Chess Story

Chess StoryChess Story (or The Royal Game) a translation of the German Schachnovelle is a novella published in 1941 by Stefan Zweig. Zweig (1881 – 1942) was born in Vienna and received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1904.  In 1934, he left Germany (presumably to avoid the political situation) for London.  From there he traveled to New York City and then finally to a mountain in Rio de Janeiro.  He and his wife were found dead, holding hands, from a drug overdose. Zweig was not a prolific writer, but he did produce a number of works from 1900 onward. This is his most well-known work.

The book is a spare 84 pages and rather simply written.  Zweig is not known for his erudite and highbrow language. It does not take long to read this little story and there is no need to really savor the prose.  A reader might, after finishing it, be a little disappointed or underwhelmed. But I think the appreciation for this story should be regarding its construction and structure, maybe a little less for the story qua story.

The story is told in first-person narrative, a fact the reader discovers at the third sentence: “As I was standing a bit apart. . . .”  The narrator, though, remains unnamed and is not the main character. A steamer is setting forth from New York to Buenos Aires and the narrator learns that chess master Mirko Czentovic will be aboard.  Naturally, the reader assumes this is the only chess master on board the ship and that the story will center upon Czentovic.

Now, I rarely make allowances for readers/spoilers but at this point I want to make the standard disclaimer:


The narrator proceeds (until page 12) to give us a brief history of Czentovic.  In many ways, this is one of the interesting inner structures of the story.  This little biography of Czentovic gives a glimpse into the chess master’s early life, but it does not provide any ratio for Czentovic’s moods, motives, or dispositions.  The narrative only appears to provide a reason.  In essence, though, we learn that Czentovic was raised in charity by the village pastor.  Czentovic is, more or less, a stupid individual – even a bit surly – except when it comes to chess. Further, Czentovic’s introduction to the game is merely coincidental.

Another character is introduced into the mix; a Scottish engineer of some wealth:  McConnor. He is a muscular, self-satisfied, robust fellow who loves a good challenge, will take a hearty wager, and enjoys competition.  Between the narrator and McConnor, Czentovic is finally coerced into playing some chess.

Where does it begin, where does it end?  Any child can learn its basic rules, any amateur can try his hand at it; and yet, within the inalterable confines of a chessboard, masters unlike any others evolve, people with a talent for chess and chess alone, special geniuses whose gifts of imagination, patience and skill are just as precisely apportioned as those of mathematicians, poets and musicians, but differently arranged and combined. – pg. 15

All of this is merely the lead-up to the actual main character of the story, Dr. B.  B– is an Austrian who used to be a lawyer.  At first he is merely an interested spectator to the chess game. Eventually, though, he shows his eagerness for the game as-well-as his significant skill with it. Several scenes occur and our narrator is sent off to persuade Dr. B to continue the chess games against Czentovic.

The bulk of the story is Dr. B. sharing his life story – as a lawyer in his family’s esteemed business – and then as a prisoner in a form of a Nazi prison for intellectual and potentially useful prisoners. This is the true core of the structure of the book; B– describes a history that is in turns intriguing and horrific. Here we see the huge influence that Freud (and his theories) had on Zweig.  The story Dr. B shares depicts an intelligent and almost unflappable elite of society who is arrested and imprisoned by the dominating and crushing Nazi machine.

And, almost in a case study manner, the reader learns how Dr. B. suffered as a prisoner in a non-traditional prison.  And it is as an escape/coping mechanism that Dr. B. takes up chess as his survival tool.  A very key point is that Dr. B’s grasping of chess as a survival tool is also coincidence.  B– steals a book – the only book available and only available because of sheer luck/coincidence – from the overcoat pocket of one of the Nazi guards. It happens to be a book on chess. But it is Dr. B’s saving grace from the monotony and tedium of extreme boredom and pseudo-sensory deprivation.

Anyway, I do not want to give away the rest of the novel. Honestly, the story itself is not all that great – it rather plays out [sic] as expected. But it is still a decent read, even if you know how it is all going to go.  There are intense moments and eerie moments. However, some really good discussion and analysis could occur after reading this little novella.  As a hypothetical:  suppose Czentovic were captured (but why would he be?) – would he fare better in such a prison?  Did Dr. B really survive? Was chess a prison? Was Dr. B’s own mind his prison within a prison? Etc. There’s a lot of fun to be had looking at all of this. And I have not even bothered to list any of the more clinical discussions that this could spark.

This story was published in 1941.  I made sure to state that at the beginning because I want to contextualize this properly.  That means this novella was published before “Bobby” Fischer was born (1943).  And, of course, means before Fischer’s “Game of the Century” in 1956.

When I was younger, I was acquainted with that particular game (which is insignificant – everyone was; it was, after all, nicknamed Game of the Century).  I had a stupid little chess program for an old computer and it, in very ugly graphics, would run through the game at the end of the tutorial piece. Then I knew very little about chess or Fischer or anything, really. But I do remember that move 17 shocked me to death. I mean, my breath was taken away I was so shocked by the Queen Sacrifice.  This is not a good thing because it has totally flavored my chess play since then.  I am forever willing to sacrifice the queen any old time. (Thanks, Fischer, for showing me that in my formative years!)  Anyway, all of this anecdotal rubbish is to say that I really, really, really hate that Zweig committed suicide before Fischer’s flourishing.

So Chess Story is a bit about chess.  It is more about psychology.  And it is a little about any totalitarian evil dystopia.  It should appeal to a lot of readers and it is such a short read, there really is no excuse for good readers to have not read it.

