Music in Glavinic’s chess novel

Carl Haffner coverThe number of novels that centre on the game of chess  is small, but it does include works by some significant authors. I have already traced the role of music in Nabokov’s chess novelThe Luzhin Defense. Perhaps the most-discussed chess novel is Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle, translated as The Royal Game and, more simply, Chess. Zweig’s novella does not allot a large role to music, which is perhaps surprising, since Zweig grew up and lived in Vienna from the 1880s until his exile in the 1930s. Zweig was a librettist for the composer Richard Strauss, and possessed a large collection of music manuscripts, including Mozart’s handwritten catalogue of his own works. It is clear from Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, however, that for him, the music of Vienna was equated with the culture destroyed by the advance of National Socialism. His Schachnovelle, written in 1941is among other things a protest against the philistinism of modern Europe in which music can no longer sound. Shortly after completing it, Zweig and his wife committed suicide.

So once again my exploration of music, chess and their common themes leads me back to the Vienna of the fin-de-siècle. And this is also the setting of the novel on which this post focuses, Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, published in 1998 by the contemporary Austrian author Thomas Glavinic. It is a short novel, and well worth reading. I advise you to get a copy if you have read this far into this blog post. It is also a straightforwardly historical novel, based on one of the most notable matches ever played for the chess world championship.

Carl Schlechter
Carl Schlechter

The match in question was between Carl Schlechter (1874-1918), one of the the strongest players of his day, and Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the second World Chess Champion. The match took place in 1910. It was a ten-game match, with the first five games played in Vienna, where Schlechter was born and lived, and the second five in Berlin, Lasker’s home city.

The young Emanuel Lasker
Emanuel Lasker

The match was tied, and according to the rules agreed before its start, Lasker retained the title. Lasker was extremely fortunate: Schlechter led 1-0 at the half-way point of the match, and Lasker only managed to achieve the tie by winning the last game, in which Schlechter first had the advantage, and then mis-played a drawn position. Few would doubt that Schlechter was the one player who seriously rivalled Lasker’s status as World Champion in the twenty-seven years that he held the title between defeating Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894 and losing to José Raul Capablanca in 1921.

Schlechter had only one weakness as a player, which was his tendency to accept offers of a draw. From that stems the title of Glavinic’s novel.

Music in the names

One might wonder why Glavinic decided to rename the protagonist of the novel “Carl Haffner” rather than “Carl Schlechter”. “Schlechter”, after all, could be a motivated name, since it means “worse” in German. Nearly all the characters based on historical people appear in propria persona: Emanuel Lasker, of course, along with famous players of the day such as Janowski, Marshall and Tarrasch; but in the first chapter we meet Carl Haffner’s clubmates, the lesser-known chess masters Max Weiss and Hugo Fähndrich, and all the members of the Vienna Chess Club seem to appear under their own names.

There are just two characters based on real people whose names have been changed. One is Haffner himself, of course, and the other is the first person we meet in the book, Georg Hummel, the chess correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung and a notable chess player in his own right. Hummel is based on Georg Marco (1863-1923), who was indeed one of the strongest players in the world in the 1890s, and whose match with Carl Schlechter in 1893 marked the beginning of Schlechter’s international recognition. The ten-game match finished with every game drawn.

Glavinic, then, has chosen to rename two characters, presumably because his fictionalised versions of them depart from what is known of their historical counterparts (although as far as I can discover, we know remarkably little about either Schlechter or Marco). What is notable, though, is that both the names he uses have musical resonances. The name Haffner suggests two works by Mozart: the “Haffner Serenade” and the “Haffner Symphony”. Both were written for Mozart’s friend and contemporary, the Salzburg aristocrat Sigmund Haffner. And the name Hummel suggests Johann Hummel (1778-1837) the composer and virtuoso pianist of much the same period as Mozart. Mozart lived in Vienna; the Haffner Symphony was premiered there. Hummel worked in Vienna, as Director of the Imperial Military Music School.

Music, then, is in the background of the novel – in what literary critics might call its intertext. Or perhaps Glavinic’s choice of fictional names is pure coincidence, plucked out of his Viennese subconscious.

The suggestion of a musical as well as a Viennese background to the novel becomes stronger, however, when the role of music in the narrative is considered.

Music in the background

It would be an exaggeration to say that music plays a central role in Glavinic’s novel. However, the role it does play is significant. Glavinic renames his protagonist so that Carl Haffner can have a fictional family background and fictional formative experiences. Chapters narrating his Bildung alternate with those narrating the chess world championship, which are simply an imaginative re-telling of the Schlechter / Lasker match.

