Saturday, December 6, 2008

Burt Hochberg's "The 64-Square Looking Glass": Book Review.

This handsome anthology gathers forty-four entries that examine "the great game of chess in world literature." They range from mysteries to poetry, tournament accounts to fantasy contests, allegory to journalism. Intelligently sequenced and informatively (if too sparingly) introduced, this volume may appeal too to readers who aren't masters of the ancient pursuit. My review's lengthy, but I wish to give an overview of each of the selections, as details may not be found readily on-line.

The first section covers "Chess Itself." Charles Krauthammer's essay attacks the association by what Nabokov (in his preface to "The Defense") called "the Viennese delegation" too eager to reduce the struggle to a Freudian wish that "sees Mom in his Queen and Pop in his opponent's King." (qtd. 10) Krauthammer might also have noted that Alexander Cockburn in his “hilariously reductionist” equation of chess with neurosis managed to discuss "Defense" in detail without citing Nabokov's own dismissal of the interpretation relied upon by Cockburn or Reuben Fine! Of course, Freudians simply retaliate that their woodpushing opponents repress insecurities. (I reviewed "Idle Passion," and "The Defense," recently here and on Amazon US).

Nabokov's excerpt from his "Speak, Memory" autobiography's also here, along with Andrew Waterman's considerations of Fine and Marcel Duchamp (always a cameo in every chess history), with other ambivalent critic-players. Ezra Pound and Lord Dunsany provide verse. The second section, "Obsession," logically moves into the drives that the first part ignited. "The Defense" and Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game," proof-texts for Cockburn and Waterman, present worst-case scenarios. These are balanced by Walter Tevis' portrayal of an orphaned teenaged girl and narcotics addict who rises to the championship, "The Queen's Gambit." Alan Sharp's "Night Moves" detective yarn did not captivate me, but I liked the gumshoe repartee about another gal's dubious charms: "'Did she offer you the key to the city?' 'It was more of a guided tour.'" (75) Miguel de Unamuno's "The Novel of Don Sandino, Chessplayer," seemed mired in proto-existential gloom, but it does evoke reliably "this solitary vice of two men together in company." (78) Women-- as Tevis' Beth proves the exception to the rule-- rarely appear as players, and not often even as spectators.

"Only a Pawn," section three, I enjoyed. Lewis Carroll's Red Queen match, that baffled many besides Alice, here gets solved as A. L. Taylor's ingenious essay "The White Knight": "it would be illogical to expect logic in a game dreamed by a child." What Alice sees depends on her limitations. The moral? "This is a pawn's impression of chess, which is like a human being's impression of life." (94) Flowing into Borges' poetic analogy of dreamers dreaming gamers, detouring into Ian Fleming's "From Russia With Love" chapter, the analogy's expanded into Poul Anderson's clever depiction of "The Immortal Game" of 1851 loosely imagined as if played by robot simulators who don't understand why they move as they must. Slawomir Mrozek's "Check!" occupies a gloomier, allegorical setting to show, as befitting his Polish context, the breakdown of such imposed order when run by incompetent masters. It drags on as long as the game it narrates does, however; I prefer Anderson's flair to Mrozek's dispassion.

Part Four introduces "Players Real & Imagined." Elias Canetti-- as Hochberg notes an "astounding coincidence" of a fictional mad player named Fischer-- in his 1935 novel "Auto-da-Fé," anticipates eerily in this excerpt the rise of the champion himself. Brad Leithauser's "Hence" pits a Fischer-like protagonist against a Deep Blue precursor, ANNDY, who delights in dumbing down what humanist Timothy Briggs defends: "the machine can never replace the human being." He warns the spectators: "you honestly don't think hard enough." (148) Robert Lowell's poem "The Winner" assembles Fischerisms into a brief but insightful meditation on celebrity.

Julian Barnes in "Playing Chess with Arthur Koestler" shares five matches in summer 1982 before the elder man's death from Parkinson's. It's a standout inclusion. In Suffolk, Barnes visits the old Hungarian; "Nature is parodying itself for a city dweller charmed by the simplest country sights." (157) Barnes deftly combines raw gamesmanship with an honest evaluation of Koestler's character. "We met over chess, that trivial pursuit which refers to nothing else in life, to nothing significant, and yet which engages our full seriousness." (160)

John Griffith's "The Memory Man" espionage novel has a few pages on the life of a professional player in decline. The reality of the hardship compared with the compulsion to continue puzzles many a non-player unable to fathom "the game that had dignified his life." (165) Sholem Aleichem's unnerving, enigmatic tale of Tsarist Russia, "From Passover to Succos, or the Chess Player's Story," shows the unintended consequences of poor Rubinstein's prowess. The Jewish dominance of chess by Rubinstein's escaped landsmen at the Manhattan Chess Club enters Alfred Kreymborg's scattershot first-person account, "Chess Reclaims a Devotee." While its player's perspective's valuable, for it's a rare one even in this anthology, the essay's erratically organized and as casually arranged as its pick-up games between such adepts as Ziegenschwartz & Levkowitz. Readers of "The Chess Artist" by J.C. Hallman (also reviewed by me here and at Amazon US) may compare Kreymborg's half-century at the MCC with a more recent depiction of that location and NYC's chess culture. "The Last Gambit" excerpts another whodunit, this time set in Philly’s Quaker Club counterpart to the Big Apple, by David Delmar. "Chess players, a diverse enough breed, all had that much in common: the game first, civilities second." (194)

