on 10 June 2011
On the surface the two novellas in this book are very similar, they are about lives ruined by obsession with a game, albeit one is roulette and the other is chess. They are, however, very different.
24 Hours in the Life of a Woman is much more about passion (of a woman for a man, and of a man for gambling) whereas The Royal Game is about the struggle between Dr B, who has lived entirely in his imagination, and Czentovic, who is uncouth and unimaginative away from the chessboard. The second story could be seen as an allegory of the brutality of Nazism (which Zweig fled) and its suppression of thought and the intellect.
The difficulty with 24 Hours is that it deals with a subject that had to be treated with some delicacy in the period it was written (1927). The emphasis is on the emotional aspects of the relationship, so the physical side is neglected. As a result, the unnamed Englishwoman's sudden infatuation is portrayed as irrational, but it is implied that it is the sort of thing that might happen to a woman, but not to a rational creature such as a man. Some readers might find this a bit sexist, although in fairness the Polish aristocrat's obsessive gambling is no less irrational, and far more damaging to himself and others.
The Royal Game is much more about the danger of disassociating both imagination from reality (which happens to Dr B' during his incarceration) and reality from imagination (as personified by the lumbering Czentovic). Zweig is on surer ground here, and the characters of the protagonists more clearly drawn.
The format of the two stories is similar, they are told by an unnamed narrator who is removed from the main events. This gives an air of detachment, and the novellas are more about observing life than about dramatic tension or twists in the tail. Overall, these are curiosity pieces, redolent of a bygone age and sensibility. However, they are interesting and thought provoking, and are worth a read if you are attracted to stories that are more psychological than dramatic and to a more old-fashioned style of writing.
The first of these two stories from either end of Zweig's career highlight his concern for the lives and desires of women, and the way in which an obsession can develop from a random set of circumstances, and become close to insanity.
Twenty-four Hours...is a not untypical tale of a woman in love and despair, translated by Anthea Bell, and is as essential - or as disposable, if your name is Michael Hofmann - as anything by this perceptively wily writer.
The Royal Game is something very special indeed, a story whose worth should be trumpeted from the rooftops.
Ostensibly, it is a tale of a game (or several) of chess aboard an ocean liner bound for Buenos Aires, involving a surly, monosyllabic international chess master, the reserved but necessarily inquisitive narrator, and a man whose incidental brilliance at the titular 'royal game' hides a deeper, tragic truth.
I was riveted by this story, and you will be too, whether you know anything about chess or not (though a slight knowledge might help). It touches on not only obsession, but also near-insanity, the uniquely odd foibles and character traits of certain chess masters, and - more important perhaps - the insidious tyranny of the Nazis in Europe in the early forties, when the tale was written: one of Zweig's last, strongly translated here by B.W. Huebsch in 1944, two years after the author and his wife commited suicide together in Brazil.
Zweig was, in my opinion, just about as important a writer of the early twentieth century as we have, and all his stories, which have now been comprehensively translated and newly published, are a treasure beyond price.
Here are two of the best.