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Old 04-18-2013, 01:10 PM   #31
ApK
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post
I had assumed Gay was from an intellectual family, but in fact they were solidly middle class.
Are those things mutually exclusive?

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I don't think Zweig is aging well, so I agree with your second comment. That was my real objection to Chess; it came across as rather fusty to me. Good when it was written, but not penetrating or original enough to achieve classic status. But there's nothing wrong with being highly readable and shining a light on contemporary attitudes. Social history more than literature, as it were.
I can see how I might have found the story more powerful had I been reading it in, say, the late 40s or early 50s. I'm having a hard time finding a synthesis between the chess component and the Nazi component.

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Old 04-18-2013, 01:32 PM   #32
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So I am late for the discussion. Being a cheapskate I requested a paper version through my local library and so did not read it until yesterday.

First off I really enjoyed the chess aspect. Thanks to fantasyfan for his post the reminded me of so much that I had forgotten, as well as informing me of some things that I had never known. I became and avid chess player during my last two years of high school and during first two years of college. I actually was inspired into really getting serious about chess by Bobby Fisher and his match with Boris Spassky. I never approached professional level, but did become a very good amateur player. So I did find the character of Czentovic largely realistic. Fisher was from a very early age a wizard at chess, but in almost all other aspects of life was unremarkable, if not incompetent. The only thing that I would question is Czentovic's inability to visualize the game, to play, without having the board and pieces in front of him. All the players that I have ever been aware of that achieve the world class (Grandmaster) level can actually play blindfold. In addition while they have a natural gift for chess, in order to be competitive at that level requires intense study; of openings, end games, combinations, historical games (especially of prospective opponents). No idiot savants. That is the reason I found the chess playing ability of Dr. B. unrealistic. As I said I became a very good amateur, but recall having the opportunity to play a simultaneous exhibition match against a International Master player along with about forty other players. While I was the last one to resign in knowledge of sure defeat, and while throughout the match the IM seemed to take longer to make a move when he came to my board, the final result was never really in doubt. That Dr. B. could have become a player of the level to defeat the world champion solely be studying a collection of games during his confinement is really the stuff of fiction. That actually leads to my next thought on the book.

I thought that Issybird hit it on the nail describing Zweig as seeing good versus evil in terms of social class. The upper class and petty bourgeoisie good, and the lower proletariat class “evil”. The contempt and resentment that the narrator (Zweig) holds for Czentovic for thinking that he [Czentovic] should think of himself as equal to or even superior to his social betters. Also that Czentovic should treat chess as a vocation to obtain wealth and improved social standing, instead of treating the game as something that has enough merit as a purely intellectual exercise. In real life I imagine that Zweig felt the same about the Nazis and how many anti-intellectual commoners were able to achieve such positions of power. I did read the edition that included the introduction Peter Gay and that did provide the information that Zwieg was a great admirer of Freud, considered modern psychological analysis a a world changing view of the world, and even wrote his stories with major consideration of that. In the end Dr. B. (Zwieg) is a broken man who cannot deal with permanent loss of the life and position that he enjoyed prior to the rise of the Nazis.

I also saw basically no connection between Czentovic and the Nazis, other than in Zwieg's views as described above. Czentovic was just someone who had found a way to achieve undreamt of success through his ability to play chess, and his behavior during the match with Dr. B. was typical of any fiercely competitive chess player. And anyone who reaches that level is. Zwieg does not indicate that Czentovic knew anything about Dr. B.'s past, his mental state, or even that he had any idea who this unexpectedly strong player was.

I found the discussion of using solitary confinement as a method of torture interesting after having read this article a couple of months ago. Jailhouse Blues. Inspired by the Quakers Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was opened 1829 and represented a major departure from viewing prisons purely as punishment, but more as a place of rehabilitation. The concept was that all prisoners would be kept in 24-hour solitary confinement and were expected to occupy the hours reading scripture, inspiring them to penitence (hence penitentiary). This inspired a movement to copy it across the US. In the end it turned out to be a case of great intentions gone horribly wrong. The prisoners kept for long under these conditions emerged totally unable to cope with society, if not driven outright insane. Attempting to be more humane in fact resulted in what amounted to cruel and inhuman punishment.

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Old 04-18-2013, 01:35 PM   #33
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Are those things mutually exclusive?
Of course not. By solidly, I meant to emphasize "middle." Middle class, middle income, middle brow. As opposed to decayed gentility, nouveau riche, bohemian, scholarly, or any other qualifier.
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Old 04-18-2013, 02:23 PM   #34
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I finished this story before most of this conversation began, and have been letting it all soak in, as it were.

I actually really enjoyed the story and think that it does stand up to the test of time, for two reasons. One is that it's still an enjoyable read (to me), all these years after it was written, and two is that I believe there are many ways to interpret the story. Even if the author meant one interpretation, it's written symbolically enough that others can be made (and were, by me!).

