Stefan Zweig is one of those names which has been tapping at my literary consciousness for a while now. His books earn Paperback of the Week status in newspaper reviews. His dinky little volumes are displayed in my local bookstore with unusual prominence for a dead early 20th century Austrian short story writer. And when the ever-reliable Penguin relaunched some classics with jazzy modern covers last year, in among the Gatsbys and the Sensibilitys and the Confederacys, was this slim and mysterious volume.
At 76 pages, Chess is less a novella than a story, and its unbroken paragraphs and frankly gripping style encourage reading it at one sitting. It was Zweig’s last work, written shortly before his suicide in 1942, and his hatred of the Nazis – he and his wife killed themselves in despair at the future of Europe – is well established and allegorized within these pages. Which is not to say that Chess is a solemn or offputting book. Zweig’s ability to carry the reader along through summarised lives, stories within stories and long monologues is remarkable, and it becomes an urgent, passionate read.
The story begins on board ship from New York to Buenos Aires, where the narrator discovers that among the passengers is Mirko Czentovic, the world’s leading chess player. We learn of his life – raised by a priest, devoid of social graces, for a time it seems as though the book is going to be the Perfume of chess – and the passengers challenge him to a game, but soon the plot turns and we find that Czentovic is not the main character after all. There are highly immersive scenes of solitary imprisonment which reminded me of William Boyd’s The New Confessions, and a psychological richness which leaks all the way through the story to the bizarre but plausible end.
Chess is also available as The Royal Game in another translation, published by Pushkin Press, who over the last few years have put much of Zweig’s work back in print. I’ll be heading to their shelves shortly for more from this compelling writer.