Part Five rouses "Caprices & Caricatures." The frenetic con man's inspiration for Mel Brooks' chess-less film "The Twelve Chairs" (1970) can be found with "Ilf & Petrov," aka Ilya Fainzilberg & Yevgeny Katayev, in their spirited 1928 Soviet satire. Samuel Beckett's wry rendering of a “Zweispringerspiel," or Two-Knights-Game, into a "Z---spott," or "...joke." This scene from his 1938 novel "Murphy" gives his mordantly funny view of an Irish male nurse's contest against a mental patient, Mr Endon. "(Finished on time a round was called a virgin; ahead of time, an Irish virgin.") (218)

I've never found the Canadian humor of Stephen Leacock up to his reputation. “Pawn to King’s Four” does, nonetheless, evoke a sinister aura (I like his glance at a few blind players with pegged boards in the corner) around a chess club's denizens. Woody Allen’s “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers” delves into correspondence chess; its epistolary construction may remain, as Hochberg introduces it, "probably the funniest story about chess," but this is a volume rather low on humor, at least overt or uproariously contrived.

E.M. Forster’s wit's subtler. His “Chess at Cracow” reports elegantly and with precise observation on a living exhibition of chess figures.
"How charmingly, on this occasion, was the stupidity of the castles indicated by some low, eye-shaped windows in the neighbourhood of their knees! I had never before understood why castles are so difficult to manage. What a settled despair lurked in the beards of the kings! The knights rocked to and fro on their squares, even more indifferent than usual to their immediate neighbours, and the pawns were like overgrown children, defenceless yet dangerous." (238)
He enlivens what Mrozek’s story deadened; but Forster's visit preceded blitzkrieg or Stalinism.

The sixth section, “Love New & Remembered,” dramatizes, in somewhat musty parlors, chess as a struggle to win over the one he or she courts. Anne Brontë’s last novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1848), Thomas Hardy’s “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” (1878), and Sinclair Lewis’s “Cass Timberlane” reveal symbolic strategems. Notably, the women, especially Hardy's Elfride, prove wily if distraught rivals. The “rueful poem ‘The Chess-Board’” by the son of Baron Lytton, E.R. Bulmer Lytton, lives up or down to the literary inheritance you’d expect from that morose Victorian lineage.

Section seven, “Three Tantrums,” promises more verve. Tennyson’s verse-play “Becket” (1884) anticipates T.S. Eliot's poetic drama. We find a scene from Alexander Cockburn’s father Claud’s novel “Beat the Devil,” published psuedonymously in 1951 and soon a film with Bogart and Jennifer Jones. The pulp prose of elder Cockburn’s more boilerplate, less erudite, than his son’s in “Idle Passion,” no doubt. The fabulist Spencer Holst in “Chess” simplifies matters with a concise moral, within one of his “tiny tales for adults in the guise of children’s stories.” (274)

The penultimate section, “Moved to Murder,” confronts less idle passions aroused by the humiliation of defeat. Theodore Mathieson’s “The Chess Partner” follows a fellow desperate to beat his rival, so as to hold on to his beloved. Henry Slesar’s “The Poisoned Pawn” concocts a tale of revenge based upon an ingenious trick of a "shadow player," one game as white, the other black, manipulating a correspondence set-up a third opponent using the moves of the other game's opposite player! (It's easier than it sounds to follow.) Harry Kemelman’s “End Play” exhibits how a chess position helps solve a murder. The story entangles itself in whodunit fashion, despite this!

Finally, “Confronting the Enemy” offers three fiction writers’ scenarios that heighten the drama of a match between champion-level players. From “The Tower Struck by Lightning,” Fernando Arrabal bases his dramatic showdown on a 1922 Capablanca draw. Not quite a story so much as a semi-fictional essay, but it does discuss in compressed form many themes elaborated elsewhere in the literature. Arrabal also demolishes Reuben Fine's Freudianism.

Martin Amis’ “Money: A Suicide Note” features John Self's ego vs. the author in this spirited, self-referential bout of 80s "greed is good" excess. Kurt Vonnegut imagines a Cold War slangy confrontation, a form of psy-ops torture merged with living chess, “All the King’s Horses,” (1953). A flaw common with much speculative fiction: it starts off with a promising idea that fails to satisfy. In 1965's "The 'Victory'-- A Story with Exaggerations," Vasily Aksynov's “subtle commentary on the relationship between the artist and society in Soviet Russia” (346) illustrates for a final time the many levels on which this simple game can be raised to profound heights.

Hochberg, a proven editor on-- and exponent of-- the great game himself, arranges the collection sensibly. There's one flaw: his notes prove so sparse that often we lack contexts. A few prefaces, as for Arrabal or Anderson, relating to famous games revamped in the entries, are informative. But, his acknowledgements page leaves out many dates of publication or copyright. We need insight into how the various entries in each section illustrated larger themes beyond the mere topic related to chess. These intertextual strategies do emerge for the careful spectator, but a chess writer of Hochberg's rank could have enriched his valuable volume with "color commentary" to educate those only "patzers" or kibitzers within his audience.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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