Walter Tevis seems to be a writer who enjoys stacking the odds against himself. His first novel, The Hustler, back in 1959, was about pool—not the most universally appealing topic—and in The Queen’s Gambit he has raised the ante with two apparently impossible themes: child genius and chess. Genius itself is intractable enough to novelists, not least because so few of them have it and those who do, perhaps by definition, have less time for themselves than for their art. But a child genius is not so much intractable as impenetrable, a phenomenon of nature, like a typhoon, awesome and unnerving. As for chess, it is a world to itself, of a subtlety so intricate that it is simply not available to the uninitiated. It is also static, private, and seemingly without drama in the conventional sense: two people facing each other across a small checkered board, unmoving, unspeaking, rarely even looking at each other. From this obdurate material Tevis has produced a spare and compelling book, exciting even for a reader like myself who does not play the game and barely knows the rules.
Beth Harmon is a plain, silent eight-year-old girl, orphaned in the opening paragraph and brought up in a shabby Kentucky institution that is strong on Christian ethics and weak on charity. She is a child without charm or looks or affect, whose only past is a vague recollection of a louche mother and drunken father yelling at each other in the night. At the orphanage she makes one friend, a black girl called Jolene, four years older than herself and everything Beth is not: beautiful, athletic, commanding, knowing. But even with Jolene Beth maintains her tight-lipped distance. She is withdrawn almost to the point of sickness; whatever happens to her happens inside her head. The orphanage exacerbates this by doping the children with tranquilizers to keep them docile, but to Beth the pills are a relief from darbness and tension, and she becomes hooked.
One day she is sent down to the basement to clean the blackboard erasers and finds Mr. Shaibel, the portly, forbidding janitor, playing chess. Something about his silence, his absorption, and “the steadiness with which he played his mysterious game” fascinates her. She begins to haunt the basement, unspeaking, trying to work out how the pieces move. Finally, she persuades him, reluctantly, to teach her the rules; they play; he beats her in four moves. That night in bed she sets up the chessboard again in her mind and replays the game to find out where she went wrong. It is her alternative to tranquilizers: the chessboard clear as a cinema screen behind her closed eyes, the pieces moving intricately in a hard light. Within a fortnight she has won her first game, within a couple of months she is winning regularly. Surly as ever, Mr. Shaibel gives her a chess book and suddenly she is launched:
She held Modern Chess Openings under her desk while Mr. Espero read. She went through variations one at a time, playing them out in her head…. “‘For his gayer hours she has a voice of gladness / and a smile and eloquence of beauty…”‘ read Mr. Espero, while Beth’s mind danced in awe to the geometrical rococo of chess, rapt, enraptured, drowning in the grand permutations as they opened to her soul, and her soul opened to them.
One Sunday the janitor brings along Mr. Ganz, a colleague from the local chess club. Beth beats him effortlessly. The next Sunday she plays both men simultaneously and wins again:
Mr. Ganz set up the pieces, and they started again. This time she moved pawn to queen four on both and followed it with pawn to queen’s bishop four—the Queen’s Gambit. She felt deeply relaxed, almost in a dream. She had taken seven tranquilizers at about midnight, and some of the languor was still in her.
About midway into the games she was staring out the window at a bush with pink blooms when she heard Mr. Ganz’s voice saying, “Beth, I’ve moved my bishop to bishop five” and she replied dreamily, “Knight to K-5.” The bush seemed to glow in the spring sunlight.
“Bishop to knight four,” Mr. Ganz said.
“Queen to queen four,” Beth replied, still not looking.
“Knight to queen’s bishop three,” Mr. Shaibel said gruffly.
“Bishop to knight five,” Beth said, her eyes on the pink blossoms.
“Pawn to knight three.” Mr. Ganz had a strange softness in his voice.
“Queen to rook four check,” Beth said.
She heard Mr. Ganz inhale sharply. After a second he said, “King to bishop one.”
“That’s mate in three,” Beth said, without turning. “First check is with the knight. The king has the two dark squares, and the bishop checks it. Then the knight mates.”
Mr. Ganz let out his breath slowly. “Jesus Christ!” he said.
