A Game of Chess and Other Stories
by Stefan Zweig (translated by Peter James Bowman)
Alma Classics: 320pp.: £4.99
Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, which was discussed recently, proved that there is no estimating the if and when an artist will receive their due recognition, considering that Sebastian has been translated into English 82 years after original publication. This discussion continues to an extent here with Stefan Zweig.
One must be wary though of being ethno-centric, and it points to the problem of ‘generalising’ and measuring success; even though the world’s languages may be homogenising, with several languages becoming universal mediators, we’re becoming inclined to think that anything outside of that linguistic sphere is not worthy. For instance, although we might think Hollywood as the pinnacle of the film industry, its takings are eclipsed by India’s Bollywood, yet it doesn’t have much of a market over here. Language, as Wittgenstein said, really is the limits of our world.
Zweig’s fate was arguably completely opposite to that of Sebastian’s. Zweig parallels somebody like Dickens, in that he was enormously successful in his lifetime, and was reportedly one of the first ‘star authors’. Zweig’s death was treated with the attention and opprobrium that our celebrities and stars receive today. The man was globally known and traveled, fleeing his homeland of Austria, once the Nazis invaded.
But all this is well known; one only has to do a quick Google search to find this out. It’s worth mentioning however, because where his home may have been decimated, the world eventually became his home, finally ending up in Brazil before his death by suicide. Like Dickens though, the equation of fame and artistry does not necessarily mean quality is discounted. Popular can still be artful. And like Dickens Zweig almost disappeared, left in the annals along with many authors who were victim to the rapid modernisation that the second world war brought, quickly becoming outdated and out of tune.
The problem and accusation levelled at Zweig seemed to be that he didn’t really ‘have anything to say’. Nicolas Lezard in the Guardian has written about how when Zweig came to London he wouldn’t comment on the Third Reich, saying that constant denunciations wore themselves out by repetition. Any maybe they do, but as a man from Vienna, Zweig will have known that not having anything to say is not the same as not wanting to say anything.
Of course the advent of film means that books and authors can suddenly see their name subject to guerrilla marketing, being branded across film posters and bus-sides, and recently Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) drew from Zweig’s life and works. Anderson was unashamed in his admiration of Zweig, claiming to have plagiarised him, and certainly Zweig’s presence is felt throughout, both physically and spectrally, appearing at first as a bronze monument, and then a potential character in what had become a drab hotel, relaying the glory years to another writer.
Different levels and stories within stories is certainly Zweig’s influence even though Anderson’s film probably says more about film than it does about Zweig (as film always does, closer to Nolan’s Inception maybe?). Zweig never published a novel (Beware of Pity comes closest), but Zweig was concerned with the story. Alma have republished four of them, including his final one before his death. All of these effectively involve a narrative framed within another narrative.
There is reason to see why Zweig might have faded out of critical quarters. The most apocryphal a stories’ title gets is ‘The Invisible Collection’, and almost seem purposefully dull and suggest they’re catering for a particular audience at a particular time. A world that has witnessed its second war and one of the worst humanity crimes in history might not be so hooked by something like this:
“Two stations beyond Dresden, an elderly gentleman entered out compartment, made a polite general greeting and then, raising his eyes, nodded to me in particular as if to a firm acquaintance”
Pre-war, diminishing Victorian social mores would likely to, and did respond to this, but it looks quickly antiquated.
Quality and commercialism are not necessarily polar opposites. George Orwell began a resurgence of Dickens and he hasn’t been forgotten since. To understand the importance of Zweig is again, is to understanding the idea of having and resisting to say something. Zweig was in tune with his world ; he traveled, conversed and was from one of the great cultural hotspots of its time, where as already mentioned, Freud, and the likes of Mann were working, liaising and arguing.
And so beneath this tempered prose, his embellishment is perhaps a kind of repression threatening to break through: Zweig is an adept psychologist as much as he is a writer. Take “24 Hours in a Woman’s Life”. It’s reportage like, first person account, a clinical, yet casual mise-en-scéne of a well-ordered society (as they usually are). In a guest-house on the Italian Riveria, the narrator who could be Zweig (who could always be Zweig), is witnessing a discussion almost boil over into an argument. There are several different nationalities and types of people in the guest-house, but there is at least one thing that unites them all:
“Thus it was the day in our thoroughly bourgeois group of regular diners, who otherwise stuck to innocuous small talk and mild little pleasantries and usually went their separate ways after the meal was over: the German couple to their excursions and amateur photography, the portly Dane to his tedious angling, the refined English lady to her books, the Italian couple to their escapades in Monte Carlo, and I lolling in the garden chair or to my work.”
These are not stories about stories, and even though it does tell us many things about the guest-house, it inadvertently tells us something about the narrator. It is ironic, yet not self-conscious, and the author is unconscious of themselves if anything. It’s a mine of details. Look at those telling Jamesian modifiers; ‘thoroughly bourgeois‘; tedious angling’; ‘refined English lady’. . All this is blown apart when one of the wives runs away with a mysterious Frenchman that had just been staying at the guest-house. But it is the refined English lady that becomes the focal point. The lid is lifted, and whatever desires those people have been suppressing in order to maintain the society are unscrewed and dispersed.
Zweig is able to observe it acutely from that bourgeois position- “The testiness began, I think, with both of the married men instinctively wanting to dismiss the possibility that such perils and abasement might befall their own wives”– naturally. Harlot and wanton most of them describe the woman’s infidelity, but the English lady supports the woman’s actions and in turn, relays her repressed secret. It takes one to know one.