4 stars



The Defense

The Defense

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in Russian in 1930.  The English translation was first published in 1964 – which is the edition that I read. This is the fourth novel by Nabokov that I have read and it is also the one that I am giving the most stars to:  four stars out of five for this one.  An interesting phenomenon has occurred in my reading of Nabokov.  The first book I read by him was Lolita – which I still despise completely. Then I read Despair, which I reviewed in this blog, giving it two stars.  Then I read Invitation to a Beheading which I enjoyed much more and gave three stars to.  Three stars is probably the closest estimation of an “average” read.  Then I read The Defense and am giving it another star.  So, in theory, if I am to read another Nabokov (the only one left that I have any desire to read is Bend Sinister), the pattern suggests I will give it five stars.

I loved The Defense.  I am honestly surprised and dismayed that most people do not like this novel as much as his other novels.  I mean, in my world, between The Defense and Lolita there is no comparison – Lolita is dreck and The Defense is the magnum opus.  I have speculated in my other blog about why The Defense is not so well-loved. I have only two ideas (feel free to share any you have):  (1.) people are turned off by chess; (2.) it’s way more Russian than the other novels (and therefore difficult to immerse oneself within).

All the great praise that I hear about Nabokov’s writing (that I found to be absent in the other novels) is here in this novel.  Here it is – all the marvel and fame and glory and skill and insight and so forth.  Finally! After four novels I found the Nabokov I was waiting for!

The main character, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, is one of my favorite characters of all time.  He just has to be.  I feel like he is autistic, though there is no mention of this in the novel whatsoever – this is just me hypothesizing.  He is indeed loveable and wonderful.  Sure, he seems surly or distant to the other characters, but Nabokov somehow understands this character so well.  Nabokov writes with insight and intuitiveness that makes Luzhin accessible and yet not fake or overdeveloped as a character.  Nabokov understands Luzhin and he writes so that we can understand too.  This means the author is able to cause sympathy in the reader for the character – the sign of a masterwork novel.

Luzhin does not really understand us.  When he is a child there is a line in the novel that I absolutely love because it’s amusing and it truly depicts an autistic child’s viewpoint.  His household is having an argument and the adults are edgy and grouchy:

Luzhin reflected disgustedly that today everyone had gone mad and went to his room.

That is an awesome line.  I love that Nabokov uses the word “disgustedly” and I love that Luzhin views the incongruous moods of his parents as having “gone mad.”  Nabokov’s genius is right there in that line.  He understands the character and in a short sentence allows us to understand Luzhin, too.

Luzhin proposing to his girlfriend is epic awesome.  He bustles, out of breath, into her room and starts pacing nervously. He says:

And therefore in continuance of the above I have to inform you that you will be my wife, I implore you to agree to this, it was absolutely impossible to go away, now everything will be different and wonderful.

He sits, exhausted, in a chair and starts crying.  So, he does not really ask her to marry him, but rather has it all sorted out in a sort of chess-like way which only seems reasonable to him.  His girlfriend responds to his outburst and tears by stroking his forehead and taking a good look at him.  She comes to this conclusion:

It was then that she realized clearly that this man, whether you liked him or not, was not one you could thrust out of your life, that he had sat himself down firmly, solidly and apparently for a long time.

This line is reminiscent of Oblomov.  Both Luzhin and Oblomov actually have some similar characteristics (though I say only the former is autistic).  Both characters instantiate themselves into their friends’ lives – not boisterously or rudely – but by virtue of their very innocence, naïvité, and reason. They are surprising because they are so different from the social behaviors of the society they live within.  They draw people to them without necessarily trying and by simply being themselves, so to speak. And both characters are wonderful.

There are a number of phrases and descriptions that, though not lengthy, are full of masterful wordsmithing.  The first paragraph(s) of chapter 13, for example, are descriptions of winter – without describing winter.  Nabokov somehow describes the scene as if viewed through Luzhin’s eyes, maybe. And the writing is actual simple and not convoluted, but it is beautiful because it shows Nabokov really really really experiences the scene and can tell us perfectly his experience.  He describes a boy, a storefront, a frozen pond, a dog – all of this with such deft ease.  This is the Nabokov we’ve been hearing about; the one that’s a world-class author.

Late in the novel, Luzhin is trying to hide a notebook.  His wife retires to bed and Luzhin walks around the house searching for a “safe-place.”

Everywhere was insecure.  The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of that rapacious vacuum cleaner.  It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing:  the other things are jealous and inhospitable, holding on firmly to their places and not allowing a homeless object, escaping pursuit, into a single cranny.

Now, I do not know if you have ever sought for a “safe-place” or a secure place to put something, but yes, this is precisely what it is like.  And Nabokov describes this scene so perfectly.  And there’s this touch of autistic understanding in Luzhin’s attempt to hide the notebook.  I like how the difficulty of hiding an object is not the fault of Luzhin or the object – but that of other objects. Thanks for this, Nabokov!

The novel is a tragedy. The ending is sudden and done in a few paragraphs. It can seem like a ludicrous ending to some readers.  However, I think reading the whole novel in terms of a life lived within a chess game – the ending makes sense.  The ending also is congruent with the same, small Luzhin who years ago went to his room disgustedly.  It matches, too, the Luzhin who “proposes” to his girlfriend by stating it must be so.  Because Luzhin, above all, is a grandmaster of chess, life for him is chess. And he sees all the incidents and circumstances as if they are on some kosmic chessboard.  The Defense is, in his mind, the correct move.  The fallout from that is almost inconsequential. Dear Luzhin…..

4 stars