Tevis’s prose is pure and unemphatic, like Beth’s lucid, one-track mind, but he knows how to generate tension. As the book progresses and the games become more and more complex, this sense of excitement, stillness, and silence builds steadily until it reaches an extraordinary climax in Moscow where Beth takes on the grandmasters of the Russian chess establishment. Without any exterior action to speak of, The Queen’s Gambit is a thriller in the most genuine sense of the term.
The plot is straightforward and more or less mechanical. Mr. Ganz arranges for Beth to play a simultaneous tournament against the chess club of the local high school. She wins all the games with contemptuous ease, but just as her career should be starting she is caught stealing tranquilizers. As a punishment, the thin-faced, sadistic principal of the orphanage stops her playing. From then on she has only her chess book and the games she plays continually by herself in her head.
Four years later she is adopted, begins again, and this time there is nothing to stop her. When she wins the Kentucky state championship at the age of thirteen her only reaction is, “I could have done this at eight.” By eighteen she is US champion. But she is still addicted to tranquilizers and in due course she discovers alcohol. Tevis has some strong passages about relentless boozing and they provide a useful thread of suspense: Will she or won’t she ruin her subtle gift? But essentially, her addiction is merely a dramatic device, as much to one side of the real drama as her tenuous relationships with other people. Alma Wheatley, the amiable, tippling, second-class citizen who adopts her is never more to her than “a half-real presence,” while Beth’s handful of casual lovers mean nothing to her, not even Benny Watts, whom she sleeps with after beating him out of his US title: “Being with Benny,” she concludes, “was like being with no one at all.” Loneliness is her natural condition because her real life is elsewhere, inside her head, in her mysterious gift:
She did not open her eyes even to see the time remaining on her clock or to look across the table at Borgov or to see the enormous crowd who had come to this auditorium to watch her play. She let all of that go from her mind and allowed herself only the chessboard of her imagination with its intricate deadlock. It did not really matter who was playing the black pieces or whether the material board sat in Moscow or New York or in the basement of an orphanage; this eidetic image was her proper domain.
She did not even hear the ticking of the clock. She held her mind in silence and let it move over the surface of the imagined board, combining and recombining the arrangements of pieces so the black ones could not stop the advance of the pawn she would choose.
Again and again throughout the book Tevis recreates this image of the chessboard in the imagination, and the girl’s mind brooding on it in silence, as concentrated as a laser beam. It reminds me of Coleridge’s famous description of Shakespeare at work: “himself meanwhile unparticipating in the passions, and actuated only by that pleasurable excitement, which had resulted from the energetic fervour of his own spirit in so vividly exhibiting what it had so accurately and profoundly contemplated.” According to the blurb, Tevis himself is a strong chess player and, certainly, the novel is animated by a passion for the endlessness and elegance of the game. Whence the tension, the buzz, the “pleasurable excitement.” But what makes The Queen’s Gambit so persistently convincing is an even stronger passion for the mental energy chess demands, and for the indifference and blinding assurance of real talent engaged in its own proper work.
Cynthia Ozick also has a child genius in her new novel, just as she has a passion for abstractions, although those that call to her have nothing to do with the remorseless, logical power plays of chess. Her quirky imagination feeds on learning and parable, she has a penchant for esoteric mystery and mysticism. The Cannibal Galaxy itself is a kind of parable: of intellectual yearning and delusion, of the limits of pedagogy, of the burden of a European inheritance dumped down among the bright, brash certitudes of the Jewish middle classes in middle America.
Joseph Brill is Parisian, the cleverest of nine children of a Yiddish-speaking fishmonger; he makes it to the Sorbonne, studies literature, then switches, disillusioned, to astronomy. But the war comes, the Nazis occupy Paris, and Brill’s entire family, apart from himself and three older sisters, is exterminated. Brill spends eight months hidden by nuns in the subcellar of a convent school where he passes the time plowing through boxes of old books. There he discovers the works of Edmond Fleg (né Flegenheimer) who, a hundred years before, had combined Jewish moral passion with French elegance of style. When the war ends he returns briefly to astronomy but, “discovering himself not to be a discoverer,” emigrates to the Middle West and sets up the Edmond Fleg Primary School where he can expound his ideal Dual Curriculum: “Chumash, Gemara, Social Studies, French: the waters of Shiloh springing from the head of Western Civilization!”
