Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Not Playing to Win

Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw by Thomas Glavinic

By one estimate there are 10 to the fortieth possible chess positions--maybe, but let's just say there's a lot of them.  I know, or I've heard, that there are 70,000 credible positions after the first seven moves of a game, a number that is somewhat easier to grasp.  Anyone who has played the game with any seriousness would agree that chess is "infinite," that is, the complexity of the thing is such that playing a great deal, as I once did, is likely to engage one's attention and excite one's passions as few other human endeavors are capable of doing. Once I was locked in a long game, going on three hours, in a tournament in New York City (full disclosure: I was then, and am now, a patzer), and had one of those moments that I so often have of "chess blindness"--not seeing a simple threat that lost the game.  As my opponent walked off to record his win, I sat transfixed, staring at the board, unable to believe that I had made such an elementary blunder.  I obsessed about that game for hours, played it over, cursed my stupidity, etc.  In other words, I was totally happy, completely engaged with the ideas behind the position, the what-ifs and all the simple moves I could have made to equalize or even win.  That's the way chess can be--mesmerizing, hypnotic, a form of thinking akin to doing mathematics or playing music at a high level of competence (I do neither).  "Chess is life" as the tee-shirt says. Not for me, not anymore, but for a brief time I could taste the obsession that drives so many to love the game more than anything--or to go mad with the endless complexity of it, or perhaps (I hate to say this), with its ultimate meaninglessness.

In 1923, Marcel Duchamp abandoned art for chess ("I am a victim of chess; it has all the beauty of art").  In fact, Duchamp co-authored a theoretical volume on what is called "the opposition" (in the endgame, the king's ability to defend the ring of squares that surround it) and "sister squares" that has some bearing on the book under review--which I'll get to before long--this is still the opening gambit.

Most people who read Nabokov don't read The Defense (or The Luzhin Defense), a book from his Russian period which is not only a fine novel but was made into the only decent chess film I have ever seen (starring John Turturro).  Nabokov composed endgame problems of great beauty and subtlety, with structures not unlike those of his fictions.  Here he is with Vera, his wife, also a fine player.

I have here on my shelves several novels about chess: there's Walter Tevis's wonderful story of a young woman chess prodigy called The Queen's Gambit which is smart about chess and human psychology (Tevis wrote The Hustler and was a passionate pool player but confessed to a greater passion for chess).   Among the finest novels ever written on the subject of chess is Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, published in 1942 and reissued by New York Review Press not too long ago. In Zweig's novel chess saves a man's sanity instead of eroding it.  Thanks perhaps to the popular image of Bobby Fischer--a tragic figure who was one of the finest players of all time, a player to be ranked with Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Tal, and Garry Kasparov--Fischer, who lived only for chess and went mad as a result, has become a kind of anti-hero in chess fiction, a warning against the dangers of the game's allurements, or perhaps a warning against thinking too hard.  Other serious books featuring chess and chess players that I recommend are The Luneberg Variation by Paolo Maurensig (1993) and, among my perferred novels of any sort, Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla, about which I have been meaning to write for months. Here's Bobby at a tournament in Leipzig in the mid-1960's.

It was with considerable pleasure that I sat down this summer to read Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw by Thomas Glavinic, whose eerie and creepy Night Work I read a couple of years ago and found--how shall I put it? Indigestible.  But I knew I'd like CHLOTD since it was described as a fictionalized account of a real and quite well-known championship match between the Austrian grandmaster Karl Schlechter and the virtually unbeatable World Champion German grandmaster Emmanuel Lasker.  The fame, or notoriety, of this match--which took place in Vienna and Berlin in 1910--stems from the remarkable fact that Schlechter was one win, and perhaps one move, away from the championship when, in the tenth and final game he blundered in a winning position and ended up with a draw; as a result lost the match to Lasker (who retained his title due to the tie).  Schlechter's "love" of the draw is of course ironic, but in Glavinic's fictionalized account of the match and of Schlechter's psychological state, the fatal blunder takes on the character of a cosmic judgement against Haffner/Schlechter--always a conservative player, he takes a chance that is out of character and loses everything.