Regarding social class, I find this story very interesting. I do agree that Zweig perhaps was old-fashioned and perhaps didn't like the idea of social climbers. However, I do have to balance that with the history that he lived in, a world full of massive social upheaval, with a quick rise to power of people - a whole group of people - not only less wealthy and of a lower social class, but less educated and often anti-intellectual too, and that mixed with a persecution of his own class, his family, the people he knew and formerly well-off intellectuals in general.

However, perhaps he didn't mean to be subtle, but I took away subtleties anyway from the different characters of Czentovic and Dr. B. First is that Czentovic was taken in and raised by a priest who wasn't all that wealthy, so the priest was presented as a good character, and at least moderately intellectual, as he played chess. Second were the village chess players and other villagers proud of Czentovic. They also seemed like good people and moderately intellectual.

Next was Dr. B himself. He was lawyer for a very secretive firm, and the royalty and monasteries both were presented as secretive. Perhaps Zweig didn't mean that as a negative, only as a matter of course, but it still isn't the best light to shine the "good guys" in. I suppose he only used that plot point to have a reason for the Nazis to want to torture Dr. B in the way that they did, but still. Also, as a result of the Nazis torture, Dr. B is a little crazy, but nevertheless, he is still a bit crazy.

And finally, Czentovic himself. He is presented the entire story as this oaf of a man who has this strange brilliance for chess and chess alone. As someone who is an almost complete imbecile except for the complexities of chess movements. And yet, then, at the end of the story, what happens? He makes an astute psychological observation! It had nothing to do with chess movements and everything to do with a more keen, insightful intelligence. If he were the same lumbering Czentovic that we'd been presented with in the story up to that point, then he would've just altogether not paid any attention to whatever Dr. B did and only concentrated on the moves.

So why did Zweig do this? Was it something that he himself didn't notice? In his zeal to get the right allegorical story down, he didn't notice these subtle exceptions to the rules? Whatever the reason though, they're there in the story and that is what we are left with, and whether he meant them or not, I think that they're what really make the story.

I actually saw a possible alternate interpretation to the story from most, one that I'm almost sure that Zweig didn't mean, but nevertheless I saw it. In the allegorical history of things, what if Dr. B represented the lunatic tyrants of the world? Dr. B's manic energy during the last game reminded me of some tyrants throughout history and their own deranged zeal. While Czentovic represented the slow onward march of human civilisation? The point that could be taken away is that a tyrant can rule for a short time, but it never lasts. It may be slow and it may be obtuse as a whole compared with certain specific people, but human civilisation will win in the end, if by nothing else than just by outlasting the tyrant. And human civilisation will slowly better itself in the process as well.

Overall, I found the story rich and gave it an "excellent" rating.
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Old 04-18-2013, 08:06 PM   #35
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Really interesting ideas here, sun surfer - thank you. And thanks to everyone else too. For a short work it has certainly brought out some good discussion!

For me, I think Zweig means us to have sympathy for Dr B so I don't see him as representing tyrants, though I agree with issybird that he was clearly working for the old, privileged system that had been swept away, so in that he represented them. I think the book is of its time, but no less interesting to read because of that.

And that's a great point, sun surfer: Czentovic can't have been as stupid as we were meant to see him when he was able to read Dr B so well.
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Old 04-18-2013, 11:23 PM   #36
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And finally, Czentovic himself. He is presented the entire story as this oaf of a man who has this strange brilliance for chess and chess alone. As someone who is an almost complete imbecile except for the complexities of chess movements. And yet, then, at the end of the story, what happens? He makes an astute psychological observation! It had nothing to do with chess movements and everything to do with a more keen, insightful intelligence. If he were the same lumbering Czentovic that we'd been presented with in the story up to that point, then he would've just altogether not paid any attention to whatever Dr. B did and only concentrated on the moves.

So why did Zweig do this? Was it something that he himself didn't notice? In his zeal to get the right allegorical story down, he didn't notice these subtle exceptions to the rules? Whatever the reason though, they're there in the story and that is what we are left with, and whether he meant them or not, I think that they're what really make the story.
You stated that much better than I did. This is actually where I derived the majority of my respect for Czentovic. I still maintain that he was like a machine/computer that required a game or two to learn and could then consistently defeat that player. But the fact that he could take the input outside of the game itself was fascinating and, as you've mentioned, contrary to the impressions given of him previously. This is a man who required the board in front of him to play - and yet he can take input from an opponent's own psychological state and use that against him? Impressive and a little confusing when you already have a fairly set view of the character.
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Old 04-18-2013, 11:32 PM   #37
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I thought that Issybird hit it on the nail describing Zweig as seeing good versus evil in terms of social class. The upper class and petty bourgeoisie good, and the lower proletariat class “evil”. The contempt and resentment that the narrator (Zweig) holds for Czentovic for thinking that he [Czentovic] should think of himself as equal to or even superior to his social betters. Also that Czentovic should treat chess as a vocation to obtain wealth and improved social standing, instead of treating the game as something that has enough merit as a purely intellectual exercise. In real life I imagine that Zweig felt the same about the Nazis and how many anti-intellectual commoners were able to achieve such positions of power.
It's funny because as much as I read this and appreciate the observation - especially as I hadn't really thought in these terms myself, it's still hard for me to digest fully - mainly because Zweig ends up demonstrating the eventual victory of Czentovic in the story and the eventual weakness of Dr B. In a story of good vs evil, I can understand that there isn't a necessity for good to triumph in the end. However, at the same time it's hard to reconcile a feeling of contempt for Czentovic with the cleverness of his triumph.

