Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chess Story - Stefan Zweig

Coffee and a good book
There is nothing I like better than sitting at a cafe, drinking long black (or Espresso), reading a good book and watching people walk past. The quality of the coffee helps, as does the quality of the book, and I suppose the interest level of the people walking past. Yesterday I finished my last class before my break, and shortly after went for a coffee with a good book. I'm currently reading a strange novel called The Rook by Daniel O' Malley. I picked it up because of the chess connotation, and the write up on the back looked intriguing. It has been a great read up to now (I'm about half way through) and I'm hoping for a strong finish.

I have to admit, that I'm going through a phase of reading novels with a chess theme. Before The Rook I read Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game" which is also known as "Chess Story", or just "Chess". As a chess player it was a fascinating little book portraying 2 extreme types of chess player. Zweig painted a bleak portrait of a professional World Champion, a man with no intellect outside of chess, and no imagination. Being a professional entails that the result and the prize is more important than the game itself. Challenging this is the talented amateur, driven to the extremes of sanity through constant thoughts about chess. This player imagines games in his head, splits his mind in two to play games against himself without a board and shows his emotions openly during the games. This small novel, or novella, is a lightweight read, but thought provoking. The major themes that run through the book deal with mental characteristics and the different outlooks of amateurism vs professionalism which are also portrayed in the different intellectual qualities of the 2 players. The background stories of the 2 main chess players allow us to sympathise with only one.

Stefan Zweig's "Chess Story"
The other factor which is addressed in this novel is the atrocities conducted by the Nazi's during the second World War. Zweig was an exile from this regime, leaving his native Austria in the mid 1930's to avoid persecution which would inevitably come from his Jewish parentage. Sadly, the novel was published posthumously after Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Apparently, Zweig despaired of the situation in Europe leaving a farewell note including the words "I think it is better to leave on time, with head held high, an existence in which intellectual work has always been the purest joy, and personal freedom the highest good of this world." It is no accident that the hero of "The Royal Game" is an intellectual who is then starved of interaction with his fellow man, and with anything to stimulate his mind. The chess games that he learns from a stolen book add a welcome distraction to his empty life, but eventually the mental fatigue caused by playing imaginary chess games in between Gestapo interrogations drive his mind over the edge. I sense that Zweig felt an affinity to this character in some ways, starved of his ability to publish novels in his homeland and driven to explore new ways of life in emigre fashion. I thoroughly recommend this short novel to both lovers of chess and lovers of literature.

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