Books in Translation Novella

Chess – Stefan Zweig

  Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Five words from the blurb: chess, stranger, disturbing, obsession, genius

In the 1920s and 30s Stefan Zweig was the most translated novelist in the world. His work is very popular in continental Europe, but few people in the UK have heard of him. I have to admit that I was one of those people until blogging introduced me to his name last year. Since then he has been high on my wish list, so when Penguin offered me a copy of his novella, Chess, (to celebrate the launch of their mini modern classic series) I jumped at the chance. I can see why people love his writing so much – Chess is a wonderful little book.

Chess is set on a cruise ship; on board is an elusive chess grand master who finally agrees to play against a group of passengers. The passengers are easily beaten, but then a mysterious man suggests some moves and the tables are turned. The secret behind this man’s skill at the game is slowly revealed in a shocking, but gripping display of the capabilities of the human mind.

I have always been interested in any kind of monomaniac obsessed by a single idea, for the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity; characters like this, apparently remote from reality, are like termites using their own material to build a remarkable and unique small-scale version of the world.

I know how to play chess, but have no special interest in it and so before reading this book I was a little worried about whether or not I’d enjoy a whole book on the subject. I needn’t have worried – this book is beautifully written and no knowledge of the game is required. It is hard to explain the real magic of this book without giving away the entire plot, but I’ll just explain that this book investigates the power of human endurance when faced with some of the atrocities that a war brings.

My only criticism of this book is that the darker elements are all written as reflections, explained to an enquirer many years after the event. This means they aren’t as intense as they would have been if we had experienced them as they were happening. I know a lot of people will find this to be a positive, but I prefer to feel the emotion and fear instead of just having the situation explained.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading books that deal with the darker side of human nature.


I couldn’t find a negative review for this one:

….it is difficult to find just the right words to explain the wonder of Stefan Zweig’s words. Fleur Fisher in her World

Zweig’s ability to carry the reader along through summarised lives, stories within stories and long monologues is remarkable….. Asylum

…..the novella is as well-nigh perfect as might be expected.  A Common Reader

Chess is one of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics (a series of 50 books launched on 15th February). They can be bought individually for £3 each or as the beautiful Penguin Mini Modern Classics Box Set

38 replies on “Chess – Stefan Zweig”

William Rycroft, Nice to meet you too 🙂

I didn’t realise that Chess had been published under a different title – that explains why I didn’t come across your review. I’ll have to be careful not to buy duplicate books when I set out on my new Zweig collecting mission!

David, It is amazing how many authors who are really famous in other countries are barely known on ours. One of the best things about the internet is the fact that we are slowly finding out about them.

I’ve yet to read ‘Chess’ myself so I can’t comment comprehensively, but I know Zweig well and I’m glad to see that it looks like he’s kept up his profound ability to ‘gaze into man’s soul’ with this one.

I’ve always found his perception to be breathtaking, and I don’t think there are any authors who can put the human condition in to words as well as Zweig can. But let’s not forget the input Anthea Bell here either. When it comes to Zweig I don’t think there’s ever been a finer translator to have done him justice.
Looking forward to following the rest of your Zweig journey, Jackie (I’m still in the midst of mine)

Rob, I totally agree about Anthea Bell – everything that I’ve read which has been translated by her has been amazing. I hope that the rest of my Zweig journey is just as enjoyable.

The more of your review I read, the more I’m certain I’ve heard of this book before. Like you, at first the notion of a book set around chess did not sound scintillating, but this really does sound like it would be a taut and gripping read. I think I placed this on a list of books to read a looooong time ago, so thanks for reminding me about it!

Steph, It is a gripping read. The great thing is that it is quite short and so can be read in a single sitting. I hope that you enjoy it if you decide to give it a try.

At the time I read it, it didn’t have a big impact, but surprisingly I find myself thinking about it once in a while. I even remember the last two: I recommended it to a friend who doesn’t play chess because he gets to anxious thinking about the probabilities of the next moves (just like the player in the book) and the other thinking about how I would keep my brain busy if I was in jail, in solitary confinement…

Alex, I can see how it would be a book that would improve over time. I can imagine remembering the really good bits in the future and thinking about certain sections, but I don’t think I would ever play chess in jail – I’d prefer to think about the books I’d read 😉

Darker side of human nature, disturbing, obsession… right up my alley. I´m quickly going to order this and The Lotus Eaters and then do a pact with myself not to buy ANY books till the end of April!!! (OMG it´s like giving up drinking for Lent… can I do it) Can´t keep up with all these great recs!!!

Ifi, LOL! You may want to read the post I’ve just published before commiting to not buying any more books…. I think The History of History might be another one you want to look into 😉

I’m so pleased that you are finding my recommendations useful.

FleurFisher, You are right. I think a full length Zweig novel may get a 5 star rating from me, but the shortness did limit this book’s appeal. I do prefer a long and complex plot, but I think this proves that great writing can affect me however long it happens to be. 🙂

This sounds like a really interesting read & one I’ve been thinking about purchasing Toms (A common Readers post), now recommended here as well, I will check it out.
Ps. Have you read Yasunari Kawabata’s – The Master of Go, another book set around a Game.

Parrish, What a coincidence! We were tweeting about Master of Go yesterday! I haven’t read it, but after the little twitter chat yesterday it is very high on my list. I’ll let you know how it compares at some point in the future.

I’m not often a fan of books that deal with the darker side of human nature, but I’m not sure I can resist finding a copy of this one to read while my son is at chess tournaments!

I read it during a chess tournament this weekend, and wrote about it. Usually people don’t talk to me about what I’m reading during tournaments. These are not the most socially adroit folks you’ll ever meet.

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