Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Chess Story

A couple days ago I mentioned I was reading Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig; it's a short one, and I've finished it. I was sort of thrilled to recognize chess facts and names from my earlier reading and viewing of The Queen's Gambit, and noticed how a character in Chess Story can and must visualize the board the way Beth Harmon does, although without the help of green tranquilizers.

What I didn't expect was the strange pertinence of this novella to now, even though I have noticed weird coincidences in my "Covid reading" before. A character in Chess Story is held as a prisoner to get information out of him, and the form of psychological torture is "the most exquisite isolation imaginable." Yes, it's a form of solitary confinement but in a hotel. "They did nothing--other than subjecting us to complete nothingness. For, as is well known, nothing on earth puts more pressure on the human mind than nothing. Locking each of us into a total vacuum, a room hermetically sealed off from the outside world...." Well, you get the idea. I know people are truly suffering in their loneliness and isolation right now.

The prisoner suffers, and a doctor later gives him some relief, saying "Perfectly understandable when you get down to it," speaking of the forced isolation. "Since March 13, isn't it?" March 13 was when my own isolation began, a stay-at-home order beginning a work-from-home period until June 1. And I know that Friday the 13th was the end, and beginning, of something similar for a lot of us here in the USA. Imagine my shock at seeing that particular date in a book from 1941 that I was reading in 2021.

My recent reading has also delighted me with word meanings. I was reminded in Chess Story that a dilletante, that dabbler so often despised for surface involvement, is simply someone who delights in, say, the arts, as an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Zweig speaks of "a true dilettante in the best sense of the word, one who plays for the pure delight--that is, the diletto--of playing." I also looked up "antimacassar" (I think in The Queen's Gambit?), a word I always get from context, and delighted in the discovery that this upholstery protector = anti + Macassar, a brand of hair oil. Perfect!

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