"The move [Haffner] had chosen was even stronger, viewed objectively, but it was an attacking move that precluded a draw [which was all Haffner needed to win the match]. There was no doubt about it, someone must have doctored his coffee. [Haffner] had lost his wits: he was playing to win."

Never before has Haffner risked anything--neither in chess nor in his life--and at the verge of a great triumph he becomes, for the first time, "obsessed with winning at all costs."   But it isn't ambition that costs Haffner the game but a simple blunder, a moment of chess blindness, a break in the absolute concentration that separates the great players from those who can yearn only for a draw.

Glavinic's is the best fictional account of a high-level chess match I have ever read.  The psychological tension and politics of chess are on display, as is the complex inner life of Haffner, a man who was at times obstuse in his private affairs, ambivilent in his relationships, dispassionate even in his great love for chess, and yet, at the moment when his life might have been redeemed, he (perhaps) threw away the prize deliberately by not, for the first time, "loving the draw."

How often I think that I have opted to merely "break even" in life--in a way this is the question Galvinic's novel explores--the cost of risks, the comfort of losing, the zugzwang that is the bane of our lives.

I believe that's Lasker seated on the right, Schlechter on the left.

Thomas Glavinic, born in 1972 in Graz, is a strong chess player and the author of four novels available in English--he is considered to be among the finest young Austrian writers.  Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw was his first book.

This link will take you to the tenth game of Lasker-Schlechter, with annotations by Jose Raul Capablanca.  The blunder comes on the 64th move.

Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw is published by The Harvill Press of London.

George Ovitt (9/26/13)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Blood Feud

L'Homme au canon by Dritero Agolli

Dritero Agolli is primarily a poet who writes in Albanian and whose works are available in a few English and French translations.  Educated in Leningrad, Agolli was for many years the head of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists--apparently a member of the nomenklatura and, after 1990, an important political figure, a member of the Albanian Socialist Party in that nation's parliament.  I have been digging around and trying to learn more about this important and prolific writer--a man of peasant stock, born in 1931 in Menkulas, one of those writers who, like Andre Malraux or Vaclav Havel, successfully combined a life of public service with a life of writing.  Agolli served two masters for many years--the Communist Party of Albania and his own poetic muse--an interesting and difficult terrain to negotiate in any milieu, but especially so, one would imagine, in the isolated Stalinist enclave that was Albania. I haven't been able to find much of his poetry in English (there's a bit more in French but see the link below)--here's one:

Ah, ditët e qeta
U tretën aq larg
Të djegura shkrumb!
Ah, quiet days
vanished in distance
burnt to ashes! ...
Hëna e ftohtë në pellg,
Korbi çlodhet në shelg
buzën e gjelbër të lumit
cool moon in the pond,
raven resting on a willow
on the green river bank
Kur humb një grua,
Shter një krua
Dhe vdes në zall nga etja
when a woman is lost,
a spring dries up
and dies of thirst on the sand
Albanian is an Indo-European language, a solitary branch of that great ocean of tongues that exists apart from all others.  The look of it on the page is extraordinary-- rich and impenetrable.  I'm far too old to take it on, despite my interest in the country and its literature; we have lots of Ismail Kadare in English, but when it comes to the more obscure Albanian writers like Anton Harapi, Mustafa Greblleshi, Rexjep Qosja and others we must make do with translations or second-hand accounts.


