Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (German Lit Month 2018)

For four months I had not held a book in my hands, and there was something intoxicating and at the same time stupefying in the mere thought of a book, in which you could see the words one after another, lines, paragraphs, pages, a book in which you could read, follow, take into your mind the new, different, diverting thoughts of another person. (p. 51)

You can see the desperation of the man who has been held in solitary confinement by the Nazis, deprived of any diversion whatsoever. He is held hostage in a hotel room, with no paper, no pencils, no books, nothing but wallpaper, the pattern of which he has begun to memorize.

When he is taken for yet another interrogation, he notices a rectangle in the pocket of a jacket hanging against the wall and supposes it must be a book. Smuggling it into his waistband, he dares not reveal the title until he has successfully kept it hidden and returned to his room.

It is a book on how to play chess. At first, this comes as a terrible disappointment, and then, it is a source of great distraction. He can play game after game, memorizing the moves required to win. Eventually, however, he can only play against himself, never against a thinking, reasoning, opposition.

At the beginning my thinking was calm and considered, I took breaks between one game and the next in order to recover from my agitation. But gradually my frayed nerves refused to let me wait. My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward; a game was no sooner over than I challenged myself to another, for one of the two chess selves was beaten by the other every time and demanded a rematch. (p. 63)

The hold that chess has on him almost makes him mad. In fact, after an affliction of ‘brain fever’, the doctor tells him that it would be better never to go near a chessboard again.

He cannot help himself, however, when on an ocean liner he observes a game between the world champion and other passengers. He inserts himself into this game, giving advice which earns him their utmost interest and respect. A game is set up between him and the champion to see who will emerge the victor.

Suddenly, there was something new between the two of them; a dangerous tension, a passionate hatred. They were no longer opponents testing their abilities in a spirit of play, but enemies resolved to annihilate each other. (p. 79)

It is a remarkably tense book for holding a mere 84 pages. I was caught up in the story of two individuals, each of them damaged in their own way, pit against each other in the very game of which they are both obsessed. It is a story of great tension, deceptively simplistic in its presentation. One wonders, upon its completion, if there truly is such a thing as winning.

 

20 thoughts on “Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (German Lit Month 2018)”

  1. Of course, one can win at a chess game. But, in this particular novel, Zweig leaves me wondering if there is truly a winner in the game these two are playing; as the lawyer succumbs to “chess fever” and leaves the game unfinished, I wonder what the outcome could have been should he not have been so damaged by the Nazis. The whole novella makes me think about what winning truly means, which is surely much more than being the champion of chess.

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  2. I read this for German Literature Month in November of 2013. I greatly enjoyed recalling it via your elegant post. Here are some of thoughts from then.

    Zweig, to me, is the chronicler of a lost culture, not just of Eastern European Jews or the Austro-Hungarian Empire but of the European Reading Life.

    Chess Game really amazed me. Once begun I abandoned my normal practice of reading several works at once and read it straight through. Published shortly after Zweig died in 1942, it is said to be his only direct fictional approach to the horrors of Nazi-Austria. It takes place on a trans-Atlantic steam ship. There are three main personas in the story, the narrator, the world chess champion (the account of the life of the chess champion is just totally brilliant and rings completely true), and a mysterious passenger who is able to take the world champion to a draw.

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    1. This is the first book I have read by Stefan Zweig, and I am most impressed by the power he put into such few pages. I can see why you read it straight through, and had I not been recuperating from oral surgery I would have done the same thing. The story just pulls you along, the tension is exquisite, and I can so clearly imagine the horrors of the Nazi regime (through literature, once again) even though none of it was grotesquely graphic. The book was all of an emotional/mental nature, and so compelling.

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  3. I must read this. I bought a book of Zweig novellas, planning to read one at a time, but have I done it yet? It’s not that hard surely. I’m pretty sure it was Guy Savage’s post (a few years ago now) which spurred me to buy it. I think I need a TBR priority list rather than trying to keep it all in my head. I think your question about whether there is really such a thing as winning is a good one.

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    1. I wonder if I have the same book of novellas, sent to me long ago by Pushkin Press…I can’t imagine why I haven’t come to them sooner. His writing is deceptively “simple”, although I feel badly saying that. It isn’t simple at all, but glorious in its taut bareness. There isn’t unnecessary description, I guess is part of what I’m trying to say, or phrases meant to impress. Everything he puts down is significant and perfectly included.

      I don’t have a TBR list of any sort, which may be a good idea. I just grab what seems to suit me, which is far too random of a system in one sense, and quite freeing in another. Let me know if you establish a priority system! Xo

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      1. I remember this lovely post of yours, so beautifully and thoroughly written. The problem is that I didn’t like The Budapest Hotel at all. Probably, I needed you to sit by me while watching to explain the significance, as to me, it just seemed ludicrous. However, I do want to read more of Stefan Zweig and come to understand him better. Maybe then I can revisit The Budapest Hotel.

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  4. Stefan Zweig is one of my all time favourite authors. Let Chess Story be an appetizer, you must delve into the main dish Beware of Pity, and maybe a little dessert The Post Office Girl. His short story collection is a pleasure anytime. 🙂

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  5. I read his “Letter From an Unknown Woman” earlier this year, and recommend it to you. If I told you what it was about, it would spoil the story for you.

    All I can say is, it’s a novella and was written in a very black humour. Considering the times he lived in and who he was,makes it understandable. Still, thinking about it makes me laugh whilst writing this.

    Hope you like it!

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  6. Beautiful post! I remember reading this one about ten years ago now. I agree that there is so much tension in there, even though on the surface it’s just a very short novella about a game of chess. You make me want to reread it.

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    1. It’s about so much more than chess, isn’t it? And yet that alone is fascinating. I’m always afraid I may have missed all the author wants to say by focusing on the obvious alone. And there is quite a bit in here beyond the chess game itself.

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  7. You’ve made this sound wonderful! I do like Zweig a lot, but haven’t read this one yet. What a concept for a novella – and I do love how he packs so much punch into such short books.

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    1. You are so right! Zweig packs a tremendous punch, especially in this novel which was wonderdul. It is so brief, less than 100 pages, and so powerful. Every time I read something for German Lit Month, I am better for it.

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