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Chess Story (New York Review Books Classics)…

Chess Story (New York Review Books Classics) (original 1942; edition 2005)

by Stefan Zweig, Joel Rotenberg (Translator), Peter Gay (Introduction)

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2,389622,612 (4.13)290
Title:Chess Story (New York Review Books Classics)
Authors:Stefan Zweig
Other authors:Joel Rotenberg (Translator), Peter Gay (Introduction)
Info:NYRB Classics (2005), Paperback, 104 pages
Collections:Your library, 2012 Read
Tags:German literature, Austrian literature, Austria, Germany, chess, WWII

Work details

Chess by Stefan Zweig (1942)

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I detect strong parallels between reading a novel and the game of chess: there is the author sitting on one side, playing white, the reader on the other side, playing black; instead of the chess board and chess pieces there is the novel; the author’s opening chapter is the chess player’s opening, the middle of the novel is, of course, the middle game, and the closing chapter is the end game. If both author and reader expand their literary horizons and deepen their appreciation of life’s mysteries, then both can declare ‘checkmate’.

Stefan Zweig’s ‘Chess Story’ published by New York Review Books (NYRB) is 84 pages of literary counterpart to a master chess game of Capablanca or Kasparov, a novel where the first-person narrator, an Austrian, just so happens to be on board a passenger steamer with a world chess champion by the name of Czentovic and also, as it turns out, a fellow Austrian referred to as Dr. B, a man who tells the tale of how he came to play chess whilst a prisoner of the Gestapo. If you tend to find novels by such giants as Proust, Joyce or Mann a bit intimidating but still would like to do a careful cover-to-cover read of a masterpiece, this is your book. A special thanks to Joel Rotenberg for translating from the German to a most accessible and clear English. And keeping in the spirit of a game of chess, below are several quotes from the novel (SZ’s moves as white) paired with my comments (countermoves as black):

Ruminating on what it takes to be a chess master, the narrator notes: “All my life I have been passionately interested in monomaniacs of any kind, people carried away by a single idea. The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.” ---------- Zweig’s novel takes place during the time of Nazi Germany and, of course, Hitler is considered one of the modern world’s most notorious monomaniacs, combining gobbledygook notions of biology, race, history and national identity into his version of an unyielding jackboot philosophy of culture, a philosophy carried out in deadly practice by thousands of loyal Nazis, monomania crushing the lives of millions under its ideological hammer. Parallels between Czentovic and the Führer abound.

“They did nothing – other than subjecting us to complete nothingness. For, as is well known, nothing on earth puts more pressure on the human mind than nothing. . . . you were hopelessly alone with yourself, with your body, and with these four or five mute objects, table, bed, window, washbasin; you lived like a diver in a diving bell in the black sea of silence. . . .“ --------- Confined to a hotel room by the Gestapo, cut off from the outside world, Dr. B begins to go stir-crazy in a world of silence and solitude, a conundrum touching on a major dilemma in the modern West – the loss of the contemplative/meditative dimension in life. Silence and solitude could provide fertile ground for personal spiritual growth if one has the proper training; but, alas, for most people, similar to Dr.B, silence and solitude is equated with a blank, a total nothingness.

“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 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.” ---------- Ah, isolation in silence and solitude heightens Dr. B’s appreciation for what many of us might take for granted – the wonder of all the various levels of splendor in the simple pleasure of reading a book. When we look closely, such simple pleasure contains infinite richness.

“At first I played the games through quite mechanically; yet gradually a pleasurable, aesthetic understanding awoke within me. I grasped the fine points, the perils and rigors of attack and defense, the technique of thinking ahead, planning moves and countermoves, and soon I was able to recognize the personality and style of each of the chess masters as unmistakably as one knows a poet from only a few of his lines . . . “ ---------- How about that! Beyond the bare mechanical lies the juice of the aesthetic dimension, that is, an experience of beauty, in this case, the beauty of chess’s underlying structure on multiple levels: each move, creative tactics and overarching strategy, especially the beauty of signature moves, tactics and strategies of individual chess masters.

“My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward .“ ---------- On the level of chess, the white pieces vs. the black pieces; on the level of psychotherapy, we could consider two different aspects of the subconscious: White Self vs. Black Self. Sidebar: Too bad Dr. B’s chess book didn’t contain chess problems constructed for one player!

