By Tess Crain
Flaubert, not an enthusiast, had this to say about chess: “Symbol of military tactics. All great generals good at [it]. Too serious as a game, too pointless as a science.”
Chess in literature is nothing new. The Russians, of course, loved it: Tolstoy (an avid amateur and beloved in forums), Dostoevsky (“man is a fickle and disreputable creature… like a chess-player”), Krzhizhanovsky (in the dreams of Baron Munchausen, games unfold across gargantuan quilts of earth and snow). Chess incarnate might have been Nabokov: intelligence, exactitude, ego, misogyny. Fantastical iterations appear in Through the Looking-Glass and Harry Potter, while the leading men of Doyle and Fleming save the United Kingdom to the tap of felted pieces on parquet. Nor has the game escaped poetry, including the work of Borges, Eliot, and Pound. Add to this Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Beckett (Murphy, Endgame), and you could begin to imagine the Western canon sits atop a chessboard.
Some of the best novelists in the Americas and Europe have written about chess—yet one of the best chess novels, Chess Story (published in German as Schachnovelle; also known as The Royal Game) by Stefan Zweig, was written by an otherwise less than superlative author.
Born into Jewish Viennese comfort in 1881, Zweig (pronounced “zhv-ike” ed. note: thanks, Katie) found both literary popularity and his peers’ disdain in the 1920s and ’30s, until the rise of Nazism drove him from Austria in 1934. With increasing misery, he fled first to England, then to New York, then to Brazil, where he and his second wife killed themselves together by overdosing on barbiturates. Aside from numerous novellas (his favored form) and novels, Zweig wrote biographies, plays, criticism, and memoir, compiling a confusing oeuvre that straddles the worst of Wes Anderson (cloying nostalgia without relief of irony) and posthumous Poe before discovery by Baudelaire (a baroque but haunting corpus unfortunately dismissed). There is much about Zweig that invites mockery: his gentleman’s terror, his “aeroplane” prose (lofty, mechanical, quaint), his embarrassing worship of certain friends. Then again, terror is terror and you can cross an ocean even on autopilot.
As for Chess Story, a slim volume of Hitler-fueled dissociation, panic, and compulsion—a tripartite differential diagnosis of trauma—even Zweig’s most gleeful detractors hesitate to defame what is not only perhaps his finest but a uniquely fine work of fiction.
Set aboard a steamship bound for Buenos Aires, the novel opens with the narrator and his fellow passengers discovering that among their number is the current world champion in chess. Son of a “penniless Yugoslavian Danube bargeman,” Mirko Czentovic is a chess machine: psychologically impenetrable, graceless, thus far unbeatable, his “narrow genius… embedded in absolute intellectual inertia like a single gold thread in a hundredweight of barren rock.” A group of amateurs including the narrator secures a game against the champion. They lose and are losing again when a stranger interrupts, sparing them a fatal blunder; with increasing fervor, he coaches the “third-rate players” to a draw. When Czentovic offers a rematch, everyone enthusiastically accepts—except the newcomer, who, as if waking from a trance, practically runs away. Thereafter, we learn the conditions, imposed by the Nazis, under which this mystery man developed his unusual ability for chess, as well as the brink over which the situation pushed him. The ending Zweig tells best himself—even, or particularly, by omission.
Returning to Flaubert, one need not enjoy chess to appreciate its import. Sure, it’s niche, but not as niche as you might think. Last November, Fabiano Caruana challenged for the World Chess Championship, the first American even to compete for the title since Bobby Fischer in the 1970s. In June 2017, the Chess.com app crashed because of an overflow problem akin to what “Gangnam Style” supposedly did to YouTube. And while today we have presidents rather than generals, the relationship between politics and the game endures: reciprocally, as both life and metaphor.
Chess Story, Zweig’s final book (he mailed the manuscript a day before committing suicide), offers both the metaphor and the life—or the end of life, swept by its own hand from the board of history—as well as a reminder of the gravely ambiguous potential of a single mind.
Tess Crain is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she served as a Goldwater Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New Republic. She lives in New York City.