During my recent visit to Regensburg in Germany I bought a copy of Schachnovelle by German author Stefan Zweig. In the train back home, I reread it in one go. I had to read the book in school, but somehow it escaped the fate of all books you have to read in school. It ended up as one of the books I consider formative literature: those who haven’t read it, cannot possibly understand life.
The plot itself is relatively simple. A group of people on a passenger steamer between Buenos Aires and New York manage to organise a chess game between themselves and the chess world champion who happens to be on the ship. They lose their first game. Halfway through their second game they get advise from a passer-by, who saves their lost position to a draw.
The group then tries to coerce the passer-by to challenge the world champion in a third game. At first he refuses, but eventually he gives in. He wins. When the world champion suggests a rematch, he agrees, even though he has indicated before he only wanted to play one game and no more. The man loses from the world champion but in a very particular way. He gets more and more excited and when the world champion declares ‘checkmate’, he looks at the board and concludes that all pieces are in the wrong place. A near-nervous breakdown is the result.
Two substories give the book its depth. The first story is about the background of the world champion, a simple farmer boy who -judging from the description- is clearly autistic, although the word is never used. His talent is chess, but otherwise the man is a complete stranger to this world.
The second story gives the background of his reluctant challenger. An Austrian accountant who before the Anschluß, worked for rich monasteries and large landowners and helped them move their capital abroad when the Nazis took over. The plot is found out and he’s arrested, put in prison and interrogated. He’s not physically tortured, but completely isolated. He has nothing to do, nobody to talk to except his interrogators.
He would have buckled, but one day he manages to steal a book from the room where he’s questioned. It’s a collection of chess-matches. After the first disappointment he decides to use the book to teach himself chess. He memorizes all 150 matches and then starts playing against himself. Since he doesn’t have a chess-board and pieces he does this all by heart.
Given his isolation and the schizophrenic situation where he has to play against himself, he quickly works himself into a frenzy. His mental breakdown eventually earns him his release from prison: a friendly doctor manages to get him out on the grounds on insanity. This doctor tells him never to play chess again, an advise that he doesn’t take on the boat between New York and Buenos Aires.
What makes this book ‘formative’, in my view, is how Stefan Zweig describes the way a perfectly normal human being can get locked up in the world that only exists in his own head. Zweig makes an otherwise unimaginable process imaginable to the reader. Madness somehow becomes normalcy, the idiot is given back his humanity.
And of course the German it is written in. Schachnovelle is one of those texts that show you what a beautiful language German is.