Readings — From the March 2019 issue

Grandmaster Splash

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From EEG, a novel that will be published next month by New Directions. Drndić (1946–2018) was an author and playwright. EEG is her final work. Translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth.

It’s dangerous to play too much chess. Chess players say nothing and calculate, they plan annihilation, attacks and defenses on their fields, visible and invisible, sometimes bloody stories develop, terrible slaughter and underhand trickery. Too much chess drives some people mad. That’s okay, says Nabokov, there’s nothing abnormal about the fact that chess players are abnormal. It’s completely normal.

Even before he used a razor to slit the throat of his eighty-three-year-old roommate, people used to say of the American international master Raymond Weinstein that he possessed the instinct of a murderer. When he turned twenty-­three, in 1964, they shut him up in the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center in New York. He’s still there, if he hasn’t died.

Lionel Kieseritzky died without a coin in his pocket in Paris, in 1853, in the Hôpital de la Charité, insane, in his forty-seventh year. Kieseritzky was one of the greatest chess players in the world. He was born in Tartu, in what is now Estonia. Kieseritzky was quite an abrupt, tense person. He used to say, I’m the chess messiah, remember, I’m the chess messiah. He used to say that mostly after his defeat against Anderssen. It isn’t known where Kieseritzky is buried, because there were no witnesses, no one came to the funeral, no one from the crowd of crazed chess players who used to hang around the Paris Café de la Régence, racing from one table to another as though they were in a casino. One waiter went, but presumably he doesn’t count.

William Henry Russ was only thirty-three when he died in 1866 after a failed/successful suicide attempt. The American is well known as a fanatical collector of chess problems, which he later published. Russ adopted an eleven-year-old girl in Brooklyn, to whom he proposed seven years later, and when she said, No, thank you, he fired four bullets into her head. The young woman survived, which Russ, of course, could not have known because, in a state of mental disintegration, he threw himself into the East River. But it was low tide and Russ did not drown; instead he clambered onto the bank and then shot himself in the head. An ambulance took him to hospital, where he soon died, because, people said, he had lost the will to live.

The international chess champion Wilhelm Steinitz, famous for his attacking style, born in 1836 in Prague’s Jewish ghetto, died of a heart attack in a mental hospital in Manhattan in 1900, with empty pockets and decaying brain cells—caused, some sources have it, by syphilis. Steinitz was a mathematician. But as early as 1897, when Lasker checkmated him in Moscow, Steinitz had a nervous breakdown and spent forty days in a Moscow sanatorium in which, triumphantly rubbing his hands, he played chess with the inmates. Afterward he spent months in the Psychiatric Department of the Manhattan State Hospital, where he had been put by his wife and where, in 1900, he died, maintaining beforehand, I am in electronic communication with God, I give Him the white pieces and surplus pawns, to see who is stronger.

There were years when chess-playing suicides would serially throw themselves out of windows. Which is surprising, such a lack of existential style and imagination in great international masters, those dogged combinator-combatants. Nowadays the chess players who most like to throw themselves out of windows are from Russia and the Baltic states, perhaps inspired by Nabokov’s novel about Luzhin, because in that novel the Grandmaster Luzhin, obsessed with the violins, timpani, and drums of his life, steps out of that life, hounded by objects and phenomena that melt into black-and-white fields, on which figures dance in attack, in constant movement, and throws himself, grotesquely, squeezing his slack and unhealthy fat body through a small window placed high up in a dazzlingly white Berlin bathroom.

Luzhin, preparing an attack for which it was first necessary to explore a maze of variations, where his every step aroused a perilous echo, began a long meditation: he needed, it seemed, to make one last prodigious effort and he would find the secret move leading to victory. Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain—and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess . . . and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness.

Perhaps Russian and Baltic chess players experience Nabokov (and chess) more intensely and passionately than do Americans and others, and that is why they leap to their deaths. To be sure, Nabokov can be suggestive, and he was a good chess player. But Nabokov collected butterflies, which he later hung, pinned and arranged mathematically and precisely, on his walls, as though they were voodoo dolls, and perhaps it was thanks to those murdered butterfly ghosts that he survived. Humphrey Bogart did not collect butterflies, but he played chess extremely well—one could say maniacally. Obsessed with the bellicose strategies of silent opponents, he moved chess pieces in breaks between takes, at tournaments, in parks, in cafés, but also by correspondence, so that in 1943 the FBI banned the practice of such entertainment by correspondence, thinking that he was sending secret codes to someone “over there.” Bogart played chess even on his deathbed as he suffocated from cancer of the esophagus.

All right, the American chess player Henry Pillsbury, crazed with syphilis, tried to jump from the fourth floor of a hospital in Philadelphia, in 1905, only to die the following year, and he had definitely not read Nabokov. Nor had the German chess master Curt von Bardeleben, who threw himself out of a window in 1924, apparently as a result of appalling poverty; he could not have read Nabokov either, since Nabokov did not publish his story about Luzhin in Russian until 1930.

On the other hand, Georgi Ilivitski had certainly read Nabokov because, in 1989, he threw himself faultlessly out of the window. A powerful player with an even more powerful ego. They’ve forgotten me, said Ilivitski, so I’ll kill myself the way Luzhin did. Like the unreal, invented Luzhin, the living Ilivitski couldn’t tell chalk from cheese: reality became imaginary for him, while the imaginary became real. So when it happened to Ili­vitski, as to numerous chess players before and after him, that the imaginary that seemed to him real burst into what was for him shaky, elusive reality, all hell broke loose—barely controllable disorder, worlds split open in whose depths the fires of hell burned. Nothing but checkmate nightmares.

Chess players leap to their deaths or slide into insanity—transform themselves into their horses, springers, hussars, into their knights and steeds, into their infirm pawns and swift hunters, rushing headlong from the delimited battlefield into the abyss, sinking into nothingness.

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