The decline of the Hapsburg Empire was long, and slow, and confusing, and it produced in the empire's subjects that combination of desperation and indolence that results from staring down into a disaster one is powerless to avert. The years of secure prosperity were over, though many were prosperous still. Political and economic institutions—corrupted, and, it turned out, irreplaceable—careened out of control. In this late period of decline it began to seem possible, even if the idea was deplored, that collectivity had been a dream, that nothing existed but the individual, and so the people living in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire did what people do in such circumstances: They sought meaning and solace in life stories, in the successes of the illustrious and the tragedies of those understood to be ordinary. Perhaps this accounts in part for the fact that Stefan Zweig, born in 1881, became, in the period from 1910 until his suicide in 1942, one of Austria's most popular writers by penning more than twenty biographical studies (on Erasmus, Balzac, Marie Antoinette, Magellan, Freud, Casanova, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and Mary Stuart, among others) and a number of fine, strange novellas, in which the characters very often tell the stories of their lives. Neither was Zweig's popularity limited to the territories of the imploding empire. Translated during his lifetime into twenty-nine languages, his books were also best sellers in all the neighboring and chaotically restructuring European states.
Zweig has been read steadily in Germany and France, where his fiction and his memoir, Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday, 1943), have never been out of print, but in the United States he has been thoroughly eclipsed. When, every fifteen years or so, an American publisher tries to remind people how skilled a writer Zweig was, the person writing the introduction has found himself or herself with the task of explaining this curious absence. Since the last of these attempts, however, our own preoccupation with life stories has become rather more anxious, and the foreboding one often feels reading Zweig is less easily dismissed as a Viennese irrelevancy.
Over the last few years, the Pushkin Press in England has energetically put forward a selection of Zweig's best work—the novellas and long stories Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman, The Invisible Collection, Buchmendel, Confusion: The Private Papers of Privy Councillor R. von D., and Letter from an Unknown Woman, among others. The novella was, Zweig once said a little ruefully, his "beloved but unfortunate format, too long for a newspaper or magazine, too short for a book." Zweig's last novella, and one of the darkest, Schachnovelle (1944), previously called in English The Royal Game, is now being issued by New York Review Books as Chess Story. The new translation, by Joel Rotenberg, is far and away the best of the three I have read, and, though I cannot compare it with the original German, in English it attains the fluidity and clarity so important to that unusual and enticing thing that I understand to be the Zweig experience.
The narrator of Chess Story is on a ship about to depart for South America. Idle and curious, he is interested to discover from a friend seeing him off that the current world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, is also on board. Between them, the narrator and his friend reconstruct for the reader the precipitous rise of this twenty-one-year-old champion, the son of a Yugoslavian bargeman, whose cold, methodical play has defeated his more intellectual opponents, despite his "peculiar limitation"—that he cannot play "‘blind' as the professionals say." Czentovic "completely lacked the ability to situate the field of battle in the unlimited realm of the imagination," and always needs the board in front of him. We, too, are thoroughly taken up by this engaging story of the stubborn young man and what the narrator understands as a triumph of populist, almost brute, force in the educated world of chess. The narrator, clearly a representative of those educated classes put to flight in the '30s, admits: "All my life I have been passionately interested in monomaniacs of any kind, people carried away by a single idea. . . . [T]hese people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world," and with a touch of condescension he announces: "I made no secret of my intention to subject this odd specimen of a one-track mind to a closer examination during the twelve-day voyage to Rio."
Ruse after ruse fails, and our narrator is about to give up on making this desired acquaintance when he strikes on the idea of luring the arrogant and phlegmatic Czentovic out by means of a chess match in the ship's lounge. As luck would have it, the game uncovers the presence of another, secret, chess genius, Dr. B., "a gentleman of about forty-five, whose long, sharp-featured face and strange, almost chalky pallor had caught my attention on the promenade deck." Dr. B., for terrible reasons, turns out to have always played chess almost entirely in its purest intellectual form, blind, having learned alone, from a book of chess-master games. The story of the cause of Dr. B.'s isolation and of the eventual match between the two true chess players constitutes the bulk of the novella. Better, I think, not to give away much more of this slender, painful tale, but it is possible to say that in Chess Story, as in much of Zweig's fiction, someone in the story, in a way everyone, has a terrible secret.
Secrets are integral to adventure stories, which may be why it is that the experience of reading Zweig feels to me a little like that of reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Suicide Club or his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—an effect not so much of entering the world of the story as of plunging inward and dreaming the story myself. Thus it is not unusual to gasp out loud, to miss subway stops, and to surface out of the story with a palpitating heart and no memory of turning the pages.
