Leo Carey has written the “A Critic at Large” piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about Stefan Zweig, five of whose books we have published: Chess Story, Beware of Pity, The Post-Office Girl, Journey Into the Past, and most recently, Confusion. Here’s Carey on Chess Story, considered one of his best novellas.
In Chess Story a group of men on an ocean liner bound for South America find that a great chess master is abroad and form a team to play him. At first, he easily defeats them; then, during a rematch, a stranger appears and prevents the opponents from making a disastrous move. The stranger takes control and manages to force a draw. Later, he tells the narrator his story: an Austrian lawyer, he was arrested by the Nazis, interrogated, and kept in solitary confinement. To while away the hours, he memorized a compendium of great chess games and played them in his head. He progressed to playing the games against himself, splitting his mind down the middle, the stress of which brought him close to a breakdown. The next day, on the ship, he beats the chess master, but between moves he starts to pace, his steps marking out the dimensions of his former cell. The chess master, noticing that his opponent becomes discomposed when he is forced to wait, exploits this weakness in their second match. As he draws out his moves to unendurable lengths, the stranger appears to enter into a feverish combat with himself.
He finishes his description of the book by writing: “This is melodrama, but of a very high order—the tension of the narrative rising inexorably with the stranger’s gathering psychosis.”