More Than a Game

One thing which has rapidly risen to the top of my things-to-do list in recent weeks is familiarising myself with the basics of psychoanalysis.  Why?  Because it is becoming increasingly clear that the key to understanding Austrian literature is having a passing knowledge of the theories of a certain Sigmund Freud.  Arthur Schnitzler, a contemporary of the good doctor, is certainly fascinated by his characters’ thought processes, and Alois Hotschnig’s short-story collection, Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht, could also be seen in this light.  It was no surprise then to find that my third Austrian writer of the month was himself no stranger to egos, super-egos and ids 😉

Stefan Zweig is a writer that I had never heard of at the start of this year.  However, his books seem to have been everywhere recently (among the blogs I frequent anyway), and I have been very keen to sample his work for a while now.  Luckily, I won a copy of Schachnovelle (Chess) recently, allowing me to have a little taste of Zweig’s style.  It’s a style that I could become extremely fond of…

On a passenger ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires, an Austrian, the novel’s narrator, becomes fascinated by a fellow passenger, the current world chess champion.  Determined to make his acquaintance, our friend lures him into playing a game against some of the passengers.  Of course, Czentovic, a Hungarian prodigy, casually defeats the group in the first game, but in the second game, some assistance from a casual passer-by helps the group to obtain a draw.  And it’s here that the game really begins…

Alas, I simply don’t have the time, energy or willpower to give this book the treatment it deserves.  Schachnovelle is simply brilliant.  In its contrast of the two chess geniuses, the dogmatic, automaton-like Czentovic, and the self-taught, half-crazed Dr. B, Zweig not only symbolises the eternal clash of art and science, but also lays bare the events of Hitler’s annexation (Anschluß) of Austria – I kid you not.

The middle part of the book is a story within a story, in which Dr. B, who hasn’t actually picked up a chess piece for twenty years, explains how he developed his incredible chess ability.  It’s closely connected with Austria’s subsumption into the Third Reich, and as a study of the horrors of nothingness, it is without parallel.  Let’s just say that it is possible to be bored out of your mind…

So when the good Doctor, a man who struggles to connect the wooden pieces in front of him to the abstract notions in his head, sits across the board from the self-taught idiot savant, unique among chess Grand-masters in being unable to play a game without actually seeing the board, it is more than just a friendly game to pass the time – ideologies and psychologies come face to face (and don’t much like what they see).

As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Dr. B is more than a match for the world champion when it comes to pure chess ability.  But is that all you need to make it to the top?  Or is animal cunning, a thick hide and a lot of patience actually more important in the long run?  Who will come out on top?  I won’t tell you that, but the big match is certainly an absorbing contest to watch.

And that’s not all Schachnovelle has to offer.  I could easily have written more about the narrator himself, obsessed with getting into Czentovic’s mind; or about McConnor, the aggressive Scots millionaire, a man who can’t take no for an answer (and definitely doesn’t like losing).  In fact, while it may seem that our two protagonists are addicted to chess, they are not the only ones with a bit of a problem…
I read this twice, about ten days apart.  Both times I intended to spread my reading out over two nights; both times I rushed through it in a single evening.  While I would love to go into a deep, psychological analysis of the book, in truth that really is as much about Schachnovelle as you need to know…

10 thoughts on “More Than a Game

  1. I have this on my kindle as well as a essay he wrote on Verlaine, so will be reading this fairly soon. Part of the tale, or your post of it reminds me of Master of Go, if I recall correctly you've read that & if that's the case does it.


  2. This is one of Zweig's most famous work, I think.

    I haven't read it because I can't play chess and I figured I'd get lost in the book. (just like I get lost in some Noir when they bet on horses or play poker)
    Do you think it matters that I can't play or not?

    Otherwise, I highly recommend Journey into the Past and Letter From the Unknown Woman.

    PS: I still don't get your reviews in my mailbox but I keep posted — if I might say — with Twitter.


  3. I have never heard of this author so thank you for the introduction. The chess part sounds fasinating but then I grew up in a Chess household (I play terribly though) and was dragged around to more than one world chess tournament as a child.

    I'll add this to my kindle.


  4. I used to be fascinated with psychoanalysis and your review puts me in the mood to read some Freud again. I don't think it's all that useful to cure people but it's interesting and certainly helps to understand some of the things going on in the books of the era.
    I like Zweig and Schnitzler. I enjoyed Schachnovelle and I'm not a chess player.
    I thought it was very different from his other books, not as strong on emotions.
    He is certainly well worth reading.
    How about reading Roth next?


  5. Gary – Yes and no. There's obviously the similarity in the contest, but Kawabata's work is more about tradition, and the passing of the flame to a new generation. This is more complex and psychological, and definitely more political.

    Emma – You don't need to know more than the basics to enjoy it – in fact, part of the approach is that the two players are so good that the narrator can't really follow what's happening at the end. The amount of chess actually played is minimal (unlike Kawabata's 'The Master of Go', the book Gary and I are discussing, which is slightly overloaded with tactics…).

    Thanks for checking Twitter 🙂 At the moment, it's probably the most reliable source of info about my new posts! Stupid blog…

    Jessica – I'm a big fan just after this book, and I have a second on its way as we speak 🙂 Don't worry – the chess is just a front for the story, so you won't have too many childhood flashbacks 😉

    Caroline – I'm certainly not looking to move into the medical side, but it would be interesting to have a little more knowledge on the subject than I do now. Reading Austrian Lit demands it!

    I suppose after Schnitzler and Zweig, I should really read something by Roth next… but not for a while – it's time to read something in English now 🙂


  6. Zweig is great! Thanks for reminding me of the great pieces of literature my mother language has to offer.

    Since you liked Schnitzler's Traumnovelle you might also enjoy Zweig's Brennendes Geheimnis.


  7. I was also thinking my reading of Zweig and Fontane (and I'd like to try Schnitzler at some point as well) would be a little richer (or at least a little more enlightened) if I knew something about psychoanalysis or just a little basic psychology. Zweig is wonderful, though I admit I haven't been as drawn to this novel as his other books–I do have it, though, so will have to dig it out. I'm glad it's possible to get by without any knowledge of chess as that is beyond me! I brought home his little novella Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman from the library today–so am looking forward to reading that next.


  8. Chris – I'm sure I'll be reading a lot more of Zweig, so I'll look out for 'Brennendes Geheimnis' 🙂

    Danielle – The things we do to enjoy books more… 😉

    The only thing I'm worried about with Zweig is that everyone says 'Schachnovelle' (which I loved) is different to his other works. I hope in a good way…


  9. Chess is such a perfect little novella. I love how the game was combined with the politics of the time. It somehow reminded me of Dangerous Moves, a great Oscar-winning movie from Switzerland.


  10. I haven't heard of the film (I haven't heard of most films!), but I do love the game and politics mix in 'Schachnovelle'.

    Still waiting for my next one ('Angst') to arrive 😦


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