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The Royal Game
by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig's slight novella is beautifully presented by Pushkin Press. Like with www.readysteadybook.com's fellow favourite Hesperus you can fairly much bank on a Pushkin book being a good book.
In The Royal Game, the uncultured, ignorant, monomaniac reigning world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, an orphaned Yugoslavian peasant with an uncanny ability at the royal game and an astonishing inability at anything else, is witnessed on board a cruise ship bound for Argentina where he is to attend a chess championship. During the journey our narrator, a journalist, and a bluff, aggressive Scottish entrepeneur, McConnor, invite Czentovic to a game. He relents to playing - for a fee. McConnor is happy to pay ("Why not? It's his business. If I had a toothache and there happened to be a dentist aboard, I wouldn't expect him to extract my tooth for nothing") and plays him, with the journalist and a small group of chess-playing fellow travellers acting as advisers. About to lose their second game to the Grand Master, by failing to see the trap that will be sprung if they convert an intrepid pawn into a second Queen, the group is advised, by a newcomer to the game, on all accounts not to make the move that, it would seem, could win them the match. The stranger explains his outburst, and strategy, McConnor & co. bow to his obvious keen knowledge of the game - they force a draw; the Master is intrigued and not a little annoyed.
The next day our unnamed narrator seeks our the stranger, a fellow Austrian, to induce him to play again - and openly - one-on-one against the Grand Master. Dr. B asks whether he may tell the story of how he came to be so good at chess and narrates his compelling tale which takes up the best part of the novella. A high-ranking monarchist official, Dr. B had been imprisoned, alone, in a hotel room by the Nazis: not physically tortured but left to suffer terribly from ignorance of events outside and desperate, soul-destroying boredom: "[t]hey did nothing to us; they merely deposited us in the midst of nothing, knowing well that of all things the most potent pressure on the soul of man is nothingness". One day, whilst waiting to be questioned, he notices a bulge in the pocket of an officer's coat hanging near to where he is standing. He steals the book, which turns out to be, initially to his dismay, "a collection of one hundred and fifty championship games". Over time Dr. B came to memorise all these games playing them out in his memory, two every morning, two every evening. He then moved on to the dangerously schizophrenic activity of playing new games with himself in his mind, "I am now fully aware that this state of mine was nothing less than a pathological form of overwrought mind for which I can find no other name than one not yet known to medical annals: chess poisoning."
Dr. B reminded my of something John Healy said in his excellent, and now seemingly totally forgotten book, The Grass Arena (seek this out if you can: winner of the J.R.Ackerley prize for "The Best Literary Autobiography of 1988", it is the story of John Healy, born in London of poor Irish parents, who lived as a vagrant until he learned chess in prison) about how, once John had attained status as a tournament champion he knew he had to give it up: once an alcoholic, he realised that he had mereley replaced one addiction - and, hence, displacement activity - for another (admittedly less dangerous one): he was no longer an alcoholic or criminal but he wasn't yet fully alive either.
This is powerful, brilliant, remarkable and compulsively readable stuff - Zweig is somebody to get yourself acquainted with asap ...
Paperback isbn: 1901285111
Publisher: Pushkin Press