Stefan Zweig: Chess

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.

11 comments

  1. I read this in the dinky Pushkin Royal Game edition John and it’s a book that has stayed with me ever since, perhaps a re-read due now that you have mentioned it because I suspect it’s one of those books that reveals layer upon layer of meaning with successive reads. I’ve also read quite a few contemporary novels which allude to it in some way or another, check out The Miniature Man by the enigmatic and emphatically lower case and very anon.r.muir published by Snowbooks.

  2. PS I forgot to say that I discovered Zweig via an odd urge to check out some of the authors Hitler had banned and of course Zweig was one and so I then read quite a few and that’s how I also discovered Irmgard Keun who lived for sometime with Joseph Roth… and so it goes one, one writer leading me to another.

  3. That’s interesting re the modern lit allusions to Chess, dgr – I so often find that my cultural knowledge is so lacking that I read some classic and suddenly discover where lots of film, book, music etc references came from! The most shaming of these was to read the penultimate page of Moby Dick (and yes, I did read all the others before it) and find a line which had been in an episode of The Simpsons where Mr Burns turned off the power to Springfield (“From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”).

    I already have Zweig’s Amok and other stories, and will be looking out more of his stuff. I love the little squarish Pushkin press editions, with the mostly blank covers and rippled paper. Yum.

  4. Stephen Zweig’s book Chess transports the reader to the mind’s level of the collective conscience where past incidents have left live-wires here and there though one believes that one has moved out of the nightmare. The live wire explodes whenever it is touched.
    The element of suspense is deftly maintained.
    The book gives insights into more areas than one.

  5. Stefan Zweig was a very successful author with worldwide success. he used his wealth for good causes, like financially supporting colleagues especially in the time after 1933. And he was a pacifist and an anti-Nazi from the very beginning.of Hitler’s rise. Today he seems to be not very popular and therefore it is a good choice to write about his probably most popular book. I am honestly a bit divided about it. Yes, it is a passionate read, yes it shows the great abilities of Zweig, and yes it is indeed very gripping. But there is something odd about the book and it has something to do with the plot and the characters. Czentovic is described as an almost uneducated brute with no interests outside chess and zero imagination (Zweig explains us that he is not even able to play one game without seeing the chessboard and pieces – which is utterly ridiculous for any strong chess player); Dr. B. becomes a very strong player by teaching himself in prison mainly without board and pieces – this is again a practical impossibility. Therefore the whole plot of the book doesn’t really work for me and that’s a pity because Zweig was undoubtedly an excellent author.

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