“When I was taken to be examined by a physician, in my derangement I had suddenly broken free, thrown myself at the window in the corridor and shattered the glass, cutting my hand – you can still see the deep scar here.” ---------- At one point, Dr. B notes how chess is a game of pure mental calculation, “a game of pure reasoning with no element of chance.” Ironically, through pure chance, Dr. B survives throwing himself at a window, since, in his derangement, he could easily have lost his life when the glass shattered. So, in this sense, life is not a game of chess – chance plays such a major part in everybody’s life.

During the chess game of Czentovic vs. Dr.B, the narrator observes: “Suddenly there was something new between the two of them: a dangerous tension, a passionate hatred. They were no longer opponents testing their ability in a spirit of play, but enemies resolved to annihilate each other. Czentovic delayed for a long time before making the first move. It was clear to me that this was intentional.” ---------- Oh, how a game can so easily and quickly degenerate into a power play of egos bent on complete obliteration of the other; how easily life can be brought down to the mindset of the Nazis.

The narrator continues to watch; he detects a profound change come over the ordinarily serene Dr. B: “All the symptoms of abnormal excitation were clearly apparent; I saw the perspiration appear on his brow while the scar on his hand became redder and stood out more sharply than before.” ----------- Perhaps the author is reminding us that in our countering Nazi mentality we are continually prone to become no less brutal and one-minded then a Nazi.

( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Well told entertaining story with some interesting information on pre-war nazist methods and torture technique. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
A fascinating little story of a chess prodigy who just happens to meet up with a man intensely interested in chess. Try not to ready much into the Nazi prison for it was after all, just a prison which could have existed under any regime, at any time, anywhere in the world ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
A wonderful novella, a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Austria and a discussion on how there is no one way to achieve a goal, which of course is a commentary on Nazism itself, no? And chess, of course. The chess is well done, which it often isn't in novels. Great characters.

Read this in one morning as I was waiting for my wife and son to get back from zip lining in Tortola. Such is life. ( )
  BooksForDinner | Feb 15, 2016 |
This fascinating book is about a business man who was arrested by the Gestapo for a period of one year. While imprisoned, he taught himself chess which serves him well when he comes up against a bona fide grand master. The final twist, upon reflection, digs quite deep into the characters' psyche. I highly recommend this last book by Stefan Zweig before he and his wife committed suicide. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zweig, Stefanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fleckhaus, WillyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gay, PeterIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pein-Schmidt, UschiContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radvan, FlorianEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rogal, StefanContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steiner, AnneEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Unseld, SiegfriedAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ursula MonsenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
On the great passenger steamer, due to depart New York for Buenos Aires at midnight, there was the usual last-minute bustle and commotion.
All my life I have been passionately interested in monomaniacs of any kind, people carried away by a single idea. The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.
But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad's coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted an yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit?
Yet how difficult, how impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active person who reduces the world to a shuttle between black and white, who seeks fulfillment in a mere to-and-fro, forward-and-back or thirty-two pieces, someone for whom a new opening that allows the knight to be advanced instead of the pawn is in itself a great accomplishment and a meager little piece of immortality in a corner of a chess book - someone, someone with a brain in his head, who, without going mad continues over and over for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to devote all the force of his thought to the ridiculous end of cornering a wooden king on a wooden board!
But even thoughts, insubstantial as they seem, need a footing, or they begin to spin, to run in frenzied circles; they can't bear nothingness either.
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Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game, is the Austrian master Stefan Zweig's final achievement, completed in Brazilian exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in 1942. It is the only story in which Zweig looks at Nazism, and he does so with characteristic emphasis on the psychological.

Travelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig's story.

This new translation of Chess Story brings out the work's unusual mixture of high suspense and poignant reflection.
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"The art of the great Austian writer Stefan Zweig was a difficult balancing act. Zweig's major subject was human limitation, above all the ways in which the best of intentions can lead people into the murkiest of emotional and moral cul-de-sacs. And yet Zweig also hoped to illumine those dark places of the heart and mind, to show that it is not, finally, impossible to attain a true perspective on our limitations, even to care for each other. Zweig, much like his contemporary E.M. Forster, was liberal and humanist to the core, gambling on human goodness against the specters of oppression and despair."… (more)

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NYRB Classics

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