The prose in the novellas has been polished to a marble smoothness: "The task of cutting is the one that really affords me the most enjoyment," Zweig said in The World of Yesterday. "[I]n 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." Friderike Zweig, the author's first wife, wrote, in her restrained and sympathetic biography of her husband: "Other authors often leave it to their readers to adopt the tempo they wish. But he who follows the ups and downs, the frequent curves, of Zweig's stories is seldom given the choice." Zweig's power over the reader relies on the speed of the prose but also on a foundation alluded to by Peter Gay in his illuminating introduction to this edition of Chess Story: the particular, quite rigid, structure of narrative voices that Zweig uses in virtually every tale.
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As, to the botanist, a sycamore leaf suggests quite a lot about the tree from which it fell, a good picture of Zweig's understanding of both reading and writing can be derived from examining this pattern, with its precisely repeated succession of narrations. Let us begin with the urbane narrator who so often opens a Zweig story. We see him first in motion, and hear from him in the first person. He is on an ocean liner or a train, or at a hotel in Monte Carlo; he dashes into a café in Vienna to get out of the rain. The story he starts to tell is of how he came by the story he is going to tell. And how does he understand his universe, this pleasant man whom we stand next to at the rail of the ship, or drip near in the foyer of the café? His manners are equally good in German, French, and English. We would not be that surprised if we happened to learn that his family is one of wealthy Viennese Jews—textile manufacturing on his father's side, international banking on his mother's. Like his creator, this narrator could well have come of age in the 1890s, become friendly with Sigmund Freud around 1908, and been active in the pacifist movement during the First World War. He would, like Zweig, be too modest to let on that he is known for supporting and promoting young talent, lecture tirelessly on behalf of international peace and understanding, and count among his friends Thomas Mann, Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Maksim Gorky, Romain Rolland, and Joseph Roth. We might speak instead of autograph hunting, one of his passions, or, as men of the world, of pretty women. In the story "Amok" (1922), the narrator says of himself, "It stirs my blood to ferret out inter-relating facts, and unusual people can, through their mere presence, kindle in me a passion for detective work which is not much short of the desire a man feels to possess a woman."
It is a world of pursuit then—as Zweig noted with regard to the young and lustful Baron Otto van Sternfeldt in Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret, 1911), life is a series of episodes in which one displays "the instincts of the huntsman, passionately stalking their prey, enjoying the excitement of bringing the quarry to bay, and reveling in the spiritual cruelty of the kill." Books, too, are to be seduced, as in the story Buchmendel (1929): "Contact with a rare book was something sacred, as is contact to a young man with a woman who has not had the bloom rubbed off." The association of detective work, seduction, and reading turns up again in Verwirrung der Gefühle (Confusion, 1927), whose scholarly narrator had, as a sensual student, come "to regard the street merely as the hunting ground." But, with the inspiration of a fine professor, he learns to pour his passionate nature into intellectual pursuit, to see "language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act." The first thing he reads in the new manner is Shakespeare's Coriolanus (Zweig is full of reference to the Romans): "[A]s if reeling in a frenzy I discovered in myself all the characteristics of that strangest of the Romans: pride, arrogance, wrath, contempt, mockery, all the salty, leaden, golden, metallic elements of the emotions." The decadence of this is not only in the tone, but in the project—reading, like obsessional sensuality, as the hunt for oneself.
In Zweig's works, everyone is assumed to read with his or her own self-portrait in mind. "Women," Zweig wrote of Tolstoy in his biographical study of that gentleman, "have often asked with amazement how it is that this man can be so familiar with their most intimate and hardly communicable bodily sensations"; it seems as if Tolstoy himself had felt "the agreeable shudder that runs up and down the arms of a young girl who exposes them for the first time at a ball." And then Zweig added:
Could animals read Anna Karenina and speak, they would express no less wonder at the uncanny intuition which enables him to sense the eager, painful longing aroused in a spaniel by the smell of snipe, or the instinctive urge to begin a gallop which inspires a thoroughbred when the hunt is up.
Even the animals are in hot pursuit in this typically Zweigian observation, which is charming, even inventive, and not without truth, though on further reflection it has about it some air of glibness, perhaps because it is impossible to check.
