- The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig, translated by B.W. Huebsch
Pushkin, 79 pp, £8.00, April 2001, ISBN 1 901285 11 1
On 15 August 1941, Stefan Zweig and his wife set sail for Brazil, where they planned to settle after seven years of exile in England and America. At first he seems to have found the change of scene rejuvenating: he continued work on a biography of Balzac, started a new novel and a critical study of Montaigne, and finished his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which starts in the late 19th century and romps through the interwar years, with vivid and comic descriptions of Toscanini, Freud and many other artists and intellectuals. Then he began yet another book: Schachnovelle (‘Chess Novella’), which was published two years after his death, and now appears as The Royal Game. After he had edited the final draft, his wife typed up the manuscript and sent it to New York with a letter to his publisher. Shortly afterwards they were found dead, a double suicide.
The manner in which Zweig orchestrated both his death and the publication of his last work reflects his lifelong – and ultimately unsuccessful – struggle to remain disengaged even as the world crashed down around him. Born in Vienna to bourgeois Jewish parents in 1881, he published his first book of poetry when he was 20. His criticism, plays and novels were eventually translated into 30 languages, and he knew everyone from Richard Strauss to Walther Rathenau. He even persuaded Mussolini to reduce a friend’s prison sentence. But though he courted the famous and the powerful, he insisted on his own indifference to politics. The account in his autobiography of his experiences during and after World War One is repeatedly interrupted by assertions that he was an observer, not an actor. ‘Each one of us . . . has been shaken in the depths of his being by the almost unceasing volcanic eruptions of our European earth,’ he wrote. ‘I know of no pre-eminence that I can claim, in the midst of the multitude, except this: that as an Austrian, a Jew, an author, a humanist and a pacifist, I have always stood at the exact point where these earthquakes were the most violent.’
Zweig’s unerring instinct for placing himself where the view was best belied his professions of disinterestedness. In his twenties, living in Paris, he befriended Rilke and visited Rodin’s studio. After the war, on his way back from Switzerland, he crossed the Austrian border just as the Emperor and Empress were fleeing. He moved to Salzburg in time to witness Austria’s crippling inflation, and to see the town transform itself into a cultural capital with the inauguration of its annual summer music and theatre festival. Salzburg was directly across the border from Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, and Zweig seems to have understood Hitler’s intentions sooner than most. He left Austria at the first intrusion of the Government into his private life. Early in 1934, his apartment was searched on the pretext that he was hiding arms for the Republican Schutzbund, which even the police officers carrying out the search did not pretend to believe. Zweig could no longer maintain his detachment: he would watch the unfolding events from afar.
Near the beginning of The Royal Game, the narrator remarks: ‘I have always been fascinated by all types of monomania, by persons wrapped up in a single idea; for the stricter the limits a man sets for himself, the more clearly he approaches the eternal.’ But Zweig set his own limits too strictly. His writing reveals his sympathy for fellow human beings, but is stunted by the distance that he invariably sets between himself and his subjects, thematically and stylistically. His most successful works are his plays, in which actors serve as intermediaries between the writer and his audience, and his novellas, which tend to be framed in a way that puts both reader and author at a remove: a nameless, characterless narrator encounters an Ancient Mariner figure, or reflects on a fascinating person he once met.
In The Invisible Collection, the narrator meets an art dealer who relates a strange encounter. The setting is Germany between the wars, and inflation is at its height. The dealer, struggling to find goods to sell, has paid a visit to a longtime customer in a provincial town. When he arrives, he discovers that the old man is now blind, and his wife and daughter have sold off his collection piece by piece to support the household. They have kept him unaware of both their own troubles and the country’s, and replaced each print sold with a sheet of paper of the same size and weight, so that when the collector took his inventory each afternoon – his only pleasure – he would not notice anything amiss. ‘Perhaps we have wronged him; yet what could we do?’ the daughter asks the art dealer. ‘It has been life and happiness for him to spend three hours every afternoon going through his imaginary collection, and talking to each specimen as if it were a friend.’ The dealer agrees to participate in the deception, and exclaims in admiration as the collector lovingly describes each invisible print:
As he spoke, his fingers caressed the despoiled portfolios. It was horrible and touching. Not for years, not since 1914, had I witnessed an expression of such unmitigated happiness on the face of a German . . . An art dealer, I had come in search of bargains. Instead, as events turned out, I had been a sort of angel of good luck, lying like a trooper in order to assist in a fraud which kept an old man happy. Ashamed of lying, I was glad that I had lied.
This story is subtitled ‘An Episode of the Inflation Period in Germany’, and though it sometimes verges on the bathetic, it comments powerfully on the political situation and on art’s ability to uplift. Zweig understood and admired the impulse to collect; his own passion was for manuscripts, which he accumulated throughout his life and whose dispersal he lamented during his years in exile. It is not the act of collecting itself that is admirable in the old man, however, but his use of it to transcend his situation: at a time when most people are preoccupied with survival, he devotes his mind to art. Although he does this in ignorance of outside events, the state of concentration he achieves is that of the true artist.
Zweig’s belief in the capacity of art to redeem even the cruellest circumstances is clear from the description he gives in his autobiography of an opera performance in Austria during the same period:
For lack of coal the streets were only dimly lit and people had to grope their way through; gallery seats were paid for with a bundle of notes in such denominations as would once have been sufficient for a season’s subscription to the best box. The theatre was not heated, thus the audience kept their overcoats on and huddled together, and how melancholy and grey this house was that used to glitter with uniforms and costly gowns! . . . The Philharmonic players were like grey shadows in their shabby dress suits, undernourished and exhausted by many privations, and the audience, too, seemed to be ghosts in a theatre which had become ghostly. Then, however, the conductor lifted his baton, the curtain parted and it was as glorious as ever. Every singer, every musician did his best, his utmost, for each had in mind that perhaps it might be his last time in this beloved house. And we strained and listened, receptive as never before, because perhaps it was really the last time.
