I think I first heard about the Chess story in a Slack channel discussion about leadership – I think someone mentioned it as a favourite book, but I can no longer find the message. In any event, I sought the book out as I was hoping for something good to fit the “translation” category for this year’s book list. I was most delighted that I did.
The book includes four stories – two short stories and two novellas, all involving travel of some kind. There is a common conceit employed: the main narrative involves characters telling the story to another person, and so almost all of the action of the story is a kind of flashback. I didn’t really notice this at first, as the stories are so interesting and compelling; by the fourth story the mechanism was obvious but not at all off-putting as it is handled brilliantly by the author. Zwieg provides a current context and a set of characters that make the telling of the story meaningful and essential. Whether the art of Zwieg or of the translator or both, the language is excellent.
While all of the stories are excellent, the first two are exceptional. “The Invisible Collection” is a surprising and heart-breaking short story about an art dealer whose scheming avarice is corrected to compassion through a shared love of art and beauty. “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” is an extremely well-told story about an elderly woman’s opportunity to unburden herself of a story from her middle-age. This novella was a page-turner, and an exceptionally perceptive story about experiences that most women (and likely many men) could relate to: incidents that combine strength, compassion, shame, and loss that become secret parts of complex backstories that make each person who they are. This story was also decidedly modern, as other than technological advances (ex. horse-and-carriage to motorcar) it could easily have taken place any time prior to ~2010.
The other stories are also quite good. “Incident on Lake Geneva” is sad and perhaps heavy-handed as an obvious commentary on war and the mistreatment of people, but still moving. “A Game of Chess” is also good (although requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of the game to understand the story) with a similarly obvious commentary on the abuses of war and conquerors, in this case Nazi Germany specifically.
As with all excellent short stories, Zweig manages to create whole characters and almost tangible atmospheres very quickly and effectively, while still maintaining some elements of surprise and reveal. Even when you can sense the inexorable path of the story, you still want to read on and be a part of the characters’ revelation, despair, or redemption.
I found this book remarkable – I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did, or to be able to finish it in one day (it is only 150 pages, but still). Zweig is now on my list of authors to be sought out for further future reading.