No sooner have we begun to be rather curious about the hunt of the self-absorbed Zweig narrator than he encounters someone else—a self-deprecating war hero or a self-possessed Englishwoman—and, inside our first-person narration, we go down the rabbit hole of another first-person narration. Our first narrator now begins to listen to someone else telling his or her story, or, occasionally, this narrator becomes himself at a younger age and tells that story. Gay refers to this general phenomenon as "a secondary narrator," a technique of inset narration that allows Zweig great expositional flexibility and also puts the reader at a safe distance from the action. Removal in time and space may be part of why you allow all of these narrators to take up residence in your very soul—as it is possible to confess your worst sins or describe your deepest loves to a stranger in a train compartment, feeling quite sure that you will never see that person again.
In The Burning Secret, we begin by observing van Sternfeldt arrive at a hotel in a resort town and commence his prowl, but we soon switch into the consciousness of a young boy, Edgar, whom the seducer targets as a way to his beautiful mother—the hopeful baron inadvertently seduces the boy, too. The boy, too, pursues, and, as he stalks his mother and her would-be lover from one potentially primal scene to another, he feels a kind of pity at watching her torn by her desire for the baron. The watcher in Zweig, the subject of the second narration, has been drawn to a third, a person divided against himself or herself, a person with a secret. After Edgar interrupts his mother and the baron in near coitus and comes to blows with his mother, he runs away and takes a train to his grandmother's. The last scene in The Burning Secret presents a not-quite-believable happy reconciliation between the mother and the son, who reassures his mother that he will never reveal her secret. Zweig, too, carried his unresolved childhood secrets forward; Friderike Zweig wrote that it always puzzled her how, on his travels, he liked to return to the resorts his family had visited when he was a child and where he been neglected and unhappy.
The second narration, whether or not it takes place in childhood, moves back in time and, as happens with childhood and adolescent experience, has often been preserved as a secret. So, for example, by the third paragraph of Chess Story we have gone back to Czentovic's discovery, at age twelve, of his chess talent. In Chess Story, though, the secret remains intact; we never move into Czentovic's consciousness, though it is our first narrator's great desire to do so—usually people are eager to tell him their stories, but this time he cannot find a way in: "When [Czentovic] senses an educated person he crawls into his shell."
Generally, this second character's secret has involved watching something terrible happen to someone else. Almost always, encountering this other world is for the secondary narrator what Zweig called a Sternstunde, a star hour, a moment that fixes life forever. The encounter, too, is a secret. In Confusion, the narrator explains:
We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second when (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes—a magical second, like the moment of generation, and like that moment concealed within the warm interior of the individual life, invisible, untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone.
The story of this moment is always told in a fixed, almost ritualistic way; it is to be told only once, in circumstances that force the teller to be completely truthful. The teller of such a story, the secondary narrator, is often relieved but is not changed. For Zweig, character was immutable, neither a territory of possibilities nor transformable by long study and practice.
And the third character, the opaque person with a secret, what is the nature of his or her universe? This person inhabits a closed world in which the only real authority is the secret: illness, addiction, shame. Here, the worship of other gods is strictly forbidden; sacrifices must be made to conciliate the arbitrary and powerful secret. No, no, whispers the woman who has this role in "Amok," "No . . . no . . . rather die . . . no one must find out . . . no one must find out." The other characters, too, are drawn into this narrow psychological realm in which the secret renders them powerless. And this powerlessness is like that felt both by the child, who fears death or castration as a consequence of rebellion, and by the subject of the tottering empire, who dreads its end.
This divided person might at first seem like one of the doubles we know from Stevenson and Gogol, from Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle—in these literary worlds there is also a strong association between psychological exposure and criminal investigation. But the divisions within and among Zweig's characters are better described not as oppositions but as containments. Each narration is explicitly set within another, like a series of Russian dolls. The divided self is usually the last, most tightly closed doll, into whose consciousness we can never fully enter, and, in Zweig, the final conflict is often hidden within this person. Thus there can never be a scene where Holmes and Moriarty struggle at the cliff's edge—the only opposition that is allowed to become a fight to the death takes place within the soul. Perhaps this is why I count eight characters in the stories I've mentioned here who seriously consider or commit suicide. This, too, was both the author's preoccupation and that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Vienna into which Zweig was born in 1881, according to Frederic Morton in his histories of Vienna, "not only had more suicides per capita than most European cities but a particularly high incidence among the upper bourgeoisie." When Zweig was eight, the death of Crown Prince Rudolf by apparent suicide was understood as a great weakening of the empire.
Inner division was for Zweig the source of both tragedy and creativity, and one can feel him being drawn to divided selves in his biographical studies, too. About Stendhal, Zweig decided that "the cleavage in Henri Beyle's nature which is reflected in his creative work—this cleavage was inborn, was a heritage from his parents who were an ill-assorted couple." The result of Beyle's double inheritance was that he was "doomed from the outset to be a dual personality and to live in two competing worlds." Dostoyevsky, too, Zweig finds to be "the victim of a duplex life." Drawing a tellingly inaccurate conclusion about the nature of the Russian writer's art, Zweig continues: "Dostoyevsky the artist is the most perfect example of antinomy, the greatest dualist, that art, and maybe humanity, has ever known."
