Monday, September 15, 2008

J.C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist": Book Review.

Reviewers on Amazon (where this was posted today; see also my review there and on this blog-- the latter put up last month-- of his later book about William James & the past century's newer American religious movements, "The Devil Was A Gentleman") split between chess players and those outside the game. As the latter, I confess that much of the aura about the contests and milieux described dimmed for me as I read. That is, I found it difficult to get into the action. However, Hallman intersperses short chapters about each piece, its history and development, and its significance. These explanatory exegeses do assist the beginner or non-player.

As Hallman says of Glenn's playing over four hundred tournament games, it's like "he had written four hundred sonnets, in public, while opponents who didn't particularly like him tried to write better sonnets using the same words." (35) The Mongolian "queen" who becomes his pal and opponent, the shifting crew of translators in Kalmykia who may be spies, and the assorted misfits that Hallman meets along his path into chess's labyrinth do enliven the tales he tells, and you do understand the strangeness of a game that, as he says, is the only one in which a player must resign, rather than just losing when the time runs out. This pressure, this showdown, and this battle does heighten the emotional costs for those so committed.

The book's organized rather ambitiously. At its core, there's the journey Hallman and Glenn take to Kalmykia. That Russian statelet on the Caspian Sea, built on a seismically subsiding ocean bed now turning to desert, sounds dismal. "The Kalmyk suburban vision was less an idealized America, than a real one. They had shot for Disneyland, but instead achieved a squalor only slightly less perfect than their own." (167) Such is Chess City, already sinking into the steppe outside the capital.

The lure of a fanatical chess champion turned president (for life?) who wants to make the satrap an international powerhouse in the game attracts the pair to the nation. However, as the author finds during what seems like an endless exile there: "We had come to Russia to seek its absurdity, but the most absurd thing we found was us." (252) While Hallman takes pains to delve into the intricacies of Kalmyk history, its ties to Russian and Chinese developments in chess evolution, its curious status as the sole European outpost of Tibetan Buddhism, and especially the links between chess, madness, religion, art and mathematics, much of the narrative unfolds slowly. You feel mired in the middle of the "Caspian Depression" so mapped.

Chapters about NYC tournaments, Princeton's players, and those in prison in Virginia and Michigan break up the main sections in Kalymkia. This proves a bit disorienting, but Hallman seems to have understood how difficult illuminating the Kalmykian passion for chess had become, and how elusive his main figure, Glenn, remained even after a year-and-a-half of accompanying him about and becoming his "second" for matches, a sort of go-between with other players as his handler. I predict chess players may peruse these pages with a different sensibility, however. They may find themselves better tuned to the tension, drama, and magic in this game, "an art of dreamlike impermanence." (296)

My favorite section came late in the telling. Hallman has wearied of the pressure, and begins to distrust chess as an ideal. "How could a game that lent itself so easily to bad dreams and visions of combat do anything to teach patience, morality, or forgiveness?" (266) The dreams of Kalmykia, of chess as prison rehabilitation, or of patriotic inspiration, appear nightmares. Certainly, an encounter with the enigmatic player Bloodgood incarcerated in Virginia chills Hallman and will do the same for you. Somehow, Hallman and Glenn talk their way into Jackson, Michigan, to see how its inmates play.

As a game without words or eye contact, "a secular technology of communion," Hallman gains an epiphany while watching Glenn do a "simul," a mass game against many opponents at Jackson. The writer figures out the hypnotic spell. Chess appears to transcend those who use it "to compare rather than share." Hallman reflects:
"Like an idea of God, chess would not fully succumb to the petty influence of organized veneration. Its purity would occasionally resurface, like statues crying or bleeding in odd corners of the world, a school, a monastery, a throne room, a prison. Its grand metaphor was something beyond politics and certainly beyond war or simple melee, but it was also beyond that which language was yet able to describe, and it was malleable, immune, and immortal. The game had come from man, but it was alive now and, like a computer, beyond him-- and it cared not how men tried to use it." (294)
You may not be surprised that Hallman followed up this book with an investigation into how fringe religions coalesce. The preparation spent in his years working on this meditation-travelogue-journalism about the world of chess triggered, it seems, his deeper forays into why we gravitate towards what compels us. At the end of the tale, Glenn appeared to me about as unknowable as ever, and perhaps this is the lesson. There's a core that seeks fulfillment that some find in chess, some in gods, and Hallman here wonders if there might somehow beyond words exist their unity.

J.C. Hallman's Homepage.

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