Akylina, and I also liked the way Zweig played with our own emotions here, encouraging us to invest our sympathy first with one, then another player in the drama.

      In fact, thinking about it now, I wonder if — consciously or unconsciously — Zweig, who would have been very familiar with contemporary developments in psychology, was depicting the medieval concept of the Four Humours, as some have claimed to be implicit in Hamlet or Henry IV? For example, McConnor may be choleric, Dr B melancholic, Czentovic phlegmatic, and the unnamed narrator sanguine. Just a thought, nothing more.

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  3. piotrek

    As a Polish reader from southern of Poland that was a part of the Austria-Hungary I’m quite interested in an Austrian perspective in history. I’m also inclined to think that my city could be better off were we still under the tolerant late-Habsurg rule 😉

    I’m only begining my reading there, and so far Joseph Roth is my favourite. “Radetzky March” is great, and his “Letters from Poland” – very insightful. Stefan Zweig is next on my list, and I bought English edition of his memoirs, “The World of Yesterday”. Apparently, he “recalls the golden age of pre-war Europe – its seeming permanence, its promise and its devastating fall”. Huh, a lesson for our times? I almost took it on my recent Sicilian escapade, but went with Mailer instead. Perhaps it will be better to start with this short piece, you sell it well 🙂

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    1. I only have a cursory knowledge of 19th-century European history, including Austro-Hungarian matters, from only half paying attention in my history lessons at school, so I’d have to refresh my memory on exactly how benign the regime was up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. My impression is that it was a hotbed of terrorists, revolutionaries, secret police et al under a veneer of late imperial elegance and good living…

      But then, most European countries were like that, weren’t they? French writer Félix Fénéon (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-feneon) was probably a terrorist bomber in his spare time, and your compatriot Joseph Conrad based his The Secret Agent (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-agent) on an historic failed bombing at the Greenwich Observatory.

      Roth? Gombrowicz ? So many books, so lit… — you know the rest.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Sure 🙂 But Zweig already was on my list, so it’s quite likely I’ll read this short work of his…

        Poland was divided between three powers, and, in short, under Austria we had a degree of political and cultural freedom, but economy sucked, under Germany economy was great, but politically there was no autonomy and Polish culture was persecuted, and under Russia everything was terrible, as usual…

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        1. I have a couple of historical atlases in which it’s interesting to chart the differences in polities, borders, ethnic distribution and changing fortunes over time. Poland seems to have suffered some of the most mutations of an European country during and since the medieval period.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            Well, a lot was going on, and the interesting thing is, after the WWII we sort of moved back to what local dukes had around 1000 AD – but millions of people were displaced to achieve that. The more my country moves to the right, the more I try to move away from nation-centric view of history.

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            1. I really hoped that the establishment of the EU would help replace the small-minded viewpoint that identity required borders, but a country doesn’t have to be an island to be insular, does it, but as Brexit has shown being an island certainly helps. 🙁

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