L'Homme au canon, is set at the end of World War II,  in the tense period when Albania was caught between fascists and communists, nationalists and those whose lives were defined by highly localized and atavistic vendettas.  Agolli tells the story of Mato Gruda, a peasant who is involved in a blood feud with the Fizis clan--a feud of the sort that can never be resolved as each  shedding of blood requires that yet more blood be shed.  The village is dominated by a handful of families, and many of those have been decimated by internecine violence (as in Corleone, the village of Don Corleone in The Godfather). One day Mato discovers an abandoned Italian canon in the forest outside the village and decides that he will use it as a weapon to appease the hatred that consumes his life.  However, as he prepares to blow his enemies to bits, risking an end to his own life's purpose, his village becomes the object of a greater struggle between fascists and communist partisans.  The moral dilemma at the center of the novel places an ancestral and primitive desire for vengeance against the geopolitical realities of the crucial period right after the War, the period when Albania's fate as an isolated and insular nation would be sealed. Mato, caught in a web of conflicting loyalties, must decide on a course of action that promises no ultimate resolution.  L'Homme au canon is bereft of heroes or of nobility; its narrow world is defined by history and fate more than any form of human agency. In these regards it feels very much like the situations described by Kadare in his great novels.

The canon (a pun?) acquires a magical status--destructive to be sure, but also a source of power and domination that can be deployed in many ways; Mato's own status and identify are defined in terms of the technological marvel uncovered in the most primitive of forests, like a genie run to ground in some Balkan fairy tale.  A genie that can be unleashed on an age-old enemy:

"Pourtant, ces temps derniers, quelques chose chiffonnait Mato dans le comportement de son ami [Mourad]. Il s’était mis a frequenter la maison des Fiz, ennemie de la sienne. Mato détestait les Fiz, le vieux Mere, surtout. Ce clan lui faisait l'effet d'un puits de tenebre's ou s'agitait l'esprit du mal, ce que Mourad, semblait-il, ne voyait pas."

One cannot help but read this semi-allegorical tale of war and generational hatred in the context of the events in the Balkans in the early 1990's, the genocidal settling of scores that trumped every humane concern, including self-interest and national survival.  Agolli is adept at portraying the insular lives of peasants whose contact with the world outside of their tiny villages has been minimal but who are, suddenly, thrust into the midst of a great geopolitical struggle at the outset of the Cold War.  
The Moon Over the Meadow

Like a title the moon hovers over the meadow,
Like a title that rises from a poem of love,
And in such a fair meadow did I once stand waiting,
I patiently hoped that you'd come with me, too...
This evening I watch it in that tranquil meadow,
Observe as it sets in the wet dewy grass,
And ask myself, plunged both in thought and in wonder
How oft has that title been penned and erased.
How oft's it been written and razed do I ponder,
Much as the titles have changed in my verse.
And through my grey hair does the wind blow and skitter,
As love, now departed, is flitting elsewhere.
Trans. by Robert Elsie

L'Homme au canon, translated into French by Alexandre Zotos, is available as volume 54 in the Motifs series, published by La Serpent a Plumes in Paris.  
Dr. Robert Elsie has translated a great deal of Albanian literature, including poems by Dritero Agolli, and made it available on line at
George Ovitt (9/19/13) 

Jews in Flight: Aleppo to Montevideo

Perfumes of Carthage by Teresa Porzecanski

Once, before the creation of Israel, there was a thriving Jewish community in Syria. Indeed for more than 3,000 years Aleppo, Syria’s largest, now bitterly war-torn city was “the crown of Jewish splendor in the Sephardic world.”  It has been said of Aleppo that, outside of Israel itself, there is no other city in the world that can claim such a rich and vibrant Jewish history.

Beyond the city’s location at the heart off a bustling trade network in spices, a part of what made the once-Ottoman city of Aleppo such an important center for Sephardic Jewish life and learning was what has come to be known as the Aleppo Codex, the earliest known record of the entire text of the Bible, a manuscript (consulted by none other than the great Maimonides in his effort to codify the text’s transmission) that, after nearly a thousand years of safekeeping in Aleppo, was finally smuggled out of Syria to Israel in the 1940’s. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the birth of modern Israel in 1948 proved the death knell for the ancient Jewish communities of Syria.  Just a year earlier, rioters had destroyed the Jewish quarter of Aleppo, killing 75 people and prompting more than half of the city’s Jewish population to flee the country for good. Of the 30, 000 Jews who remained, it was not long before they too—like so many Palestinians in the newly created Israel—were forced to abandon their deeply rooted lives there, emigrating to other Jewish communities throughout the world, so that today there remains hardly a trace of the once-great Jewish presence in Syria.

