Monday, April 28, 2008

It's how you play the game (Chess Story by Stefan Zweig)

Unlike some of the victims of the Nazis, Stefan Zweig and his wife escaped Austria in 1938, going first to London and then to Brazil where they later committed committed suicide, having experienced one of the ultimate betrayals - that of the culture they loved, a culture many considered the paragon of intellectual, emotional and artistic progressiveness at the dawn of the twentieth century. This was in fact the fate of my own great-grandfather. He committed suicide, never leaving Germany. Having served his country in the First World War and loving so deeply the spirit of all things German - exemplified by its thinkers, its artists like Goethe and Beethoven -once Germany killed what made those things symbols of the greatness of the human spirit, he no longer had anything to live for. The ultimate victim of the Nazis was Germany itself which, in trying to rid itself of what it considered not 'purely' German, actually robbed itself of the very qualities that made that Germaness great.

Stefan Zweig's novella Chess Story (recommended by both John Self and Verbivore) considers the relationship of two men to the game of chess. One a lawyer, a Dr. B. from Vienna, whose family's practice served the clergy and the family of the monarchy. When Hitler marched in Vienna, he is arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in isolation for months in the effort to extract money or information that the Nazis could use against threats to their power.

Locking each of us into a total vacuum, a room hermetically sealed off from the outside world, instead of beating us or exposing us to cold - this was meant to create an internal pressure that would finally force our lips open. At first glance the room assigned to me did not seem at all uncomfortable. It had a door, a bed, a chair, a washbasin, a barred window. But the door stayed locked day and night, no book, no newspaper, no sheet of paper or pencil was permitted to be on the table, the window faced a firewall; complete nothingness surrounded me both physically and psychologically... I never saw a human face, never heard a human voice; my eyes, my ears, all my senses received not the slightest stimulation from morning till night, from night till morning, all the time you were hopelessly alone with yourself, with your body, and with these four or five mute objects, table, bed, window, washbasin; you live like a diver in a diving bell in the black sea of this silence, for that matter like a diver who has guessed that the cable to the outside world has snapped and that he will never be hauled out of the silent deep.

What saves Dr. B. after months in this state? One day while he is waiting for his next interrogation:

I went on waiting and waiting and stared at the door, wondering when it would finally open and what the inquisitors might ask this time, though I knew that what they asked would be quite different from anything I was preparing for. Yet in spite of everything the agony of this waiting and standing was at the same time a relief, a pleasure, because this room was at least different from mine, somewhat larger and with two windows instead of one, without the bed and without the washbasin and without that particular crack in the windowsill that I had looked at a million times. The door was painted a different color, there was a different chair against the wall and to the left of it a file cabinet with files and a coatrack with hangers on which three or four damp military coats were hanging, the coats of my tormentors. So I had something fresh, something different to look at with my ravenous eyes, something new at last, and they clutched avidly at every detail. I examined every crease in those coats, I noticed for example a raindrop hanging from one of the wet collars, and, as ridiculous as it may sound to you, I waited with absurd excitement to see whether this drop would eventually run off along the crease, or whether it would defy gravity and keep clinging - yes, I stared and stared at that drop breathlessly for minutes on end as though my life depended on it. Then, when it had finally rolled off, I counted th buttons on the coats over again, eight on one, eight on another, ten on the third, and compared the lapels once more; my voracious eyes touched, caressed, embraced all these ridiculous, trivial details with a hunger I am unable to describe. And suddenly my gaze was riveted on something. I had discovered a slight bulge in the side pocket of one of the coats. I moved closer and thought I knew from the rectangular shape of the bulge what was in this slightly swollen pocket: a book! My knees began to shake: BOOK!
It is a book of chess games of the masters, and in his remaining months of confinement, Dr. B's sanity hangs on having his mind, his soul engaged by some source of stimulation.

The other man, Czentovic, is an ignorant young orphan, raised by a rural pastor, who masters the game of chess at 15 by watching others play and:
At seventeen he had already won a dozen prizes, at eighteen the Hungarian Championship, and at twenty he was champion of the world. The most audacious grandmasters, every one of them infinitely superior to him in intellectual gifts, imagination, and daring, fell to his cold and inexorable logic as Napoleon to the ponderous Kutuzov or Hannibal to Fabius Cunctator (who, according to Livy's report, displayed similar conspicuous traits of phlegm and imbecility in childhood). Thus it happened that the illustrious gallery of chess champions, including among their number the most varied types of superior intellect - philosopher, mathematicians, people whose natural talents were computational, imaginative, often creative - was for the first time invaded by a total outsider to the intellectual world, a dull, taciturn peasant lad, from whom even the craftiest newspaper men were never able to coax a single word of any journalistic value...

...Like all headstrong types, Czentovic had not sense of the ridiculous; ever since his triumph in the world tournament, he considered himself the most important man in the world, and the awareness that he had beaten all these clever, intellectual, brilliant speakers and writers on their own ground, and above all the evident fact that he made more money than they did, transformed his original lack of self-confidence into a cold pride that for the most part he did not trouble to hide.
Embodied in Zweig's brief masterpiece we have Germany as the exemplar of intellectual, moral and creative life lost to Germany as a mindless machine run by an idiot savant, lacking all spirit or compassion. The first betrayed by the second at the cost of millions of lives and the deadening of humanity in, some would say, not just Germany, but the entire world as it was touched by the devastation left behind in the wake of the War.

Zweig also succeeds in creating a tremendous amount of suspense in this volume of scarcely 90 pages. I felt remiss in not having read Zweig before now and found this an inventive story. I am looking forward to reading more of the few works he left behind.


Anonymous said...

A terrific review and of course a beautiful edition as always by NYRB Classics. For more Zweig I particularly recommend his story Twilight, which in the UK is published along with Moonbeam Alley in a small volume by Pushkin Press. I'm not sure of its availability in the US.

Ted said...

John - Thank you. And thanks for the great recommendation, Yes, it is a beautiful edition. I don't know if the edition you mention is available here in the U.S. - I'll have to check that out.

Anonymous said...

I've not read Zweig, but if you and verbivore recommend it, then it must be time. Your reviews are wonderful, by the way. Substantial, fluid, fun. Thanks!

Ted said...

TJ - Thanks. This was my introduction to Zweig, and a good one it was.

Anonymous said...

It's been recommended to me and I've got it somewhere in the pile. Your wonderful review of it will for sure make me get to read it sooner. :)

Ted said...

Matt - I'd like to hear your take on it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing such substantial samples from the text - reminds me how much I enjoyed this on my first read and that I think it's time to sit down and read it again.