Zweig’s novella, the Austrian writer’s last great work of fiction, was completed not long before his death.
It is a straightforward story yet, as always with Zweig, psychologically complex. We are on a steamship bound for Buenos Aires, where one of the passengers is Czentovic, the world chess champion. Some chess enthusiasts take the opportunity to challenge him to a consultation game and, naturally enough, he is soon beating them easily. Until, that is, an enigmatic stranger, one Dr B, intervenes on the enthusiasts’ side and secures a draw. A clamour ensues as they try to persuade Dr B to challenge Czentovic directly, to a match of two or three games…
Chess flowered in fin-de-siècle Vienna under the stewardship of George Marco, the celebrated editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung. Carl Schlechter flourished in the city’s rich chess culture and went on to draw a match with Emmanuel Lasker for the world championship. And the city attracted many talented players, including Richard Reti and Savielly Tartakower, leading lights of the Hypermodern School. Hardly surprising, therefore, that Zweig gives a remarkable, if not always coherent or accurate, eulogy to the royal game in the early pages of A Chess Story:
But aren’t we guilty of being insultingly disparaging if we refer to chess as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, poised between one and the other like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique synthesis of all opposites; ancient and yet always new, mechanical in its structure yet animated only by the imagination, limited to a geometrically petrified space yet unlimited in its permutations, always developing yet ever sterile, a logic with no result, a mathematics without calculations, an art without works, an architecture without materials, which has nevertheless proved more lasting in its forms and history than any works or books, the only game that belongs in every era and among every people, of which no one knows what god brought it to earth to kill boredom, sharpen the wits and tauten the spirit?
When Dr B is arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna and brought to the Hotel Metropole for interrogation, this complex, anachronistic game becomes his salvation. He steals a book of master games and plays through them one by one in his mind; then later he plays against himself. Chess offers an escape, a place of solace, a sphere where the mind can lose itself. In time he survives, yet is damaged irretrievably. A victim of the game’s awful infinitude.
A Chess Story is a brilliant work, excellently translated by Alexander Starritt, which might be described as a meditation on the fragility of culture and civilisation, a subject about which Zweig could speak with some authority. Chess is used as a metaphor for myriad aids and evils, any arena of addiction and obsession – myth, fantasy, ideology, even art – where the mind may come to lose itself.
By Stefan Zweig
Translated by Alexander Starritt
Cover illustration by Petra Börner
Pushkin Press, 2013
The publisher’s description of A Chess Story can be read here.