Of the many far-flung Sephardic communities, those of Latin America proved especially appealing to Syrian Jews who readily struggled to make their lives anew in countries and cultures as varied as Mexico, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.  A smaller contingent, refugees from the many anti-Jewish restrictions and pogroms in Syria during the 1910’s and ‘20’s, chose Uruguay as their home, where they settled principally—amidst a rush of Spaniards and Italians—in the bustling port city of Montevideo where this novella, Perfumes of Carthage is set.

Perfumes of Carthage (paired with another novella by Porzecanski called Sun Inventions) is published in English by the University of New Mexico Press as a part of its remarkable series—edited by esteemed Jewish Mexican-American essayist, critic, and translator Ilan Stavans—called Jewish Latin America.  

Born in Uruguay at the end of WWII, a descendant of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews from the Baltics and Syria, Porzecanski grew up in Montevideo speaking Yiddish, Arabic, and Spanish—a lush, if conflicted world of longing and nostalgia, which she skillfully recreates in Perfumes of Carthage. Centered around a woman named Lunita Mualdeb, the story describes the small, still exotic community of Syrian Sephardic Jews in the River Plata region of Uruguay during the 1930’s. It was a trying period in the nation’s short history, defined largely by the dictatorship of Gabriel Terra during which the constitution was abolished, professors and writers jailed, and dissent often brutally repressed. The title, Perfumes of Carthage is the name of a perfume shop owned and operated by one of the novella’s principal characters, a man named Jeremías Berro whose perfumes—like so many of the novel’s details—have the power to conjure both the distant wonders of the Orient and the Past itself, which haunts this funny, tragic tale.

The author’s dedication of the novellas is moving: “For my aunt, Ana Porzecanski, shot to death in Latvia, 1939.”

Teresa Porzecanski, a scholar on such wide-ranging issues as racism, labor history, and Indian rituals, has published five novels and seven collections of short stories in Uruguay.  Perfumes of Carthage and Sun Inventions were translated by Johnny Payne and Phyllis Silverstein. Find them and other great titles from the Jewish Latin America series at

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Desperate in Brooklyn, the Literary Borough

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

This wicked little novel--a mordant concoction  of "Virginia Woolf," Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, and (strangely) of William Gaddis's Carpenter's Gothic (those abrasive exchanges between Paul and Liz that nearly make you want to scream with irritation)--came my way quite by accident as I trolled my local bookstore.  Ms. Fox, ninety this year, is a remarkable writer who has alternated between producing award-winning children's books and well-regarded works of fiction for adults.  Desperate Characters is her masterpiece, regarded by many novelists and critics as one of the finest short novels ever written by an American.  Irving Howe compared Desperate Characters to "Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day." I'm not sure about Billy Budd--Sophie Bentwood, the novel's heroine, lacks Billy's ingenuousness--but Fox deftly captures the shallow American discontentment that one finds in Fitzgerald and the mutual destructiveness that often lies at the heart of Bellow's stories of love and marriage.

Like a finely-crafted Joseph Cornell box or one of those deft fictional miniatures created by Kawabata or Soseki, Desperate Characters revolves around just a few characters--the married couple Otto and Sophie Bentwood and a handful of acquaintances--and a relatively narrow slip of 1960's Brooklyn, the untidy borough as it existed before the arrival of the pioneers, the place where people threw trash out of their windows and where you had to walk many blocks to find a cup of coffee.  In fact one of Fox's deft touches is to contrast the aspirations of the neighborhood with the rapidly diminishing dreams of the Bentwoods--as though urban decay had crept into their well-appointed living room and quietly eroded what money and propriety had so tenuously created--their sham of a middle-class life.

"What the owners of the street lusted after was recognition of their superior comprehension of what counted in this world, and their strategy for getting it combined restraint and indirection."

