23 April 2013

Chess Story (Stefan Zweig)

Stefan Zweig's Chess Story is small but intense, made more so by its being the last thing the Austrian Jewish author wrote before his 1942 suicide in exile. The novella nests first-person narrators: in the framing story, a passenger on a steamer heading from New York to Buenos Aires learns he's (a presumptive he, as I don't think Zweig ever specifies) traveling with the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, a savant who can barely read but whose rise to the height of the chess world has been meteoric. A group of enthusiasts persuade Mirko to play them simultaneously; they fail spectacularly until they begin taking the advice of a timid stranger. This man reluctantly tells the story of how he gained his chess skills: a Viennese lawyer with ties to the clergy and the imperial court, he was imprisoned by the Nazis after the Anschluss, constantly interrogated in an effort to find the monarchic assets his firm had hidden. The preferred form of torture was total isolation--he's kept for months in a bare room, his only conversations interrogations, until he manages to steal a book from a guard's overcoat. He's disappointed to learn it's only a book of chess problems; but driven by necessity, he works through them over and over, using the checkered counterpane as a board, until he can play chess games entirely in his head, against himself . . . until the psychological task of separating his internal Black player from White overwhelms him, and he goes insane. Pushed into playing against Czentovic, he once again beings to lose his grip on reality.

I found myself comparing Chess Story with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," another masterpiece of oppression and isolation. They share a sense of claustrophobia and creeping horror that's astonishing in such a short fictional space. And I love how Zweig uses the mental projection required for expertise in chess as both a means of escape and a kind of psychic trap. Zweig was apparently one of the most popular authors in the world in the 1920s and 30s--NYRB Classics has translated several other titles recently, and I'll be reading more for certain.

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