It’s odd how I keep finding myself drawn back to Stefan Zweig’s short fictions. I’ve read several now (and I still have the rest of the “Selected Stories” volume to read through). “Chess” seems to be one of his best-known fictions, and my copy is translated by the excellent Anthea Bell and published by Penguin. I picked it up a year or so ago, but I needed something slim and easy to read, and “Chess” jumped out of the shelves at me!

Easy to read it may be – like all the Zweigs I’ve read so far – but that’s not to say it doesn’t punch above its weight. “Chess” takes place on board a cruise ship heading from New York to Buenos Aires, during the Second World War; already a setting guaranteed to indicate much of the background to the tale. The narrator learns that the world chess champion is on board, and when he tells a (wealthy) fellow passenger, McConnor, the latter challenges him to a match. The champion is a strange concoction – an unintelligent country boy made good, who can’t visualise a chess match in his head like most Grand Masters, but who can always win and will play anyone for money – even McConnor together with the crowd surrounding him. The champion wins the first game and is challenged to a rematch. And here things change – at a crucial point, a voice from the watching crowd takes over, giving urgent instructions that actually cause the champion to lose…

chess

The narrator is intrigued and tracks down the voice in the crowd, who turns out to be a fellow Austrian with quite a tale to tell. More than this I won’t say for fear of spoiling things; but what I will say is that this novella convinces me even more of Zweig’s genius. Again, this story counters the accusations that he was simply a light-weight, telling tales of the old regime. Here, he is dealing with modern concerns and modern issues but in his own way (much as he did in the story “Buchmendel” which I reviewed here). Zweig tackles a big theme (and what could have been bigger in his lifetime than the rise of Nazism?) but because he does this on a small, personal scale it’s all the more chillingly effective. And we see how the effects of extreme human actions linger, under the surface, to be brought back to life when the right trigger is pressed; man’s behaviour towards man can be devastating and long-lasting.

When is a novella a novella, and a short story a short story? I don’t know if there’s an actual dividing line and I don’t know if it actually matters. All I need to say about “Chess” is that it’s 76 pages of pure genius: clever, tragic, perfectly written, evocative and evidence that Zweig is a writer of real substance. If you haven’t read any of his work yet, you could do no better than to start with “Chess”.