Chess (or Chess Story) is a masterpiece of short fiction, packing more into its slim pages than many novels.
The story is narrated by an Austrian (about whom we learn very little) who has just embarked on a cruise liner from the USA heading to Argentina. By chance, he discovers that there is a celebrity on board, the world chess grandmaster Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a prodigy no doubt, but is, in all other respects, rather stupid. Compared to other chess players, he is an anti-intellectual, taciturn and rude and has an inability to play from memory. His skill at the game has brought him wealth and fame, and to capitalise further on that wealth he won’t play anyone who can’t pay his hefty fee.
A rich and arrogant industrialist on board decides the cost is worth it and pays for the privilege of playing against a master. A large crowd gathers to watch and the game is understandably soon lost. During the rematch however, the tables are turned, when a random member of the watching crowd advises the novice on his moves. With an apparent encyclopedic knowledge of the game his intervention forces Czentovic to call the game a draw, much to his humiliation.
Sensing that Czentovic may have met his match, our narrator tracks down this strange man, the enigmatic Dr B, to convince him to play the master the next day. The novella then changes direction completely as Dr B tells the narrator the story of how he came to acquire such prodigious chess knowledge and why he doesn’t want to play again. The story that follows is nothing short of breathtaking.
And are we not guilty of offensive disparagement in calling chess a game? Is it not also a silence and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites; ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by imagination…
To say anymore about what happens in Chess would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but Zweig explores what happens when ones thoughts are overwhelmed by a fixation on one thing. Is imagination a gift that frees us, or a curse that traps us within our own mind?
The dramatic tension unfolds within an elaborate treatise on the beauty of the game of chess; its inherent intellectual benefits, but also its addictive side, with its power to take over ones thoughts and life. It is the elemental game of black versus the white, played out, not on the chess board but within the mind.
My pleasure in playing became a desire to play, a mania, a frenzy, which permeated not only my waking hours but gradually my sleep too. Chess was all I could think about, chess moves, chess problems were the only form my thoughts could take; sometimes I awoke with a sweaty brow and understood that I must have unconsciously gone on playing even while I slept, and if I dreamt of people, all they did was move like the bishop or the rook, or hopscotch like the knight.
That Zweig has managed to create a story within his main story that is as tight and suspenseful as he has is testament to his incredible skill. The novella skips from past to present, focusing on one character and then another, but never feels conflicted or confusing. In fact, it feels like it incorporates the plot of at least three full novels within it’s short span.
Through the symbolism of chess, Zweig gives the reader an exciting yet terrifying vision of the capabilities and the limit of the mind itself and reminds us that we are rarely fighting against an opponent, but are invariably fighting with two sides of ourselves.
Given the political and social situation that Zweig was living through when he was writing the book, Chess can also be read as a political allegory with Czentovic representing Nazi Germany and Dr B representing the creativity that has been crushed by the ruling regime.
Zweig masterfully portrays human psychology in all its forms and it is even more impressive that he does so while managing to condense his story into a mere 80 pages. Chess was my first encounter with Stefan Zweig and I am so impressed with what he achieved here that I plan to read a lot more of his work.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!