I had always seen Stefan Zweig's book on Marie Antoinette on our shelves and thought to myself that I was one day going to read this Austrian author. Unfortunately Marie Antoinette always seemed a bit too hefty (I'm ashamed to admit!) and there was always this or that other book that caught my fancy. Recently, I picked up Chess, Zweig's last novel before he and his wife committed suicide and was utterly captivated by his writing.
The tale is simple. Passengers on board a cruise ship bound for Brazil are pleased to discover that the world’s greatest Chess master is their co-passenger. Some of them naturally take it upon themselves to challenge him to a game which they promptly lose. Undaunted they challenge him again and once again they seem to be losing till someone intervenes in their favor. The identity of the stranger is the crux upon which the whole story revolves and ultimately ends.
It is a tribute to Zweig’s outstanding writing prowess that his story grips you from the first page and stays with you long after. Days after I’ve finished it, I’m still haunted by the main protagonist of the story which you will see is not after all the great Chess master. And closer introspection reveals complex layers under the seemingly simple story. What makes it outstanding is the deftly told psychological aspect of the tale. As it turns out, the story takes place within the environs of World War II and as such the story is suffused by the horror felt by the author at the psychological brutalities suffered by and imposed on the casualties of this particular war. And out of fear of giving too much of the story away, I will only say that Zweig’s prose will send chills up your spine even if you’re reading it in the clear light of day.