Stefan Zweig was born and flourished within the environs of a bourgeois, patrician Europe that was irrevocably destroyed by the carnage of the World Wars. Born in Vienna to a wealthy Jewish family in 1881, he lived what seemed to be a charmed life. As a callow 19 year old he submitted an unsolicited poetry essay to the “Neue Freie Presse”, and found himself invited to the office of its literary editor, Theodor Herzl. Herzl informed the young man, with some gravitas, that he was going to publish the piece. This began a chain of good fortune for Zweig which saw him release best-seller after bestseller and move in the most refined circles of the pre-war intelligentsia, with many encounters with figures as diverse and titanic as Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Thomas Mann. Much of his literature was concerned with recapturing what he referred to as the” Golden Age of Security”, a pre-war Vienna which in Zweig’s eyes was civilisation epitomised.
Zweig relentlessly chased this ephemeral past in his works, writing witty and urbane portraits of comfortable existence, living a resolutely un-populist and apolitical life. Sadly for him and millions of others early 20th century Europe had rather different ambitions and, after the Anschluss between Nazi Germany and Austria, Zweig thought it best to beat a retreat from the encroaching forces of totalitarianism. Fleeing first to Britain in 1934 he was unnerved by the rapidity of the German advance and crossed the Atlantic first to the United States and then Brazil. Whilst there he wrote the short novella “Chess” [or “The Royal Game” depending on the edition] sent it to his publisher and then two days later, arguably the most famous writer in Europe committed suicide hand in hand with his wife.
“Chess” then comes with quite some baggage. Even without knowledge of the circumstances of its creation the elliptical nature of the narrative insinuates the shape of a greater meaning. “Chess” takes place on an ocean liner, where the narrator, a cultured man who appears to possess some of Zweig’s own characteristics, becomes fascinated by the presence of the world chess champion who happens to be aboard. The champion is an “idiot savant”, a man who besides from his apparently innate talent, has no inner life but contempt for his fellow man and an unconstrained, yet almost somnambulant rapacity. The narrator and his passengers bribe the champion for the right to challenge him, but are hopelessly overmatched until a small insistent man begins to advise them. Soon the stage is set between this reluctant prodigy and the bruteish champion. The novella is under a hundred pages so to give further summary risks rendering reading “Chess” redundant, but within this game of chess is contained what might as well be the final conflict between the bright and cheerful [and possibly as mythical as any memory of ‘good old days’] world that Zweig was so engrossed in and the petty monstrousness of the regimes that would fatally blight the 20th century with idiot hate. The outcome of the game might be clear, but the moves are something to see.