martes, 17 de noviembre de 2009

Chess Story



Chess Story [Schachnovelle] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Stefan Zweig (translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg)
Brazil, 1942

Before any of you out there rush to commend me for my rare fiscal restraint in borrowing a book from the library rather than just buying it as usual, please be advised that the unrestrained ugliness of the cover above likely had a tremendous amount to do with the decision (note to the NYRB Classics design team: in a week in which Frances the Book Temptress just posted on an exquisite series of new Nabokov cover art that has everybody and his brother drooling, "thanks" for leaving me holding the bag here with that "trippy" 1980s science fiction fanzine level shite of yours that mars an otherwise fine publication).  All grumbling about design matters aside, the content in Zweig's 84-page novella provided for an altogether ace introduction to this previously unread by me Austrian writer.  While the plot sounds rather inauspicious in terms of the excitement level to be expected--the passengers on board an NYC to Buenos Aires ocean liner discover that the world champion chess master Mirko Centovic is on board and challenge him to a couple of pay-for-play matches pitting the group of seemingly outmatched amateurs against the arrogant champion--the story's told with such first-person verve that I can understand why it's hard to avoid Zweig review sightings when trolling through the blogosphere.  Whether you enjoy the nervewracking battle of wills that ensues as straight entertainment or prefer one of the more allegorical readings of the chess story that I've seen (the bumbling passengers ineptly facing up to the rude, Hitlerian Centovic as WWII rages on in the background), you'll prob. be impressed with Zweig's deceptively simple prose and ability to ratchet up the emotional tension without Sigrid Undset-like histrionics.  For those of you already familiar with this author's work, perhaps one of you would be so good as to tell me whether I should read Beware of Pity or The Post-Office Girl next.  They're both now on "the list."  (http://www.nyrb.com/)


Stefan Zweig

P.S. Although I intentionally left out "key information" about a major character in Chess Story above to try and preserve at least one element of surprise for new readers of the work, Zweig's own sad story deserves at least a footnote here: a refugee from the Nazi war machine, he fled Europe for South America before eventually killing himself in a suicide pact with his wife in Brazil in 1942.  The completed manuscript of Schachnovelle was found among his belongings at his death--apparently expressly intended for posthumous publication.

14 comentarios:

  1. I've never heard of this author or this novella, but it sounds fascinating! The cover certainly is ugly though, so like you, I'd probably borrow this one rather than buying it (unless I happen to find a really good deal on it!).

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  2. I enjoyed reading your review Richard - great that your first experience of this author was a good one! I haven't read Beware of Pity yet but have read The Post Office Girl. I thought that was incredibe - intense and harrowing. Whichever you choose - enjoy!

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  3. The Post-Office Girl is one of the best books I have read this year. A story that is in part about the deprivations of war and the inequality amongst classes post WWI, it ranges from sterile bureaucracy to fairy tale ascent to the anxiety and depression of loss. It speaks to the failure of humanism. The NYRB edition is a great translation. And the cover is not very satisfying. Not like those specimen boxes. Sorry, funny guy! :)

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  4. I have, until now, somehow managed the feat of avoiding Zweig sightings on the interwebs, but yours has me intrigued. The title of The Post Office Girl rings a faint bell...

    And seriously, it's unfair to hold other books up to the standard of those specimen boxes! They're a dreamboat. :-)

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  5. Meeeh. . . A whole novel about chess? How did the author keep that from getting totally boring? Like Emily, I too have never come across any Zweig on the web. Everyone's into Her Fearful Symmetry right now.

    Incidentally, I'm also in the middle of an Austrian novel: Gert Jonke's The System of Vienna. It's my third Austrian novel, following Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete and Thomas Glavinic's Night Work. But other than being Austrian, they couldn't be any more different!

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  6. *Steph: I thought it was rather fascinating myself, and it's the perfect size for a work where you just want to immerse yourself in its world for an afternoon or so before coming up for air. That cover does hurt, though!

    *Tracey: I went back and reread your review after finishing this and was happy to see that you had enjoyed The Post-Office Girl so much. I'm often suspicious of writers who get a lot of hype, but Zweig has been quite a nice discovery despite my biases in this regard!

    *Frances: Cool, another reliable recommendation for The Post-Office Girl with a great mini-review attached! Done--in whatever format I can find. And for the record, I've seen at least one cover uglier than Chess Story's this year...but y'all have been spared my image wrath since I haven't finished that book yet. Count your blessings, specimen box fans!

    *Emily: Zweig sightings may have something to do with the preposterous amount of time one spends online, so this could be a cautionary tale for me alone. However, I'm glad my (ahem) "research" occasionally pays off with the discovery of a new writer or two to enjoy. On the specimen box front, you're right, of course, and yet I still couldn't deal with the intense irony of seeing Frances' Nabokov post the same weekend I was carrying that ugly Chess Story cover around in public. I have appearances to maintain, you know!

    *E.L. Fay: The chess story is important here, but it's more a set-up for a different type of story altogether. Totally gripping, too. Not trying to persuade you or anything, but I think you'd dig it based on some other things I know you like from your blog. I'm rather weak on Austrian writers myself unfortunately, but that will all change once I finally convince Emily to read Robert Musil's 1,800-page The Man Without Qualities with me as part of an unfinished masterpieces readalong!

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  7. Ooo, this sounds really interesting. I like playing chess myself (terrible at it!) so the premise grabs me. I'll try to track it down - ILL probably. Ugly cover indeed!

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  8. This is definatley an author that I am have my 'reading radar' set out for as I do keep hearing wonderful things about him and his work. I just dont know what is holding me back?? This has helped me want to read him more though thats for sure.

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  9. Very interesting! I've read only The Post-Office Girl, so I can't compare Zweig books, but I liked that one quite a bit and would like to read more. Probably Beware of Pity will be next, but Chess Story is a possibility too.

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  10. *Sarah: I think chess is great fun when you're equally matched with your competitor...or when I win! Your interest in the game should be a bonus for this novella, by the way. Cheers!

    *Simon: Maybe your 600-book backlog is what's holding you back? If so, understandable! In any event, I look forward to hearing what you think of Zweig when do you eventually get around to reading him. Have a good one!

    *Dorothy: Another vote for The Post-Office Girl, awesome! I have some very long books I'll be working on in December, but maybe I can slip that Zweig title in also since I see it's not too long (very encouraged that so many people thought it was so good). Happy reading to you!

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  11. I also read this quite recently. Interesting but my favourite Zweig is the Post-Office Girl. It's excellent. Read it if you haven't already.

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  12. Literary Stew, I am close to recalling The Post-Office Girl from some poor unsuspecting library patron who has the book checked out right now (a bad time for him/her given all the accolades that title's receiving in these comment boxes). Thanks for the suggestion and the visit!

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  13. I was checking out The Post-Office Girl at the bookstore last week, and deciding against it (appealed to me about as much as reading about "fucking genocide"), when The Chess Story caught my eye (I actually like the cover). On the strength of your comments here, I think I'll be bringing it home with me this weekend.

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  14. Isabella, I feel quite comfortable saying that I think you're in for a treat--hope you enjoy it!

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