Friday, September 16

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

In the introduction, and in other reviews, I read a lot about how Stefan Zweig's stories reflect an amazing grasp of human nature. This is my first Zweig - it was recommended to me as his best by a colleague - so maybe it's unrepresentative, but I found Chess Story's characters to be no more than simplistic wind-up dolls. For me, Zweig's story worked much better as a fable or an allegory than as a depiction of human nature.

Take the book's somewhat antagonist, for example: Czentovic is a single-minded, churlish simpleton who cares only for the prestige and money which arise from his uncanny ability at chess. He is egomaniacal and disinterested in others, until he is challenged by Dr. B aboard a ship bound for the Americas. Czentovic's almost polar opposite, Dr. B is self-effacing and timid; he has to be persuaded to play against the master, and, though clearly intelligent, has not played chess for 20 years. His chilling story, about his traumatic imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis and the genesis of his obsession with chess, forms the core of the story.

Neither of these characters are at all realistic, despite the psychologist narrator's eagerness to theorise about what kind of people they are and what drives them. The narrator - who the introduction suggests is a stand-in for the author - succumbs to a psychological determinism common to armchair psychologists: the idea that each person has a core, knowable 'self' which determines their behaviour, and that if you understand that 'self', you can predict what that person will do.

It's a similar issue that I had with the (very different) book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In that novel, each main character seemed to have perfect insight into how the other would respond to their provocations, which is ridiculous when you realise that people don't even have perfect insight into their own minds, let alone others. And yes I know that in the 1940s practically all psychology was 'armchair psychology' of a sort, but that hadn't stopped literature from presenting a nuanced picture of human nature since Jane Austen and before.

Which isn't to say I disliked Chess Story. In fact I rather liked it; it's easy, compulsive reading, and I challenge anyone who gets halfway through not to read to the conclusion. Dr. B's story is chillingly gothic, something like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum in its claustrophobia and breathless, slow creep of madness. The pace grows steadily faster (or was I just reading more feverishly?), and, though it's silly in places, it still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. So it gets three stars.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Chess Story
Goodreads: Chess Story

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