Review: Schachnovelle/ Chess

First things first, sorry if I confused you with my August in Books post, that was from last year, and I was only trying to edit some posts that I imported from Vox, but I think it showed up in readers. Sorry! Is there any way to do this without having them pop up in feeds etc?

Anyway, on to the review. There is something very intense and satisfying about reading a novella. Schachnovelle (translated as Chess and sometimes as The Royal Game) by Stefan Zweig is even called novella (Schachnovelle = chess novella) and it is a dark tale about psychological abyss.

Schachnovelle tells the story of the chess game between Czentovic, a slow and almost robot-like champion, and Dr. B, who claims not to have played since school, but who is nonetheless able to keep the chess champion on his toes. Intrigued, the I-narrator asks Dr. B to tell him how he came to be such a formidable chess player without having played in years. And Dr. B tells him about being imprisoned by the Gestapo, about spending months in a room without anything to occupy him, in other words about the torture of sensory deprivation. By chance he finds a chess manual and reads it over and over again, at some point starting to play the game against himself in his mind. He becomes obsessed with chess, and suffers from chess fever, as a doctor calls it, and is warned not to play ever again. But then on the ship, he plays one last time, against the champion Czentovic, to test himself. Only the narrator and the reader are aware of the magnitude of this game.

What Zweig depicts in this novella is not the mass-murder the Nazis committed, but the psychological torture that the individual suffers. The isolation and sensory deprivation that Dr.B is put through is at the heart of the story, and Zweig manages to make this story within a story darkly chilling and very intense. He easily conveys the horror of the psychological terror Dr. B suffers, and the relief he experiences when he finally finds something to read, even if it is only a chess manual. While reading this story, I kept wondering if sensory deprivation  would be even worse for us, who live in a time where we are constantly overloaded with input. Would we lose our minds more quickly? The absence of stimuli tends to make me very nervous, and I know that wherever I am, I always look for words and text. The horror of what was done to Dr. B is perhaps that it might appear like nothing was done to him, that he was lucky compared to those who suffered physical torture. But Schachnovelle attests that Dr. B’s isolation affected him so deeply, that it ruins his life. The chess game between him and Czentovic at the end is a nerve-wreaking show-down. Zweig makes opponents of two very different types, one quick, nervous and creative and the other achingly slow and lethargic.

Stefan Zweig was a brilliant Austrian writer who went into exile in Brazil when the Nazis took power. He committed suicide together with his wife in 1942. He has written several great novellas, Amok is especially satisfying.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

18 thoughts on “Review: Schachnovelle/ Chess

  1. Lovely review, Bina! I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. I love chess, and this story looks quite powerful. Being deprived of sensory stimuli must make things quite tough for a person. I can’t imagine being inside a room not having anything to do. When my internet connection goes down, my hand starts itching and that is the exact time I want to use the internet 🙂 But I also remember reading somewhere that all of us have enough memories to think about and re-run in our mind for a lifetime and we don’t need anything else.

    Reading your review made me remember the chess scenes from ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ when two of the characters discuss about the Alekhine vs Bogolyubov game, when Alekhine sacrifices both his rooks.

    Have you read Vladimir Nabokov’s book ‘The Luzhin Defence’ (which is also a novel based on chess)?

    1. I dn’t know how to play chess, but it’s always so fascinating to read about it, thanks for the Nabokov suggestion! 🙂 Ah yes, Ithink I remember the scene from Nighttrain. Chess always adds mystery and metaphor and knowledge to stories.

      That sounds interesting about memories which can sustain us! Can we really live off memories . . . haha I need to research that! 🙂
      I have the same feelings when I’m without internet, it feels like one’s cut off from the world!

      1. On chess – I feel that the basic game is not very difficult. We need to just know how to move the pieces and how to trap the king of the opponent. The strategies for doing this are complex though. There is a book called ‘The Immortal Game : A History of Chess’ by David Shenk. If you are interested, you can try reading that. It is quite fascinating.

  2. Wow, sounds like a truly fascinating book that examines an important topic. I think you are right that sensory deprivation might be much worse these days.

    1. It is so fascinating, why wasn’t I assigned this in school? 😉 Hope you’ll like this novella! I guess being wothout internet, like Vishy pointed out, is already too much of a deprivation for us today.

  3. Wonderful review Bina! This book has been on my radar since last year.

    I think I would lose my mind very quickly if I have got nothing to do, but I’m not afraid of isolation. 🙂

  4. What a dark read and the thought of sensory deprivation is frightening, especially when you put it in the context of being without words…. Too damning uncomfortable. I’d be inclined to lose myself from a reality if this were to occur. What a sad ending for the author and his wife… that alone should be written up in a book.

    1. Zweig’s life was really sad in the end, he couldn’t get oublished in Austria and Germany, and he basically lost faith in society and people.

      This is qute dark, but oh so powerful. Not to be missed! 🙂

  5. Wow, now this stirs up memories as I had to read this back in school. I can hardly remember everything, but your lovely review has brought it back to me. I think I might have to dig up this little treasure and read it again.

    1. Ah unfair! I never read this one in school! Glad you’re considering a reread, and then you can tell me whoich leitmotifs etc I missed 😉

    2. Ah unfair! I never read this one in school! Glad you’re considering a reread, and then you can tell me which leitmotifs etc I missed 😉

  6. Great review ! I have heard a lot about this book and about the brilliance of its theme. You just reinforced all of that. War experiences are mostly dark, but what constitutes the chilling element in this book is that we don’t see anything happening bodily to Dr. B. The damage is all in his psyche. And that is very scary. Phew, I must read this.

  7. I’ve heard so many good things about Zweig, but I’m still working up the nerve to read him. I tend to avoid WWII stuff, and his life story is so depressing I imagine his book will be too.

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