Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Chess by Stefan Zweig Review

On a cruise ship to Buenos Aires, a mysterious stranger unexpectedly beats the world chess champion in a match – but who is the stranger, how did he become so good at chess and why did he not pursue a career in the game? 

Chess (alternately known as A Chess Story and The Royal Game) is one of Stefan Zweig’s last works, appearing in print shortly before the author committed suicide in 1942. It’s definitely my favourite of the few Zweig novellas I’ve read. 

His prose is very accessible for modern readers. The sentences flow by effortlessly and, though it’s strange to say about a chess-centric story, it’s surprisingly tense and gripping too (an understanding of the game isn’t necessary to enjoy the book). Like a chess grandmaster, Zweig introduces and moves the characters in his story at just the right times for maximum effect. 

We learn about the arrogant world chess champion Czentovic with his peasant origins and rise as a prodigy, bringing us to the present on the ship when our nameless narrator and his friends play against him for a lark (and money, of course). Then the stranger, Dr B., appears and defeats Czentovic, sending the narrative in a new, unexpected direction that references the times it was written in – namely the rise of Hitler and the savagery of fascism (which was what sent Zweig to Buenos Aires himself, to escape the Nazis, and, in despair over what he thought would be their eventual victory, drove him and his wife to kill themselves). 

While it’s a key part of the narrative, some of the passages on Dr B.’s interrogation by the Gestapo were the least enjoyable for me; they were repetitive and a bit dull in contrast to the rest of the story though it does pick up a bit as it goes on. Otherwise, Chess is outstanding. It’s an excellent literary thriller about chess(!) and psychology as well as a grim snapshot of life under Nazi rule and their barbarity’s legacy for ordinary people (and this is still pre-Holocaust!) - Chess is Zweig at his best. It’s tragic that he chose to deny the world his talents so abruptly and needlessly early but his work is ripe for discovery for generations of new readers.


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