This is my slightly late post about The Royal Game / Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig that I read for the first week of the German Literature Month 2012.
About the book (from here): Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game,
is the Austrian master Stefan Zweig’s final achievement, completed in Brazilian
exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in
1942. It is the only story in which Zweig looks at Nazism, and he does so with
characteristic emphasis on the psychological.
On the ship from New York to Buenos Aires, our narrator spots Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. Czentovic started out as a poor boy and is still illiterate. He prefers to keep to himself and never having learnt about any other greatness than his own, he is arrogant. When a few passengers, along with the narrator, approach him to play a game of chess with them, he agrees to play for a price. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger, Dr. B, steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. The passengers try to persuade Dr. B to play with Czentovic one on one, but he promptly refuses. When the narrator asks Dr. B, how he became such a skilled chess player, Dr. B narrates his story.
As a monarchist hiding valuable assets of the nobility, Dr. B had been tortured by the Nazis, who kept him in total isolation. He had come across a book of chess games, which he had then read and memorized; it had been his only way to keep himself from going insane. After memorizing and absorbing every move mentioned in the game and being left with nothing to do, Dr. B had begun to play against himself, splitting himself into the two players: White and Black. He had reached an emotional breakdown because of the psychological conflict, and had only returned back to his sanity, after being rescued. Chess is more a game of the mind than anything else and the crux of the story lies in the final game between Mirko Czentovic and Dr. B., a showdown between an illiterate stoic and a learned neurotic.
The way the book deals with its themes of torture, incarceration, defeat, war, politics and in extreme detail Nazism is at once horrific, depressing and amazingly true to life. The way Zweig writes about what goes on in someone’s head, the way he can translate the hopelessness and helplessness into words is fabulous. I like Zweig’s austere writing style and the pace of the book. It’s a short but impactful novella, and one that I think everyone ought to read.
(The picture is a woodcut by Elke Rehder, a German artist who has done a series of artworks on Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle.)