timons (timons) wrote,

The Royal Game

   I've had a copy of the Compass Books edition of Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game (the link takes you to a collection with two more stories in it than my old 1959 paperback) on my to-be-read shelf for probably three decades. When the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel brought his name back into public attention, I decided it might be time to finally read the dang thing.
   The collection is three of his most famous novellas (novellas were his favorite form): "The Royal Game" (also translated as "Chess" and "Chess Story"), "Amok" and "Letter from an Unknown Woman."
   The conventions of the stories remind me of Joseph Conrad crossed with Edgar Allen Poe. Two of the stories are told as stories-within-a-story; one is related to the narrator on the deck of a ship, the other is a letter the POV character receives. Two of the stories take place on ocean liners. All of the main characters are over-wrought, and there are several suicides. (Since Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil, supposedly over the loss of Viennese culture, I guess this shouldn't be a surprise.)
   The title story (the reason I picked up the book originally) begins by discussing the new World Chess Champion who is mainly interested in money, and seems to have no intellectual interests outside of chess. He is challenged to a game by his fellow ocean liner passengers, demands to be paid, and things run awry when an unknown player joins the group and helps force the champion into a draw. The rest of the story reveals how this person came to be a chess expert, without being known to the public.
   I sensed the use of the characteristics of a couple of grandmasters from the period in this tale, and echoes of Marcel Duchamp's disappearance into the game. It touches on the issue of "chess madness" in a perceptive way, here and there.
   "Amok" is a tale of a European in the jungle, and how he misbehaves when he thinks he has an arrogant, rich woman in his power. It's a fine tale of obsession and reversal, but the premise is, um, melodramatic.
   But that melodrama is nothing like what the third story achieves, a fairly unbelievable tale of devoted love in the face of thoughtless sensuality. It's an over-the-top groupie story, and it felt artificial throughout; even though its insight into a certain kind of narcissistic personality is fairly interesting.
   The stories are strong, the realism less so. An old-fashioned feel to all three.
   On the other hand, he reminded me of the existence of coal porters as a vocational tribe, and that may inspire a story of my own.
Tags: fiction, short story, stefan zweig

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