Thursday 7 October 2010

'homo obscurissimus'

The Royal Game
by Stefan Zweig

The arrival of a new Zweig from his champions at Pushkin Press couldn't have been better timed after I struggled and finally gave up (for the moment) on a recent read. Not only does Zweig always manage to satisfy, and not only are the little french-flapped, tactile editions from Pushkin a joy to have in one's mitts but I have long wanted to read this novella, having always suspected that the game of chess would provide the perfect architecture on which to hang a tale. I used to play a tiny bit of chess when I was a kid and received a Kasparov chess computer as a birthday or Christmas present. An electronic board with pressure sensitive pads and LED's along the edges, it felt cutting edge at the time but a little clunky in memory. You signalled each move by pressing down the piece you wanted to move and then down again on the square you wanted to move it to. Kasparov, playing to the difficulty level you had set him on, would then move via the medium of those LED's. Even on an easy setting I found it hard to compete and didn't have the discipline to play on my own repeatedly to get much better so it became another gift with a short shelf-life and my future as a chess champion disappeared for good. After reading this novella I'm glad I didn't dedicate hours to studying in solitude, the game of chess itself comes across as a fearsome adversary and the humans in thrall to it left battered and bruised by their association.

On a liner journeying from New York to Buenos Aires our narrator discovers through a friend that the world famous (but unknown to him) chess champion Mirko Czentovic is on board. His friend relates this man's history, from his lowly beginnings as an orphaned boy in a remote Yugoslavian village, his care under the village pastor, his ignorance in 'every field of culture' and the sudden emergence of his innate understanding of chess. With his talent unearthed it isn't long before he has mastered 'every secret of chess technique,' his only weakness an inability to imagine the board in his mind, needing both board and pieces to hand in order to sort through problems. Such a meteoric rise 'transformed his early unsureness into a cold and awkwardly flaunted pride', something that shall be tested within the confines of this journey.

Fascinated by monomaniacs our narrator determines to find out as much as he can about Czentovic but is frustrated by his aloofness. He decides to use a chess board to draw him out, fully aware of what makes the royal game so enticing.

...a union of all contradictory concepts: primeval yet ever new; mechanical in operation yet effective only through the imagination; bounded in geometric space though boundless in its combinations; ever-developing yet sterile; thought that leads to nothing; mathematics that produce no result; art without works; architecture without substance, and nevertheless, as proved by evidence, more lasting in its being and presence than all books and achievements; the only game that belongs to all peoples and all ages; of which none knows the divinity that bestowed it on the world, to slay boredom, to sharpen the senses, to exhilarate the spirit. One searches for its beginning and its end. Children can learn its simple rules, duffers succumb to its temptation, yet within this immutable, tight square it creates a particular species of master not to be compared with any other...

Eventually through the garrulous behaviour of a fellow passenger a game is finally created between Czentovic and a collective of the liner's chess players and it is through this encounter that the real central character of the novella will emerge. Amongst the passengers is a man who might even be able to challenge the supremacy of the champion; armed with the one skill that Czentovic lacks but crippled by his own weaknesses, it will be a fascinating contest. This man's back story allows Zweig to vent his feelings about the Nazi regime and to develop one of the novella's central themes: that of confinement and freedom. Not only is the location of the novella confined: a limited space, a finite journey, a set cast list; but as the quote above makes clear, the game of chess itself is an expression of the dichotomy between confinement and limitless freedom. This Austrian gentleman has had his own experience of confinement at the hands of the Gestapo who didn't use physical torture to extract secrets but almost its opposite.

They did nothing to us; they merely deposited us in the midst of nothing, knowing well that of all things the most constant pressure on the soul of man is nothingness. By placing us singly, each in an utter vacuum, in a chamber that was hermetically closed to the world without, it was calculated that the pressure created from inside, rather than cold and the scourge, would eventually cause our lips to spring apart.

His story is horribly compelling and matched by the thrilling chess match that slowly unfolds. As I suspected, the confines of the form, the subject and the approach make The Royal Game a perfect novella, providing exactly what a reader could ask for. It's far too terrifying to tempt me into dusting off those 32 black and white pieces but has instilled in me a new-found respect for a pursuit for which our narrator believes the word game is 'an offensively narrow construction.'


Anonymous,  7 October 2010 at 20:11  

This sounds good I like the Zweig I read earlier in the year and like the occasional game of chess so this sounds like the perfect mix ,I ll get this at some point got another chess based novel to tie up with it ,all the best stu

Max Cairnduff 10 October 2010 at 16:35  

Nice review William, though I already have unread Zweig tempted as I am this one will have to wait a while.

My childhood experience of chess was much as yours. At risk of going on a tangent, it's not a game I like. It's essentially a lie. An illusory world in which human beings have total control. Reality is nothing so neat.

I tend to prefer backgammon, where the random element is reintroduced. Backgammon I fear though lacks the metaphoric power that chess so undoubtedly possesses...

One detail struck me as a little odd. Were the Gestapo really so subtle? I had the impression they were more prone to cruder methods of interrogation, rather than these sophisticated psychological techniques. I could be utterly wrong though, I've not read up on them particularly.

William Rycroft 10 October 2010 at 20:22  

Thanks Max, and thank you for going off on that tangent, an illuminating comment.

As for the Gestapo, I can hopefully make things clearer with a little more detail. Dr B, as he is known, was an administrator within a monastery when apprehended.

"I was not put with those luckless ones on whom they released their accumulated resentment by corporal and spiritual degradation, but rather was assigned to that small group out of which the National Socialists hoped to squeeze money or important information."

It is both they want from him, hence the subtler approach. I don't know enough about the Gestapo either to know whether this is based on any kind of truth but it certainly provides the right psychological background for the rest of the novella.

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