Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

And, actually, isn’t it damn easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t troubled by the slightest notion that a Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante, or Napoleon ever existed? This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain–that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months–and since he has no idea that there’s anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself.

Zweig’s posthumous novella, Chess Story is a tight little story about a casual chess match to pass the time on a twelve-day voyage from New York to Buenos Aires that develops into a deadly game between two masters, one professional, one amateur. The succession of chess games on the cruise, first between the narrator and the Scottish engineer McConnor, then between the mass of amateurs and the world champion Mirko Czentovic, and finally between Czentovic and an amateur bystander Dr. B. provide the structure for analyzing the psyches of the different characters, but much of the dramatic weight in Chess Story comes from explaining the how the two masters developed their skills.

Czentovic is the epitome of a prodigy, having been a peasant child without any particular skills or interests until he sees adults playing chess. Disinterested in the formal or abstract aspects of the game, Czentovic only plays whatever game is in front of him and does not lose to the same opponent twice in a row. Having beaten all comers in Europe and New York, he is now going on a world tour, convinced of his own genius and assured that his wealth makes him superior to everyone else.

In contrast, Dr. B. is an Austrian lawyer whose family managed the estates for the Hapsburg family and various German monasteries. He had played, without much interest, in grade school, but whose life involved being a discrete, quiet, and upstanding member of Austrian society, whose world is upended when he is turned in to Nazi authorities and arrested. Dr. B. returns to chess only by chance, but comes to use the abstract critical thinking of the game as a defense against interrogation…even if it eventually causes him to crack and be released as useless.

These two contrasting styles collide on this otherwise quiet cruise from New York to Buenos Aires.

Chess Story is a thoughtful and moving study of these characters that does not try to do too much. What I mean by this is that Zweig layers in important humanistic observations about the problems of a fascist regime and dangers of being utterly obsessed by money, but, even though the book was published after his death in 1942, it does not become a polemic. As a result, the story is universalized without being another story of horror and drudgery about Nazi oppression.

I did not like Chess Story as much as The Post-Office Girl, but I think that this is mostly a personal preference for the fuller story rather than the spareness of a novella. Chess Story is beautifully constructed and well-worth reading, making me even more excited to read Beware of Pity, which is sitting on my to-read shelf.

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I finished making my way through Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature and will have reactions to it later in the week. Next up, I am currently reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir, The Thin Man.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

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I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.