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Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

And, actually, isn’t it damn easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t troubled by the slightest notion that a Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante, or Napoleon ever existed? This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain–that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months–and since he has no idea that there’s anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself.

Zweig’s posthumous novella, Chess Story is a tight little story about a casual chess match to pass the time on a twelve-day voyage from New York to Buenos Aires that develops into a deadly game between two masters, one professional, one amateur. The succession of chess games on the cruise, first between the narrator and the Scottish engineer McConnor, then between the mass of amateurs and the world champion Mirko Czentovic, and finally between Czentovic and an amateur bystander Dr. B. are provide the structure for analyzing the psyches of the different characters, but much of the dramatic weight in Chess Story comes from explaining the how the two masters developed their skills.

Czentovic is the epitome of a prodigy, having been a peasant child without any particular skills or interests until he sees adults playing chess. Disinterested in the formal or abstract aspects of the game, Czentovic only plays whatever game is in front of him and does not lose to the same opponent twice in a row. Having beaten all comers in Europe and New York, he is now going on a world tour, convinced of his own genius and assured that his wealth makes him superior to everyone else.

In contrast, Dr. B. is an Austrian lawyer whose family managed the estates for the Hapsburg family and various German monasteries. He had played, without much interest, in grade school, but whose life involved being a discrete, quiet, and upstanding member of Austrian society, whose world is upended when he is turned in to Nazi authorities and arrested. Dr. B. returns to chess only by chance, but comes to use the abstract critical thinking of the game as a defense against interrogation…even if it eventually causes him to crack and be released as useless.

These two contrasting styles collide on this otherwise quiet cruise from New York to Buenos Aires.

Chess Story is a thoughtful and moving study of these characters that does not try to do too much. What I mean by this is that Zweig layers in important humanistic observations about the problems of a fascist regime and dangers of being utterly obsessed by money, but, even though the book was published after his death in 1942, it does not become a polemic. As a result, the story is universalized without being another story of horror and drudgery about Nazi oppression.

I did not like Chess Story as much as The Post-Office Girl, but I think that this is mostly a personal preference for the fuller story rather than the spareness of a novella. Chess Story is beautifully constructed and well-worth reading, making me even more excited to read Beware of Pity, which is sitting on my to-read shelf.

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I finished making my way through Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature and will have reactions to it later in the week. Next up, I am currently reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir, The Thin Man.