"At night, the street had a quiet, earnest look, as though it were trying to continue to improve itself in the dark."

Otto and Sophie are well-off, childless, social but not friendly, close but not intimate.  We enter their life at dinner time--chicken livers and risotto Milanese and a nice salad--in media res, a Friday night, with a party looming that neither wishes to attend.  In the midst of what we might reasonably take to be a typical  desultory conversation, the sort of comfortable exchange that defines the banality of ordinary domestic life, Otto reveals that he has broken relations with his law partner, severed, in fact, all ties with his (ostensible) best friend; a few moments later, in attempting to feed a stray cat, Sophie is badly bitten, wounded in a way that surprises her: "Sophie winced as she felt a thrust of sharp pain. [Otto] frowned at her and she saw that he thought she hadn't liked what he had said. She'd tell him now, might as well. The incident with the cat was silly. At a distance of a half an hour, she wondered at the terror she'd felt, and the shame."  Thus, in a moment, the Bentwood's lives begin to unravel--Otto's business partner isn't going away, and Sophie's wound tears at the foundations of her unexamined life.

My in-laws grew up in Brooklyn.  My father was born in Queens and used to take me to Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbet's field, including that last heartbreaking season in 1956 after which Walter O'Malley moved the team to LA.  I have a program from '56 somewhere here in my study inscribed with the magical names from that summer: Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Weese, Jim 'Junior' Gilliam, Don Newcombe.  (See The Last Good Season, by Michael Shapiro).  I don't get to Brooklyn often nowadays, but when I'm there I'm on the look-out for the writers who reside in the borough rather than for ballplayers (though a ballplayer or two lives there still).  I'm not sure I'd recognize Jonathan Lethem (his photo was in the Times today and he looked more like my daughter's third-grade teacher than the oddball writer he is), but if I were in Brooklyn I wouldn't mind catching up with Ms. Fox or with one of the Great Bald Men of American writing: Mark Doty, Daniel Mendelsohn, Chad Harbach, Ben Marcus. Or running into Nicole Krauss or the irritable James Wood, or maybe Richard Price...I'm not sure all these writers live in Brooklyn, but many do, Jennifer Egan for example, who lives right there in Fort Greene on the same block as an Irish friend of mine--so many writers, both the living and the dead.

Brooklyn, then, is the literary borough. Writers everywhere, and famous people, and rich, endless life.  The best kind of place to be desperate.

Paula Fox is a New York writer, and a lot has been made of that fact. But Desperate Characters hardly feels like a New York novel--like a Paul Auster entertainment for example--Otto and Sophie might play out their marital and existential malaise in Iowa City as well as off Henry Street in Brooklyn.  Aside from a dappling of local color in the early chapters, the Bentwoods carry out their lives in the claustrophobic binary space of an unhappy marriage--a place every bit like the hell Satan carried with him.  Otto is a bigot, given to complaints about "them" dropping their trash on the street, and to sayings like, "I watched a colored man kick over a trash basket yesterday...Americans...softly dropping their turds wherever they go."  And Sophie yearns, perhaps for something other than Otto, or perhaps for something she once had but misplaced in her nice home in Brooklyn.  Fox brilliantly captures the kind of drift that makes up most lives, desperate or not.  Rabies, which Sophie may have contracted from the cat bite, her swollen hand, her troubled dealings with exiled Charlie, her confused sense of her "place," give her desperation a focus, but hardly explain it.  What is it that makes the Bentwoods so uneasy?

"[Otto] tightened his grip on [Sophie's] hip and turned her toward him, and as she sank below him on her back he saw by a faint glimmer of street light shining through the cracks in the window shutters, the dark smudges of her closed eyes. Then, with no ceremony and perversely gratified by the discomfort he was inflicting on them both, he entered her. When he withdrew, after an orgasm of an intensity he had not expected, he had the fleeting thought that his sudden impulse had had little to do with sensuality."

Nothing at all.  Cruelty, it appears, possesses a logic, and gives pleasure, unique to itself.

