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!