Unlike Dostoyevsky's characters, Zweig's hold to the same patterns all the way through their stories—their loves are unconsummated, their crimes are refusals of generosity or trust or to help, and their most frequent solution to any trouble is to run away. Zweig's friend Rilke wondered if it wasn't true that everything, including your death, was inside you; even the struggle over death a retreat inward. "Perhaps none," Zweig wrote in his autobiography, with what seems like admiration, "lived more gently, more secretly, more invisibly than Rilke."
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There may be an element of self-portraiture in these descriptions of divided and retreating selves, who could be understood to be continuing the oedipal struggle in their adult lives. Freud himself took up this possibility, in an essay chiefly about Dostoyevsky and parricide, when he chose as an illustration of Oedipal uneasiness in fiction the young gambler in Zweig's Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau (Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman, 1927): "What part of long-buried childhood compels its repetition in the gambler's compulsion may without difficulty be divined from a story by a young novelist." Freud remarks, however, that Zweig, "who is a personal friend, was able to assure me that the interpretation given by me was completely alien both to his mind and his intention." In what Freud calls "this brilliantly told, perfectly motivated story," a young man spends one night with the secondary narrator, the distinguished Englishwoman Mrs. C., who has sons about his age. The tryst is the culmination of his frenzied attempt to leave the roulette wheel, but the young man quickly breaks it off and by the next night is at the tables again. Freud asserts that this "phantasy embodies a wish that the mother should herself initiate the boy into sexual life in order to save him from the dreaded evils of onanism." To Freud, gambling is onanism, though it might indeed be any number of sexual secrets; in the end these excitements seem less dangerous than sleeping with your mother. As Gay says, Freud recognized that this understanding was kept tightly concealed within Zweig's story. Freud made no attempt to analyze Zweig himself, though perhaps the novelist felt uncomfortable reading "Dostoyevsky and Parricide." Zweig's thoughtful biographer Donald Prater mentions in a footnote—giving the report only moderate credence and offering no further explanation—that "Zweig carried at one time a certificate that he was a patient of Freud's, in order to avoid any difficulties with the law over his exhibitionist tendencies."
Zweig admired Freud's discovery of the unconscious, but he was unconvinced about the efficacy of psychoanalysis. When, two years after the Dostoyevsky essay, in 1930, Zweig wrote his biography of Freud (his only study of a living person), he classed him under the title Heilung durch den Geist (Mental Healers), with two considerably less scientific figures: Mary Baker Eddy and Franz Mesmer. Freud, nonplussed, wrote in a letter to Zweig that he thought himself more complicated than Zweig's portrait suggested. Zweig, he wrote, was insufficiently familiar with the science: "Your last doubt whether psychoanalysis can be practiced by average human beings also leads back to ignorance of technique. . . . That not everyone carries out his job equally well is something for which there is no remedy in any field."
Friderike Zweig, whose sound critical judgments very often made their way into her husband's work, seems in this case to have rather shared her husband's opinions. She found herself, she wrote about Freud, "repelled" by his "emphasis on the Oedipus complex." It seems almost too easy to identify why the Zweigs might have preferred to think less about Oedipus complexes. In pictures of her, she seems both beautiful and maternal, and in her letters she is endlessly generous with the boyish, misbehaving Zweig. She was already a mother of two, separated from her husband, when she and Zweig began meeting for a day or two in Hamburg or the mountains in 1912. They began living together during the war, though he insisted on his freedom then, and after they were married in 1920. Still, in novels like Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1922), written during the early years of their marriage, he seems painfully self-recriminating about his second life.
In that book, R., "a celebrated novelist," comes home one day from traveling. Waiting for him is a letter, in unfamiliar handwriting, and so begins the second narration: "Now I have only you left in all the world, only you, who know nothing about me." In this case, too, the secret is supreme: "You shall know my secret only when I am dead. . . . If you hold [this letter] in your hands you will know that a dead woman is telling you the story of her life." The author of the letter is writing it as she sits next to the corpse of her beloved eleven-year-old son: "One doesn't tell lies at the deathbed of an only child." Her Sternstunde had come when R. moved in across the hall, and her memories of R. seem distinctly like a portrait of Stefan Zweig:
[S]omehow you are two people in one, a passionate, happy-go-lucky young man given over to pleasure and adventure, and at the same time as far as your writing is concerned a relentless, serious, responsible, extremely well-read and educated man. Unconsciously I felt what everyone sensed about you, that you led a double life, a life which presented to the world a light-hearted, open face and an obscure life known only to yourself. I, the thirteen-year-old, magically attracted, felt this profound duality, this secret of your existence, at my first sight of you.