The narrator though describes the husband’s meltdown as “it’s natural that all this, striking like lightning before our very eyes…” and this image of lightning recurs throughout the stories, as both a physical and metaphysical phenomenon. But note the use of ‘natural’ as well. There is a constant feeling that, although on the surface life may be natural and normal, but either beneath or beyond, there always something supernatural, superhuman threatening to break through.
Although a story is not literally re-told in ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, it is effectively a failure of this, when language is a barrier rather than a bridge. And again, it has that less than emphatic title and opening, yet there is something threatening to disturb the normal order; in this case a “a curious object on the surface of the water”. This object transpires to be a Russian man, and again we have the image of somebody fleeing, pertinently adding to the contemporaneity.
The man has left his war-stricken homeland, but has no recourse to language. Here is also where Zweig deploys his ability to evoke the swift, fickle changes in human emotion and perception:
“Without moving, the fugitive gazed after him, and the farther off the one person who knew his language went, the more the brightness that had entered his countenance faded away”.
Hope then despair in a breath.
It is about perception though, literal becoming metaphoric as is the case with the ‘curious object’ above. The gaze attaches to something and inadvertently transforms and becomes transformed in itself. This is why Zweig is a thoroughly modern writer and perhaps indicates why there was an academic abandonment of him at the turn of postmodernity, narratives and meta-narratives, rather than the humble story itself.
‘The Invisible Collection’ has a melancholic feel as an antiquarian art dealer in search of more stock goes through the list of his old customers and visits one he knows to have prints of Rembrandt and Duras. Following his trail he arrives at another provincial, rich setting “full of petty-bourgeoise junk”. The collector is blind, and believing that he still has these prints, his daughters actually sold them during the war to generate some income, but replaced them with blank sheets of paper. Obviously he cannot buy these prints now, so he becomes complicit in the deception. Upon meeting the man however, he states:
“Ever since childhood I have always felt ill at ease in the presence of the sightless. I can never get over a sort of shame and embarrassment at perceiving a living person in front of me and knowing that he cannot perceive me in the same way.”
Perception doesn’t happen in the eyes but in the brain, and they don’t just happen, they are constructed with more than just visual stimuli. Look how the man on the surface was at first an object. What goes on beneath visual perception? Is the mind that feeds it sanctity or sanatorium? Noble in a quest for truth or just another layer of deception? The stories seem to culminate in suggesting the latter to those questions, in the long, final story ‘A Game of Chess’.
Back on the water, a cruise-ship bound for Buenos Aires. The narrator sees a frenzy of photographers and media frenzy around the world chess champion Mirko Czentovic. Ironically, while the inner workings has been something of intrigue, and knowing that Chess Grand-masters are usually highly intelligent people with an ability to process and anticipate many moves ahead in advance, Czentovic “cannot even write a single, properly spelt sentence in any language”.
The language barriers means that the narrator cannot approach the Grand-master for a game, but attracted by his enigma, he lures him into a game by setting up a chess table, a ‘primitive trap’. He observes that Chess, “as in love, a partner is indispensable”. There it is again, the unacknowledged begging to be acknowledged, much like love but also like war, no? This is what makes Zweig’s writings modern and important; the internal battle beneath the external one, the dialectic of mind and madness, and what can and cannot be suppressed. Are these really the stories of characters Zweig meets or just his need to expel a story, tell a lie with a lie and choosing what not to say?
In ‘Chess’ the importance of within probably presides and why it takes a darker, ulterior tone, and more obviously. What happens externally though is that the narrator teams up with a Scottish man also travelling on the boat, who, thanks to his insatiable competitive desire, they continue to play him, and eventually, with the help of a mercurial stranger, earn a draw. As a result they want to set-up a game with the Austrian stranger and Czentovic, but when the man refuses claiming not to have sat at a chess-board in twenty-five years, it takes another therapeutic offloading before he will sit for a game.
He reveals that when the German’s swept through Austria he was tortured for information by being left in a room that was completely bare, and nothing to stimulate the mind. As a way of combatting the solitude, the man, after stealing one of the guard’s books (a collection of one hundred championship matches moves and results), recreates in his mind, games of chess. He does it to alleviate the torture but it becomes a form of torture in itself, as he states that it is a ‘logical absurdity’ to play chess against oneself, to split and deceive ones own mind:
“If black and white are one and the same person, a preposterous situation is produced in which a single mind is supposed both to know something and not to know it, so that its white self should, by self-command, forget all the aims and intentions of its black self a minute earlier.”
Whether it is actually impossible or not to deceive your self would require a life-work mediation, but even though we constantly tell lies to ourselves a part of us knows the truths. This is Zweig at his best. Constantly, cognitive scientists tell us how the mind is like a computer, but a computer lacks the essential part and essence – consciousness – it’s exceptional mystery but also its folly. Why is the brain the only part of the human anatomy that is said to work like something else rather than the other way round? Regardless, the black and the white are of the same body, the dark underside to existence.
Like the denouement of Anderson’s film suggest, beneath all the beauty, artistry and wonder, there is the dark-side that even the greatest minds don’t want to acknowledge at times, yet even when they don’t, it leaks through. Zweig’s compatriot and friend, Freud, understood this. You can see the global tragedy behind the veneer of fiction, and when Zweig finally acknowledged it, he embraced it tragically.
Thank you to Alma for providing a review copy.