The image of the ghostly theatre crystallises the problem with Zweig’s work: he is simultaneously ghost and artist. The disengagement that marks his fiction manifests itself in an obsession with technical as well as emotional spareness. ‘Hardly is there a fair copy of the first approximate version of a book than my real work begins, that of condensing and composing,’ he once wrote.
It is an unrelenting throwing overboard of ballast, an ever tightening and clarifying of the inner structure . . . This process of condensation and dramatisation repeats itself once, twice and three times in the proof sheets; in the end it becomes a kind of joyful hunt for another sentence or even merely a word the absence of which would not lessen the precision and yet at the same time accelerate the tempo.
Zweig has no room for ambiguity, tangents, anything that detracts from his narrative line. The result is that his work’s complexity is starkly reduced, and the English versions read with a uniformity that testifies to the faintness of his authorial voice.
Zweig described the Nazi years as the time when ‘that one man confused our world.’ His books were banned in Germany and burned. He fled Austria, and came first to England (where he applied for a marriage licence on 1 September 1939: just as the clerk was about to inscribe his name in the register, news came of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, rendering him an enemy alien).
The Royal Game bears the impression of Zweig’s new statelessness. The novella’s nameless narrator is on board an ocean liner about to leave New York for Buenos Aires when he discovers that a famous chess master is a fellow passenger. Known as the ‘peasant champion’, Mirko Czentovic can barely read or write and cannot play ‘blind’ (without a board), but he has earned a fortune. The narrator has an ambivalent relationship to chess: he appreciates its artistry, but finds it difficult to comprehend ‘the life of a mentally alert person whose world contracts to a narrow, black and white one-way street . . . a man of spirit who, escaping madness, can unremittingly devote all of his mental energy during ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to the ludicrous effort to corner a wooden king on a wooden board!’ Nevertheless, he is intrigued by Czentovic and, hoping to observe him in action, gathers a few chess players for a game. Soon enough the master turns up to investigate. He can barely conceal his scorn, but is persuaded to play for a steep fee. Just as the challengers are about to make a crucial mistake, a stranger arrives; he talks them through to a draw, then disappears. The players are eager to see this man take on Czentovic, and the narrator, who has learned that the stranger is a fellow Austrian, seeks him out and learns his story, which the chess player, identified only as Dr B, describes bitterly as ‘a little chapter in the story of our agreeable epoch’.
Shortly before the Anschluss, Dr B is arrested by the Gestapo. Singled out for special handling, he is sent not to a concentration camp but to a hotel. There he is confined to a room devoid of art, books, writing implements, or any other stimulus. Day after day he is interrogated, and afterwards, in his lonely room, he can do nothing but brood over the details of the interrogation, tortured by the thought that he may have betrayed others by giving away too much or hurt himself by giving away too little.
In a concentration camp one would, perhaps, have had to wheel stones until one’s hands bled and one’s feet froze in one’s boots; one would have been packed in stench and cold with a couple of dozen others. But one would have seen faces, would have had space, a tree, a star, something, anything, to stare at, while here everything stood before one unchangeably the same, always the same, maddeningly the same . . . They wanted me to gag and gag on my thoughts until they choked me and I had no choice but to spit them out at last.
After four months of this, Dr B manages to steal a book from the coat pocket of one of the interrogators. It is not the novel or work of philosophy he has longed for but an anthology of famous chess games. With nothing else to entertain him, he memorises the games, with the result that he can think more clearly and defend himself more easily. ‘I had acquired an occupation – a senseless, a purposeless one if you wish – yet one that negated the nothingness that enveloped me.’ But he is soon bored with repeating the same games and decides to learn to play against himself. But as he becomes increasingly successful at splitting his personality, he induces a ‘pathological form of overwrought mind’ in himself – he calls it ‘chess poisoning’ – that is close to schizophrenia. It brings about his salvation: he has a psychotic fit, winds up in hospital, and is released. But despite his vow never to play chess again, he finds himself unable to resist challenging Czentovic to a game, and this brings him close to another breakdown. The novella is one of Zweig’s most horrifying investigations into monomania and at the same time a parable of the dangers inherent in engaging with Nazism.
The ‘peasant champion’ comes across nearly as grossly in B.W. Huebsch’s tidy translation (Huebsch was a friend of Zweig’s and his first American publisher) as in the original. In contrast to the genteel narrator’s, Czentovic’s language is coarse and uncouth; early on he is compared to an ass and sneered at for enjoying ‘equal ignorance in every field of culture’. He is interested in chess only for the money and refuses to play unless he is paid. The only emotion he shows is satisfaction at victory: it wouldn’t matter to him whether the way to get ahead was via National Socialism or chess-playing.
Dr B is a more complicated figure. He enjoys a high position in Viennese society and has no need for money. Unlike Czentovic, who cannot work out chess problems in his head, he intellectualises the game to such an extent that he comes to forget that real chessboards exist. Yet he is just as self-interested as Czentovic: he needs chess to survive; but it nearly kills him. While the brute is able to use chess as his instrument of power, the intellectual finds himself nearly eaten alive from the inside out. That, of course, is what Zweig always feared for himself. By 1942, the news from Europe had made it impossible for him to maintain his disengagement.