Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The 64-Square Looking Glass

The Great Game of Chess in World Literature

Chess in fiction is most often employed as a superficial metaphor or shallow plot device. There are a number of reasons for this, which probably explains why chess stories are scarce and chess novels even scarcer.

Nevertheless I keep hoping to find a few fictional offerings that genuinely communicate the excitement and dazzle of the game, or at least offer a fresh take on it. Thus I was very pleased to come across this anthology, the most comprehensive I've found so far. It includes a wide selection of verse, non-fiction, short stories, and novel excerpts.

Non-Fiction - 7 selections

The two pieces I enjoyed most are:

"Playing Chess with Arthur Koestler" by Julian Barnes
"Chess Reclaims a Devotee" by Alfred Kreymborg

I've never read anything by Julian Barnes before, but this piece convinced me I must read more. The others are:

Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory
E.M. Forster, from "Our Diversions" in Abinger Harvest
Charles Krauthammer, "The Romance of Chess"
A.L. Taylor, from The White Knight: A Study of C. L. Dodgson
Andrew Waterman, from his introduction to The Poetry of Chess, an anthology of chess poetry

Verse - 6 selections

Jorge Luis Borges, "Chess"
Lord Dunsany, "The Sea and Chess"
Robert Lowell, "The Winner"
Ezra Pound, "The Game of Chess"
Lord Tennyson, excerpt from Beckett (a verse play)
Bulwer-Lytton, "The Chess-Board" (not that Bulwer-Lytton)

Short Stories - 13 selections

The two I enjoyed most are both humorous:

"Check!" by Slawomir Mrozek
"The Gossage-Varebedian Papers" by Woody Allen

The first (from The Ugupu Bird) is an amusing account of players in a living chess match taking matters into their own hands. The Woody Allen piece is about a postal match gone horribly wrong, and has been called the funniest story ever written about chess. I won't disagree. It can be found online in a number of places.

There is also an excerpt from the novella "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig, thought by some to be the best story ever written about chess.

Of the remainder, two are by famous authors -- "All the King's Men" by Kurt Vonnegut (from Welcome to the Monkey House), and "Pawn to King's Four" by Stephen Leacock (from Happy Stories Just to Laugh At).

Three are crime stories:
Harry Kemelman, "End Play"
Theodore Mathieson, "The Chess Partner"
Henry Slesar, "The Poisoned Pawn"

And the rest are:
Poul Anderson, "The Immortal Game"
Spencer Holst, "Chess" from The Language of Cats and Other Stories
Vasily Aksyonov, "The Victory -- A Story with Exaggerations"
Miguel de Unamuno, "The Novel of Dan Sandalio, Chessplayer" from Ficciones
Sholem Aleichem, "From Passover to Succos, or The Chess Player's Story" from Tevye's Daughters

Novel Excerpts - 17 selections

Several come from the hand of famous authors:
Martin Amis, Money
Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes
Sinclair Lewis, Cass Timberlane
Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense

Four are from detective or espionage novels:
Ian Fleming, From Russia with Love
David Delman, The Last Gambit
John Griffiths, The Memory Man
Alan Sharp, Night Moves

The rest are:
Walter Tevis, The Queen's Gambit
Brad Leithauser, Hence
Claud Cockburn, Beat the Devil
Ilf and Petrov, The Twelve Chairs
Fernando Arrabal, The Tower Struck by Lighting
Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe (Canetti was the Nobel winner for literature in 1981)