There are three family members who together define Carl’s personality, and music plays a significant part in all three relationships.

The successful grandfather

Carl’s grandfather Rudolph is a comic playwright whose greatest opportunity was being invited to write the libretto for Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus. He flunks the chance: “Failing to grasp the importance of his task, he supplied Strauss with a poor, half-hearted piece of work.” Glavinic is adapting history here: the libretto for Die Fledermaus, to this day the most popular operetta of all time, was in fact written by a real Carl (not Rudolph) Haffner, who was indeed a well-known comic playwright. And the writer credited as the lesser co-author of the libretto, Richard Genée, later claimed that he had to completely rewrite the original text and that he had never even met Haffner.

The Rudolph Haffner of Glavinic’s novel, although successful, fails to understand the significance of music, as the incident with Die Fledermaus demonstrates. He forces his son Adalbert to learn the violin, which Adalbert detests. Adalbert (the fictional Carl’s father) becomes completely alienated by his father, and leaves home on his twenty-first birthday with the words “I’m off to play some music”.  He then earns his living by playing the violin in Viennese wine gardens. He marries, without telling his father, and Carl is born.

The drunken father

Adalbert is a violent drunk who does not love his wife and hardly provides for his family. Eventually, he elopes with a barmaid, produces a half-sister for Carl and dies in poverty. His abandonment of his wife and child, the most significant and traumatic event of Carl’s childhood, is narrated as the meeting-point of (reader, you guessed it) music and chess:

On the evening after that eventful night [when he decided to leave his family], Adalbert took out his fiddle and played it in one of the wine gardens where he was still welcome. Although completely out of practice, he soon got into his stride because he wanted to play. Not the cloying taproom melodies he detested so heartily, but classical music of a wild and passionate nature. He played as if possessed by the devil. No one in the establishment had ever heard the like.

The next day, with Carl’s hand in his and the money he had earned in his pocket, he called on Samuel Gold, who ran a bookshop not far from the Gasthaus zum Hirschen. He put some coins on the counter and told the bookseller, without more ado, that the money was all he had. It would have to suffice to equip Carl with a chessboard, a set of chessmen to go with it, and the principal textbooks on playing the game.

(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 70)

Samuel Gold, incidentally, is a real historical personage: he was a composer of chess problems who in 1887 became the thirteen-year-old Carl Schlechter’s first (and only) chess tutor.

The loving half-sister

Finally, there is Lina Bauer, Carl’s half-sister (the product of Adalbert’s elopement) and the person Carl seems to care about more than any other. He spends the evening before the match with Lasker with her, when “She played his favourite piece on the piano before he left.” And when the match moves to Berlin for its second half, he again spends the evening before his departure with Lina:

After they had a snack lunch together, she sat down at the piano. […] He didn’t know why, but he felt nothing for any woman, apart from the one who was playing his favourite tune at that moment.

(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 88)

The piano that Lina plays is itself an emblem of Carl’s love for her:

Carl watched Lina grow up with warm-hearted affection. When he asked her what she wanted most of all, she confessed that she dreamed of playing the piano. Carl paid for her piano lessons. Meantime, he scrimped and saved until he had amassed enough money for a second-hand concert grand. He did not mind limiting himself to one meal a day and wearing a thin, threadbare jacket in winter. The day on which the piano was delivered meant more to him than any victory ceremony.

(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 138)

Music runs, then, as a background to the story of three generations of the Haffner family. It is also just about the only activity that interests Carl other than chess. The evening before the final game of the match, which Carl has only to draw to become World Champion, he spends in the smoking-room of his hotel:

Carl’s attention was focused on a figure in a black tailcoat. A lean, angular man of melancholy mien, he went over to the piano and bowed. Carl, who knew the cheerful piece he proceeded to play, listened spellbound. […] Carl’s excited reflections on the world championship were challenged, and eventually defeated, by the music.

(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, pp. 146-47)

What is the music doing?

I do not know whether Thomas Glavinic is a musician. He is certainly a good chess player, as his entry in the FIDE international database of chess players proves.

Glavinic FIDE card
Glavinic’s rating of 2125 is a almost exactly the same as that of my local league’s best player.

He does not describe the games between Haffner and Lasker, as they are played, by using musical metaphors (unlike Nabokov). However, music is the inescapable subtext of the entire book. There is a kind of counterpoint between chess and music which sets in relief questions such as playing for love or playing for money; performing because others require it or because you are driven to perform; dedicating your life, with significant personal sacrifice, to an activity that is not ultimately productive of anything except beauty. These questions define the life of Carl Haffner, as they apply to chess; they also define the lives of his father, and to some extent his grandfather and half-sister, as they apply to music. Perhaps Schlechter’s unsuccessful bid to become World Champion was the most musical moment of chess history.

