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.