Desperate Characters is published by Norton. 

George Ovitt (9/12/13)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Portugal: Don Quixote Meets Walter Mitty

The Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queirós (1845-1900)

“A combination of Don Quixote and Walter Mitty,” remarks a reviewer for The London Spectator in describing the main character of the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós’ witty, ironic, often brilliantly modern novel, The Illustrious House of Ramires. Indeed our hero, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, failed student, dilettante, idler, dreamer, coward, plagiarist, and inbred scion of the once-great House of Ramires, tilts at windmills every way he turns—and nearly always in a bumbling, affectionately human way. 

Set largely in and around The Tower of Santa Ireneia, the last remaining structure of the old Ramires estate in Portugal, Gonçalo or “‘The Nobleman of the Tower,” as he is commonly known, spends much of the story trying to write an Historical Novel called The Tower of Don Ramires, based on the heroic exploits of his Visigothic ancestors, in particular those of one Tructesindo Ramires, “standard-bearer of Sancho I.” He attempts this both as a means of ennobling himself as a man among the locals and as a way of improving his prospects as a politician—a largely egotistical dream of his that all but governs his waking hours. Also at the root of his efforts to memorialize his ancestors in prose is his reactionary desire to honor the ancient, much debased virtues of the great nation of Portugal itself with something “Portuguese alone, ours alone, blossoming from our soil and race!” As his friend and editor exclaims to him one day: “It’s a duty, a sacred duty… Portugal, my boy, is dying for lack of national sentiment! We are dying wretchedly of the evil of not being Portuguese!”

Richly tongue-in-cheek, The Illustrious House of Ramires is both a satire and a study of wit and style. It surprises one. While at first glance a fairly traditional novel, it is in fact a wryly self-conscious, decidedly experimental tale. As V.S. Pritchett puts it in his introduction: “…the book is a novel within a novel, a comedy of the relation of the unconscious with quotidian experience. One is tricked at first into thinking one is caught up in a rhetorical tale of chivalry a lá Walter Scott; then one changes one’s mind and treats its high-flown historical side as one of those Romances that addled the mind of Don Quixote…”

What I love about this novel is the way that de Queirós clearly revels in his own language, in the delight and fecundity of words. Here now, to end with, to help cast this novel’s spell, is the opening description of our hero, The Nobleman, Dom Gonçalo Ramires, at work in his study:

The library, a light and spacious room, with blue-washed walls and heavy blackwood bookshelves, where, amid the dust and grave leather bindings, lay thick volumes from convents and legal parchments, overlooked the orchard through two of its windows, one with a small balcony and stone seats with velvet-cushioned tops, the other, a broader one, with a veranda deliciously perfumed by the honeysuckle which entwined the railing.  It was in front of the brightness of this window that the table stood, an immense table with twisted legs, covered by a faded red damask cloth, and burdened this afternoon by the stiff volumes of The Genealogical History, the whole of Bluteau’s Vocabulary, and various volumes of Panorama, and in the corner a pile of Walter Scotts on which stood a glass full of yellow carnations. Form here, from his leather chair, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, pensive before the sheets of foolscap paper and scratching his head with the duck-quill pen, could see the inspiration  his novel—the Tower. The ancient Tower, square and black against the lemon-trees of the orchard which grew around it, with a little ivy dressing the cleft corner, its deep loopholes barred with iron, its battlements and turret clearly silhouetted in the blue of the June sky…

 Jóse Maria Eça de Queirós was born in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal in 1845. Over the course of his life he wrote twenty books, founded literary reviews, translated the work of fellow writers, and served as a diplomat in Havana, London, and Paris. Among his best known works are The Maias, The Crime of Father Amaro, The Yellow Sofa, and The City and the Mountains, each of which I recommend. He died in Paris in the year 1900 while serving as the Portuguese Consul-General and working as a journalist. (Thanks in part to New Directions). The Illustrious House of Ramires, published by New Directions, is translated by Anne Stevens.

Peter Adam Nash