Schlechter's losing move
The moment when Carl Schlechter (Black, to play) lost the world title in the last game of the match with Emanuel Lasker. Prior to this position, Black has let slip a clear, possibly winning, advantage. Carl Haffner’s decision between the moves …Qh4+ [Q-KR5 check], which forces a draw by repetition, and Qh1+ [Q-KR8 check] which threatens to win but ultimately loses, is narrated dramatically in Glavinic’s novel. Haffner / Schlechter chose the move Qh1+ and went on to lose the game.



Music in Nabokov’s chess novel

Music’s role in Nabokov’s 1930 Novel “The Luzhin Defense”

Luzhin defense book coverThe Luzhin Defense, described by Mike Fox and Richard James as the best novel about chess ever written, is an early (1930) work by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The central character is the Luzhin of the title (we never discover his first name), one of the strongest chess players in the world. The “Luzhin Defense” is the chess opening he prepares to combat his chief rival for the world title, the Italian grandmaster Turati. Ironically, although the encounter between Luzhin and Turati forms a crucial passage of the book, the defense is never played, since Turati avoids his own trademark opening when they finally meet over the board.

Nabokov himself was a chess enthusiast. Like the Luzhin of the novel, he was born and raised in St Petersburg; also like Luzhin, he left Russia after the 1917 Revolution to live abroad. Nabokov is better known as a composer of chess problems than as a player. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory (New York: 1960) he compares the intellectual challenge that the composer of a chess problem sets the solver to the challenge that the author of a book sets his reader. The fact that Nabokov felt this comparison to be apt explains at least two aspects of his work: firstly, his liking for unreliable narrators or other narrative devices that make following his novels a problem-solving challenge for his readers; and secondly, the frequent appearance of chess within his books, always with metaphorical significance. In his most famous work, Lolita (1955), there is an early scene in which Humbert Humbert (an extremely unreliable narrator) plays a game of chess; in the game, he freely sacrifices material to achieve his goal: to turn a small, white pawn into a queen, and using her to mate. Indeed a metaphorical prefiguring of the action of the novel. The role of chess in Nabokov’s fiction generally is explored in ‘Solus Rex: Nabokov and the Chess Novel’ by Strother B. Purdy (Modern Fiction Studies 14:4, 1968).

Luzhin defense DVD box
Nabokov’s novel was made into a film in 2000 and is available on DVD (note the different spelling of ‘Defence’ in the title)

The Luzhin Defense, however, is the only one of Nabokov’s novels in which chess is, as it were, the main subject of the narrative. Luzhin is taught the game by an aunt, when a boy of 12 or 13, after being fascinated by the sight of a chess set in his father’s study. His phenomenal powers in the game are quickly evident, and innate (in this, his story is not unlike that of Bobby Fischer much later, who was taught the game at the age of six by his sister, from the instructions in a set she had happened to find in a local candy store).

What Nabokov’s novel captures, entirely successfully, is the obsessive compulsion of the game, which occupies Luzhin entirely and to the exclusion of all other interests, skills or social relations. He meets and marries another Russian emigré, and settles in Berlin. There he reaches the pinnacle of his career, playing chess of an unbelieveable standard in a major tournament which culminates in his confrontation with Turati. During this long-anticipated game, he suffers a kind of mental collapse and is hospitalised. He gives up the game in order to preserve his sanity, and is nursed to health by his new bride. At the denouement of the novel, he is lured back to the game by his former manager, with catastrophic consequences.

The character of Luzhin is a literary creation, but is also to some extent an amalgam of real people: some of the events recounted of his childhood are those of Nabokov’s own; the end of the story was suggested by the fate of a real Berlin chess master, Curt von Bardeleben (1861-1924); as a Russian escapee from the Bolsheviks who reached the very heights of the game, he recalls Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), the fourth chess World Champion. His arch rival Turati is hardly developed at all as an independent character in the novel; but his name recalls that of Richard Réti, as does Nabokov’s description of Turati’s playing style, which corresponds exactly to the “hypermodern” style of play developed by Réti and others in the 1920s:

This player, a representative of the latest fashions in chess, opened the game by moving up on the flanks, leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the centre from the sides.

(Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense, trans. Martin Scammell [1930, translation 1964], Penguin Classics 2000, p. 61)

Music in the novel

Why, then, write at length about this novel in a blog devoted to the connections between chess and music? The answer is that, throughout the novel, Nabokov himself makes analogies between the two. Sometimes the connection is overt, sometimes hidden or symbolic. But it is a theme that runs through the whole book, as the following quotations demonstrate.

The first time that Luzhin sees a chess set is during a party given by his father in their St Petersburg home. The boy is hiding in his father’s study, trying to avoid attention, when a violinist, who has just performed for the guests, enters to take a call on the telephone. He opens a box of chess pieces on Luzhin’s father’s desk, and on seeing the boy (who has never seen the set before), he asks him if he knows how to play:

‘What a game, what a game,’ said the violinist, tenderly closing the box. ‘Combinations like melodies. You know, I can simply hear the moves.’


Luzhin steals the chess set, and asks his aunt to teach him the game. When his extraordinary talent is discovered, his first chess teacher is an elderly doctor friend of the family:

He spoke about the grand masters he had had the occasion to see, about a recent tournament, and also about the past of chess, about a somewhat doubtful rajah and about the great Philidor, who was also an accomplished musician.


Music is already a Leitmotif of the narrative.

Later on, once Luzhin is celebrated as one of the great players of his day, his father, a writer, imagines writing a novella about his son. He remembers watching him giving a simultaneous chess display as a child:

The writer Luzhin did not himself notice the stylized nature of his recollection. Nor did he notice that he had endowed his son with the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy, the results being both sickly and angelic […].

(p. 47)

Finally, the crucial episode of the novel arrives, when Luzhin is to encounter Turati at last. Nabokov turns again to music; not this time using the craft of a musician as an alternative or parallel occupation to that of a chess player, but using music as the metaphorical backdrop to the game itself. Just as the violinist at the St Petersburg party could “hear the moves”, the grandmasters seem to find music within the board:

At first it went softly, softly, like muted violins. […] Then, without the least warning, a chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati’s forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin’s side also. […] Turati finally decided on this combination – and immediately a kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony. […] But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?

(pp. 91-92)

This game is never finished. Luzhin’s mental crisis intervenes, and the remainder of the novel charts his attempted recovery, which depends on his avoiding the game of chess at all costs. It is his wife who superintends this, and at a party that mirrors the one at the start of the novel, she regrets that Luzhin is no longer recognised, as she overhears another confusion of the careers of chess master and musician:

A rather pretty but boring young lady. And that strange marriage to an unsuccessful musician, or something of that sort. ‘What did you say – a former socialist? A what? A player? A card player? […]’

(p. 135)

As the end of the novel approaches, representations or artificial reproductions of both chess and music become prominent. Luzhin is tracked down by his former manager, a man called Valentinov, who wants him to return to the game; not to play competitively, though, but to take part in a film about the game. This is enough, however, to provide a fatal and musical recapitulation of Luzhin’s past:

To the sound of this voice, to the music of the chessboard’s evil lure, Luzhin recalled, with the exquisite, moist melancholy peculiar to recollections of love, a thousand games that he had played in the past. […] There were combinations, pure and harmonious, where thought ascended marble stairs to victory; there were tender stirrings in one corner of the board, and a passionate explosion, and the fanfare of the Queen going to its sacrificial doom.

(pp. 171-72)

And the final denouement of the novel comes when Luzhin gives up trying to avoid what seems to him an inevitable chess combination played against him by fate:

And suddenly Luzhin stopped. It was as if the whole world had stopped. It happened in the drawing room, by the phonograph.

(p. 175)

The appearance of the phonograph here is significant: it reproduces music mechanically, just as Valentinov’s film reproduces the life of a chess master artificially. In the early part of the novel, the music was real, and the chess was Luzhin’s real life too; at the end, he is trapped in an unreal world of mechanical reproduction: on a pocket chess set, he repeatedly sets up the pieces as they had stood in his game with Turati at the point that they had adjourned play. He distracts himself by listening to music with his wife, but as reproduced on the phonograph. Chess and music still mirror or echo each other, but no longer sustain lived experience.

Why chess and music?

Nabokov, it seems to me, understands intimately and at first hand the power and seductive attraction of the game of chess. It is small wonder that he turns to music as the central metaphor to articulate his novel. Great technical skill, unremitting devotion to practice, a reliance on inspiration, and the appreciation of great aesthetic beauty by connoisseurs: all these are shared by both music and chess. The two arts are also, of course, bound up with Russian cultural and political identity in the early twentieth century.

If you have read this, I urge you to go and read (or re-read) the novel. Try and read it as if you were listening to a recital.