"Chess Story" (Original "Schachnovelle", previously published in English as "The Royal Game"), was Stefan Zweig's final work prior to his tragic death. It is a poignant, finely tuned psychological drama that will long linger in the reader's mind.
Chess Story centres around two extraordinary chess players. One is the world champion, Mirko Czentovic, who travels across the world for tournaments. The other is the enigmatic Dr. B., who claims not to have seen a chessboard in more than twenty years. The two are opposites in terms of personality, background and in their paths bringing them to a chance meeting on an ocean liner en route from New York to Buenos Aires. The narrator, who exhibits traits of an aspiring psychologist "passionately interested in monomaniacs", finds his first subject in the twenty-one year old chess prodigy, who otherwise exhibits poor education, intellect, and crude social behaviour. To satisfy his curiosity he instigates a game of chess between Czentovic and a group of "amateur chess lovers". Dr. B. watching the game in passing, is suddenly drawn into it, advising the hapless amateurs so that they reach a draw. His manifest expertise at the game as well as his strange conduct intrigues the narrator as much as the reader.
Using language that is sparse yet precise in detail, the first-person observer, although commenting on the game, is more fascinated by his subjects' personality and psyche. The narrator's inquisitiveness, heightened by Dr. B.'s unusual behaviour, leads him to follow his subject as he hurriedly flees the game room. Out on deck, Dr. B. eventually shares his personal story and recounts the recent harrowing events that forced him abruptly into exile from his native Austria. The narrator becomes at the same time listener and astute analyst. Dr. B.'s account reveals why chess for him has been both a salvation and a danger to his survival: his "involvement" with chess had gone beyond what a person can endure without dangerous consequences for the rest of his life.
Zweig's ability to build emotional tension and drama while keeping his choice of words neutral and objective is superb. The fluidity of language is maintained in the English translation. The story's impact is deepened by Zweig giving the narrator the dual role of audience and commentator. The intensity of the author's fascination with diametrically opposed characters and the clash of cultures they represent is evident throughout the novel. Certain parallels between Dr. B. and Zweig himself come easily to mind. Chess Story conveys a premonition of events occurring in the author's own life. Zweig, a well known and widely read Austrian author of biographies, essays and fiction in the first half of the twentieth century, left behind a remarkable opus of work. He fled Austria in 1935 anticipating the political upheaval in his country resulting from the rise of Nazism in Germany. Shortly after completing the novella in 1942, written during the previous three years, the author and his wife committed suicide while in exile in Brazil. Even after more than sixty years Chess Story remains pertinent today, both in its historical context and its primary subject matter. Peter Gay's informative introduction adds to the understanding of the story's context. [Friederike Knabe]