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Chess Story [Paperback]

Stefan Zweig , Peter Gay , Joel Rotenberg
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Dec 9 2005 New York Review Books Classics
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.

This new translation of Chess Story brings out the work's unusual mixture of high suspense and poignant reflection.

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Review

"[Zweig is a] writer who understands perfectly the life he is describing, and who has great analytic gifts . . . . He has achieved the very considerable feat of inventing, in his description of the game of chess, a metaphor for the terribly grim game he is playing with his Nazi tormentors . . . the case history here is no longer that of individuals; it is the case history of Europe." —Stephen Spender, The New York Review of Books

"Always [Zweig] remains essentially the same, revealing in all . . . mediums his subtlety of style, his profound psychological knowledge and his inherent humaneness." —Barthold Fles, The New Republic

"Zweig possesses a dogged psychological curiosity, a brutal frankness, a supreme impartiality . . . [a] concentration of talents." —Herbert Gorman, The New York Times Book Review

"His writing reveals his sympathy for fellow human beings." —Ruth Franklin, London Review of Books

About the Author

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), novelist, biographer, poet, and translator, was born in Vienna into a wealthy Austrian Jewish family. During the 1930s, he was one of the best-selling writers in Europe, and was among the most translated German-language writers before the Second World War. With the rise of Nazism, he moved from Salzburg to London (taking British citizenship), to New York, and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife. New York Review Books has published Zweig’s novels The Post-Office Girl and Beware of Pity as well as the novella Chess Story.

Peter Gay is Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He wrote Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815–1914.

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First Sentence
ON THE great passenger steamer, due to depart New York for Buenos Aires at midnight, there was the usual last-minute bustle and commotion. Read the first page
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Salvation and Curse April 5 2008
By Friederike Knabe TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
"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.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Salvation and Curse Feb. 17 2008
By Friederike Knabe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"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]
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No escape from pain July 7 2008
By Arona K. Henderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As summarized by another reviewer, the story takes place on a cruise ship en route from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941. The world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, is on board. Czentovic is a chess prodigy who is singularly ungifted in other areas of the intellect and social graces. Also on board is Dr. B, a former solicitor for the Austrian imperial family who is traveling to South America as a refugee from the Nazi regime.
At the outset, considering Czentovic's isolated and emotionally deprived childhood, I was prepared to allow him his arrogance and conceit. Acknowledged, he was a master at chess and his boorish behavior could be excused. When Dr. B becomes peripherally involved in the chess match and exhibits a mastery of moves, it becomes clear that this man has somehow or other been absorbed into the exalted realm of chess. As his story unfolds, the reader enters the world of isolation and solitary that Dr. B endured at the hands of his Nazi tormenters. Zweig is so masterful at the depiction of the incarceration and the man's mental salvation through the game of chess that we as readers are carried along so forcibly that we leave the confines of our homes for the world of Dr. B. Every emotion he experienced, every racing of his pulse, every fearful moment, his ultimate dissociation of his personality and his breakdown are experienced by the reader. The descriptions are powerful and cause a visceral reaction that is astonishing. As I was reading, I started to note a racing pulse and sweating and a sense of uncontrollable foreboding. As the story raced to its conclusion, I had the urge to shout, "Halt! Don't play again!" I wept when I set the book down. The tears were for Dr. B, all of the victims of the Nazi carnage and perhaps also a reaction to what came to pass, the suicide of the author. This gem of a small book explores and disturbs the human psyche like no other.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chess poisoning Oct. 18 2010
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This long story is called a `novella' in the original version. It is one of Zweig's most famous works, and rightly so. I am not Zweig's hottest fan, but this text is blameless.
Chess provides the frame for the story, but the core is something else: the fight for survival and sanity under psychological torture.
The hero of the story is Dr.B, from a well known Austrian family connected to church and court circles. Dr.B had worked as a lawyer dealing in asset management, which meant in the 1930s: hiding wealth from the rapacious claws of the Nazis. After the Nazis take over Austria, Dr.B is among the first arrestees, but he is not submitted to camp treatment. Rather he is put under a kind of luxurious isolation torture and also patiently and time-consumingly interrogated about the whereabouts of his clients' assets.
Luckily he finds a book with 150 chess cases, which keeps him sane for some months. After he has replayed all the 150 matches countless times, he dives deeper and deeper into chess and finally submits to a mental breakdown, following months of playing chess in his mind against himself.
He becomes useless to his captors and is let go. He emigrates.

The story finds him on a steamer from NY to Buenos Aires, where he meets our narrator. Now we are into present tense chess. The star on the ship is the current chess world champion, a youngish and boorish man from Hungary. A wealthy chess amateur from the US is willing to pay the champion for games on board. Dr.B accidentally stumbles into the scene and interferes in a match. He shocks the champion and surprises the others. He accepts the challenge to play `just one' match against the champion, the next day.
In the meantime he tells his story to the narrator, and we also learn that he is under medical instruction not to play chess any more, for the sake of his mental health. Imagine something like Chess-aholics Anonymous.
A perfect story. The chess matches on the ship are a suitable frame for the captivity and interrogation scenes. The language is simple and tense, very suitable for the purpose.

(Personally I can relate to the poisoning, if obviously not under the same harsh conditions. As a student I tried to use chess for relaxation during exam times, but that was a disastrous idea. I gave it up and started playing darts.)
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They write books about chess now? Oct. 31 2008
By Ian Gazarek - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I haven't read a book I liked this much in a long time. At 80 pages, it's hard not to want to analyze more into it than was actually intended, but the dichotomies of black-and-white chess pieces, and the clearly opposed characters of the traumatized intelligent Dr. B and his boot-clad half-imbecile opponent Czentovic, seem to invite nationalism and allegory.

Peter Gay's introduction claims that critics often fault Zweig for holding his cards to close to his chest. His characters, who Freud lo...more I haven't read a book I liked this much in a long time. At 80 pages, it's hard not to want to analyze more into it than was actually intended, but the dichotomies of black-and-white chess pieces, and the clearly opposed characters of the traumatized intelligent Dr. B and his boot-clad half-imbecile opponent Czentovic, seem to invite nationalism and allegory.

Peter Gay's introduction claims that critics often fault Zweig for holding his cards to close to his chest. His characters, who Freud loved, are broad-stroked mysteries, impeccably flawed. They may be consistent, but there are details that may be expected in literature that Zweig chooses to leave out.

It's not enough to hamper my enjoyment of this book. After reading so much dense material this year, this book was such a treat. However, it reminded me of "No Country For Old Men" in that the simplicity of the story hid the fact that the characters are powerhouses, twisted and real.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Thrilling Read Feb. 17 2013
By Erez Davidi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This wonderful short novel takes place aboard a ship heading to South America in post WWII. On the ship, there is the chess world champion Mirko Czentovic, who is challenged by an amateur chess player to a match. After a few losses, a spectator, who goes by the name of Dr. B. and hasn't played chess in more than 20 years, comes to the help of the amateur and is able to draw the game. This surprise result raises the question as to how Dr. B. was able to draw a game with the world chess champion. The battle of the giants between Mirko Czentovic and the mysterious Dr. B. is scheduled for the next day.

As with Zweig's other novels, this is a thrilling psychological read in which Zweig explores the wild emotions of the human mind.
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