Perhaps I would adjust the view slightly to say that the story might represent a sour and grudging recognition of the strength of the lower classes despite any feeling of contempt that might exist. We are superior and they are dogs - but look how they can crush us. That kind of thing.
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Old 04-19-2013, 03:06 PM   #38
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Sun surfer's comments certainly make a good case for the subtlety of this book. I liked particularly his point about social class which points out a complexity in the author's attitudes to this subject:

Regarding social class, I find this story very interesting. I do agree that Zweig perhaps was old-fashioned and perhaps didn't like the idea of social climbers. However, I do have to balance that with the history that he lived in, a world full of massive social upheaval, with a quick rise to power of people - a whole group of people - not only less wealthy and of a lower social class, but less educated and often anti-intellectual too, and that mixed with a persecution of his own class, his family, the people he knew and formerly well-off intellectuals in general.

I wasn't impressed with Czentovic's portrayal at all when I read the book, but I really didn't notice the point made by Sun surfer:

And finally, Czentovic himself. He is presented the entire story as this oaf of a man who has this strange brilliance for chess and chess alone. As someone who is an almost complete imbecile except for the complexities of chess movements. And yet, then, at the end of the story, what happens? He makes an astute psychological observation! It had nothing to do with chess movements and everything to do with a more keen, insightful intelligence. If he were the same lumbering Czentovic that we'd been presented with in the story up to that point, then he would've just altogether not paid any attention to whatever Dr. B did and only concentrated on the moves.

I wouldn't go quite as far as Sun Surfer in seeing Dr B as a villain {perhaps unwittingly made so by Zweig} but I'm going to have to think through my ideas about his rival! My main difficulty with his portrayal was perfectly expressed by Hamlet 53 who made the point in his fine post that Chess Grandmasters simply don't think the way Ctenovic does. They have an amazing power to visualise. (Gerald Abrahams discusses this in his book The Chess Mind.) Perhaps Zweig has decided to simply subvert this quality in order to give an edge to that final unexpected remark of the Champion. Could Ctenovic be an image of the Nazi mind-set--an approach to life which "works" on a purely mechanical level but which has nothing to do with the intrinsic worth and beauty of humanity?

Thanks for that thoughtful post, Sun surfer!

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Old 04-21-2013, 05:20 PM   #39
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As usual, I am greatly enjoying all the lucid contribution above, you all really make the reading of any book so vastly more interesting and stimulating!

I am also glad that most of you seem to have enjoyed the book, as I felt somewhat responsible for nominating it. In fact, I am among the minority who did not like it particularly. To the negatives that have been highlighted already I will add that several passages were plain irritating to me, and I found the comparison (repeated twice if memory serves me well) between the isolation Dr. B was put into with what went on in concentration camps frankly unbearable.

Most of my irritation stemmed from finding various descriptions unbelievable, from the personality of the champion to the implicit smugness of the narrator, apparently the only person on the boat able to understand the internal turmoil of Dr. B in the last game, as if only the knowledge he himself had acquired (by virtue of his charm?) about Dr. B's background would allow anyone to detect anomalies in his behaviour, which on the other hand is described as patently rather deranged.

Of course, it did read very well (and I must assume it wasn't just the translation), but in the end I cannot say I enjoyed it. Glad most other did, though, and again thankful for this enlightening discussion!
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Old 04-25-2013, 08:21 AM   #40
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I've read it now, and I don't think there's much I can add to the erudite commentary already posted.

I really wanted to like Chess - I was in the chess team at school (and my brother actually represented our country in the game), and I later used a chess manual similar to that described in the story to improve my game and finally start consistently beating the brother of a friend who until then had regularly wiped the floor with me. So I definitely had a connection to the story. The problem for me was the way it shifted from Czentovic, whose story was a fascinating one that could have really gone somewhere, and turned him into an unpleasant and greedy opportunist with no further development (apart, perhaps, for his brinkmanship at the end). At the same time I lost a lot of sympathy for Dr. B because of his contempt for the ordinary man, so I had a hard time identifying with anyone in the story. I found it somewhat depressing in that respect, and can see potential foreshadowing of his suicide in the ultimate negativity of the tale.

I also struggled with the idea of someone being able to play chess with himself in his mind, though I laud Zweig's plot contrivance - an interesting concept that didn't quite convince me.

All in all, I'm happy to have read it, and read the discussion, but it hasn't prompted me to read any more of his works.
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