One of my favourite authors, this is Zweig’s last work and probably his most well-known – at least in German speaking Europe. Written just before he and his wife committed suicide while in exile from the Nazis in Brazil, Schachnovelle tells the story of a chess game on board a liner from New York to Argentina between Czentovic, the current world chess champion and the mysterious Dr. B, who claims not to have played chess since school, but who nonetheless proves more than an equal match for Czentovic.
While on board a ship from New York to Buenos Aires, the Austrian narrator discovers that the current world chess champion, Czentovic is on board. Czentovic, from a poor peasant background, with no education and no apparent intellectual prowess apart from his ability to play chess, has managed to beat all his more intellectually endowed rivals. Despised and ridiculed for his lack of education, culture and intellectual abilities, he is anti-social and boorish and has no qualms about making as much money as possible from his one skill.
Enticed by the offer of $250 from a Scotsman called McConnor, Czentovic agrees to play a chess game against a group of several passengers, treating his opponents with a great deal of contempt in the process. In the midst of one game, when all is about to be lost, in steps Dr. B. who manages to rescue the game in as far as is possible and the game ends in stalemate.
When asked by the narrator how he plays chess so well, Dr. B informs him that soon after the Anschluss he was imprisoned by the Gestapo. Regarded as a valuable prisoner with vital information on the whereabouts of hidden assets of both the Catholic Church and of members of the Austrian aristocracy, the Gestapo opt to subject him to a specific form of psychological torture – sensory deprivation. He is placed in a hotel room with nothing to occupy his mind – no books, no paper, and no human interaction. As he slowly goes out of his mind and about to break down and confess all to the Gestapo, he finds salvation in a chess manual he chances upon stuffed in a coat pocket hanging in the waiting room while waiting to be interrogated. At first disappointed that it’s just a manual on chess, his starved mind and imagination soon devour each of the 150 games and he spends his solitary confinement going through each of the games in the book until he knows every move off by heart. Eventually bored with this, he borders on schizophrenia by going on to play each game against himself managing to separate himself in his mind into two different people. The psychological stress of doing this eventually leads to a mental breakdown and, thanks to the intervention of a kindly physician, eventual freedom from his Gestapo tormentors.
Though ostensibly about a chess game, you don’t need to know anything about chess. This proved handy for me as I’ve only ever played the game three times. Zweig is basically pitching old Europe – the Europe of Zweig, cultured and educated in the form of the aristocratic Dr. B. against new Europe, Czentovic who can barely read or write.
In Die Welt von Gestern (World of Yesterday) Zweig notes that until the Nazi period, it was generally felt that society was always aiming to improve itself and become a better place to live. Zweig grew up in an Austria whose culture was flourishing. It was the Austria of Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Kafka, Roth, Horvath, Schnitzel, Musil, Mahler and Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and Freud; and where intellectual thoughts and ideas were discussed and debated, only to be replaced by the brutal cultural barbarism of the Nazis. It must have been gut-wrenching for Zweig to see the cultured and highly educated German speaking world he had grown up in and flourish turn into the brutish Third Reich.
During the final game with Czentovic, it looks at first as if Dr. B has the upper hand. However, Czentovic soon gets the measure of him and using underhand tactics manages to unnerve Dr B. The narrator realises that playing chess is leading Dr B. back to the brink of madness. Dr B., already unnerved by Czentovic’s tactics, makes a false move and then decides to walk away from the game deciding to hang on to his sanity instead.
Given that this story was published shortly before Zweig and his wife took their own lives in despair at what was happening throughout Europe, what is the story’s message? Maybe it is that in the battle between old Europe and new Europe, new Europe is winning and the only way to retain your sanity is to walk away from the fight. Trying to beat it will ultimately lead to madness or death. Zweig had seen at first-hand what had taken place in the old Europe. In 1922 he had been travelling with Walther Rathenau along the very same route on which a week later this able German politician would be assassinated. He had seen how Hitler had managed to get the better of his would-be and supposedly more adept puppet masters such as von Papen; and how the lumbering Stalin had removed his more intellectual adversary Trotsky; how culture, education, wit, finesse and to use a good German word Geist (mind, intellect, spirit) was apparently no match for the bludgeoning brutality of Nazism.
However you choose to decipher the message, Schachnovelle is a good story told well and simply. If you have never read Zweig before, it’s a great place to start.