Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game"

Joan Acocella has a very interesting essay about Stefan Zweig in The New York Review of Books.

In the 1920s and 1930s Stefan Zweig was an immensely popular writer, a man who had to barricade himself in his house in Salzburg in order to avoid the fans lurking around his property in the hope of waylaying him. According to his publisher, he was the most widely translated author in the world. Today, while he is still read in Germany and also in France, his name is barely known to the average Anglophone reader. In the last few decades, however, there has been an effort on the part of several publishers to get Zweig back into print in English. In my opinion, no book of his deserves reissue more than his one novel, Beware of Pity (Ungeduld des Herzens, 1938).

Zweig was a friend and admirer of Sigmund Freud, his fellow Viennese, and it was no doubt Freud's writings, together with the experience of two world wars, that persuaded him of the fundamental irrationalism of the human mind. Absolutely central to his fiction is the subject of obsession. And so it is with Beware of Pity. To my knowledge, this book is the first sustained fictional portrait of emotional blackmail based on guilt.

I haven't read Beware of Pity but I have read Zweig's brilliant novella, The Royal Game, (or Chess Story, in the new translation of the original Schachnovelle) and highly recommend it.

In fact, much of what Acocella says about Beware of Pity rings true of The Royal Game, and the novella may be a better work with which a new reader might get acquainted with Zweig.

From the publisher:

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.

Travelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig's story.

Some regard Zweig's novella and Nabokov's The Defense as typical accounts of a strong link between chess and obsessive madness. Not Garry Kasparov:
This myth of the introverted chessplayer has a fine pedigree, but it's a myth nonetheless. Great authors like Nabokov and Zweig created misanthropic chess masters that stay in our memory thanks to the skill of their creators. Bits and pieces may have come from reality, but only the most depressing and extreme exceptions receive attention. The vast majority of chessplayers are social, friendly, and no more likely to jump out a window than a stock broker or salesman. I certainly consider myself a member of that majority and have no interest in propagating the myth of the "reclusive chess genius." I've never met one; but I was just nine years old when Bobby Fischer left serious chess.
Missed the link for Acocella's essay on Zweig's Beware of Pity? Click here.

Looking for other recommended novellas? Click here.

--Marshal Zeringue