7 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - The Royal Game

This novella, also known as Chess in a new Penguin edition, is typical Zweig - concerned with self-destructive obsession, acutely observed with unmatched attention to emotional nuance - but it isn't, as many of his stories are, about love, but about intellectual obsession.

As usual, Zweig uses a framing narrative device. The tale is told to the narrator by a man on a cruise, a situation he previously employed in Amok. The encounter occurs because the narrator has lured the world chess champion, also on board, into a challenge chess game against a group of passengers, and Dr B, previously unannounced, interjects with an analysis of the position, forcing a draw, to the surprise of all.

there's a call for him to play a challenge against the champion, which he refuses on the basis that he hasn't played a game of chess in over 20 years. This a shock to the observers, and the narrator tries to get an explanation. Dr B tells his story.

He used to be a lawyer in the old Austrian regime, entrusted with the financial affairs of many senior figures, and when the Nazis invaded, he was arrested and expected to be taken to a concentration camp. Instead, because he was a valuable source of information, he was imprisoned in a cell and subjected to interrogation. One day he manages to steal a book from the pocket of a guard's jacket, left hanging near him. The book turns out to be 150 championship chess games. As he's been starved of intellectual activity for months, he devours the book, game by game, teaching himself how to project the games in his head, learning the games by repetition and playing them to himself.

After a while, this stales - he is just remembering past games, barely exercising his mind, so he tries to play against himself. At first he finds this impossible - after all, the skill in chess is to be able to predict the other person's moves, and if you're playing both sides, how can you both anticipate yet not know what your 'opponent' will play? So he learns how to divide his mind between the two parties. He does this so skilfully that he's able to play games at high speed, flipping from one player to the other in his mind, pacing his cell while he plays incessantly.

The internal game-playing becomes a mania, and in the end he collapses from the mental exhaustion, and is taken to a hospital. He recovers, but is warned against playing chess again, as it might bring on another attack. Nevertheless, he agrees to play against the champion, as a matter of curiosity - he has never tested his self-honed skills in a proper game, never mind against a world master. Almost effortlessly, he wins - the mental calculations come quickly to him, as opposed to the rigorously plodding champion.

He is challenged to a second game, and during this he starts to lose his focus. It turns out that, frustrated by the champion's slow play, he's playing other games simultaneously in his mind. This pushes him towards a crisis, just averted by the narrator.

This is a very late Zweig - published the year before his death - and is one of the best of his novellas. The intensity of intellectual obsession leading to madness reminded me of the Aronofsky film Pi, and the scenes in the cell of Darkness at Noon, which I've recently reread. As usual with Zweig, the emotional descriptions are precise, and most of the action internal, and the effect powerful.


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