Though he slept with her when she was eighteen and again when she was twenty-eight, he never recognized her. In this curious case, the introductory figure, the novelist, gives way to the secondary narrator, the doomed woman, who must endure watching the dualistic person, who is in fact the novelist himself. Inside the novelist is the woman's story, and inside her story is the novelist.
The unknown woman takes a tone, forgiving but clear-sighted, that will be familiar to readers of Friderike Zweig's biography. In 1930, the year of her husband's Freud volume, she wrote him a letter (their correspondence was voluminous; he was often away) in which she says she has been thinking about how, "truly, you have let few people get close to you. You lock yourself up within yourself so completely. Your writings are only one third of you: and no one has managed to discover the essential you in them, which might explain the other two-thirds." If she "could break through [her] subconscious restraints," she might be able to write something of value.
One feels a kind of pity for the novelist trapped in his own pages, with his secrecy and what one guesses to be his shame. Zweig himself was wary of pity and sometimes caught by it—in his only full-length novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity), Zweig advises strenuously against the more facile version of that emotion: "the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness." Beware of Pity was completed in 1938; it was meant to be a novel like The Radetzky March (1932), by Zweig's friend Joseph Roth. Each novel follows a young lieutenant in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian army as he is failed by his fathers—the paterfamilias and the paternal emperor. But Beware of Pity was also an anxious meditation on Zweig's own divisions and retreats: In 1933, a few months after the Nazis burned the books of Jewish authors writing in German, Zweig made his way to Paris and London; he never really lived in Austria again. Friderike Zweig, joining him briefly in England, found for him a secretary—Lotte Altmann, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish refugee. Her frequent illnesses and her plight roused the pity in Zweig that he examined in his novel, and exacerbated the already-existing frictions between him and his wife. After twenty-five years of involvement, he divorced Friderike. Frightened of the looming war and worried for the safety of his refugee lover, he applied for a marriage license the day after Hitler invaded Poland, and married Altmann, twenty-six years younger than he, on September 6, 1939.
Black depressions, against which the stalwart Friderike had been some help, tormented Zweig, and he and his inexperienced new wife made their way from England to the United States to Brazil, where they had once before felt welcome and the climate had been good for her illness. And there, for a little over five months, they subsisted in increasing isolation, his sixtieth birthday passing unnoticed by the literary world that had trumpeted his fiftieth. Stories of genocide began to make their way west—concentration camps, too, are to be found in Zweig's last novella. To distract themselves, he and Lotte played through a book of chess-master games in the evenings, and it was during this time in Brazil that he wrote Chess Story. Her illness worsened. Zweig was horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in February, friends saw that the news, which came just a few days before his suicide, of the fall of Singapore and of German plans to attack Libya had had a terrible effect on him. One of the last things Zweig did before he and Altmann committed double suicide in Petrópolis was send off copies of Chess Story to his three publishers. On the day of his death, Zweig wrote a last, short letter to the world, which closed: "I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before."
This death, which has in many ways unfairly subsumed the life and work of Zweig, is of great significance in considering Chess Story. In this last novella, every departure Zweig makes from his usual method is important. Here, we never enter the second character's perspective; Czentovic refuses us entry and instead we go into the story of Dr. B., the third, secret figure, who in all the other stories has been closed to us. At last, the plaguing, sensual body is absent and the central passion is one of the mind. Our brave chess player wavers right along the edge of unhingedness throughout his account, which he gives not to an intermediate narrator, but to our first one. And this time we sense not only that the narrator is a sympathetic interlocutor, but also that he, too, has a troubling secret. For this time, the urbane gentleman we met at the ship's rail, the great European, is fleeing Europe. The books he wrote have been burned; his language is denied to him; his close friends are all dead or in exile. He is no longer with his wife of twenty-five years; the world he is from and the world he hoped to build are both gone. More than in any other Zweig novella, when Dr. B. tells his story to the narrator of Chess Story, one has the feeling that one is listening to Stefan Zweig talking to Stefan Zweig. Part of what makes Chess Story great is that this conversation brings no relief—the story knows that there is no longer any way to be relieved, and it stops in uncertainty, not impatient to get to the end, almost without an end.
Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854–1967 (Random House, 2004).