Like most teachers, he longs for a prodigally gifted child to vindicate his life, his methods, his private and intellectual aspirations, his own lack of originality:
He was maddened by genius. He respected nothing else. Year after year he searched among the pupils. They were all ordinary. Even the brightest was ordinary. In three decades he had not found a single uncommon child.
But when his chance comes, of course, he misses it. Beulah is the daughter of Hester Lilt, an “imagistic linguistic logician” and author of a string of heavy books, including The World as Appearance, Mind: Ancient and Modern, Metaphor as Exegesis, Divining Meaning, and Interpretation as an End in Itself. In other words, her books sound like the Dual Curriculum made print: philosophy from parable, metaphysics from midrash. Unlike the other mothers, who bully and wheedle and are insufferably, intrusively busy, Hester Lilt is European-born, formidable, disinterested. Brill becomes obsessed by her distant manner and marvelous mind but can get nothing from the child who is mute, passive, and apparently immune to all teaching:
Silence like an interruption. She raised her chin and her eyes rolled up like green stones. He tried to read them, but could not. She was impregnable. He could not blame the teachers for impatience with such a pair of stony eyes.
The mother obliquely warns him of his shortsightedness by inviting him to an opaque lecture called “An Interpretation of Pedagogy.” He takes the point but the child remains impenetrable. When he finally washes his hands of her, the mother spurns him as a fool and he explodes:
“All your metaphysics. All your philosophy. All your convictions. All out of Beulah. You justify her,” he said. “You invent around her. You make things fit what she is. You surround her. I’m onto you! If Beulah doesn’t open her mouth, then you analyze silence, silence becomes the door to your beautiful solution, that’s how it works! If Beulah can’t multiply, then you dream up the metaphor of a world without numbers. My God—metaphor! Image! Theory! You haven’t got any metaphors or images or theories. All you’ve got is Beulah!”
It seems, in the circumstances, both justified and shrewd, however blinkered the poor man is supposed to be, but Mrs. Lilt is not amused. Eventually, with her daughter in tow, she goes back to Europe—to lecture at the Sorbonne—and Brill marries his perky and impertinent secretary who produces the son he has always longed for: the straight-A student with an insatiable appetite for lessons. But there are no depths to the boy; he ends up majoring in business administration at Miami University. Meanwhile, dim little Beulah Lilt reappears in Brill’s life, but only on television as a prominent young artist and a celebrity of the chat shows. Brill, now an old man, is bewildered, dismayed—despite the fact that the answers Beulah gives her interviewers sound, to the impartial ear, as cute and smart-assed as those he always hated in his “bright” students.
The Cannibal Galaxy is a subtle, rather Jamesian book, “The Beast in the Jungle” replayed in different terms and at greater length. Yet it seems to me far less convincing than Ozick’s shorter fiction. Her flair as a writer is for the oddities of people, their contradictions, depths, and sudden passions; as a devout, rather mystical Jew, she is also interested in the shadowy meanings that show through human triviality. But plot and narrative never seem to have been her particular concern; many of her stories are resolved not through the lines of their own force but through magic and fantasy. She is, too, in the best sense of the term, a stylist whose every word and comma is weighed, balanced, meditated upon. Sure enough, The Cannibal Galaxy has passages of considerable eloquence, although they are counterbalanced by some startling overinflation:
He thought how even the stars are mere instances and artifacts of a topological cartography of imagined dimensions; he reflected on that mathematical region wherein everything can be invented, and out of which the-things-that-are select their forms of being from among the illimitable plenitude of the-things-that-might-be.
Not much of the book is as turgid as that, yet the alert, poising, pouncing wit that makes Ozick’s short stories jump with life and intelligence seems, in this first full-length novel in seventeen years, to have degenerated into mannerism. The rhetoric and imagery proliferate like tropical undergrowth, coiling on themselves until the narrative chokes and expires. “What lace, what rodomontade!” thinks Brill, as he contemptuously talks down the PTA. “His mouth churned gewgaws, ribbons, fragments of fake ermine,” adds Ozick, as though to trump his rodomontade. And so on for 162 pages: trope after trope, brilliance after brilliance, until even poor disappointed Brill is pushed aside and all that remains is a performance—always allusive, sometimes moving, but, for a writer of Ozick’s proven iron command, curiously blunted by its self-consciousness.
November 10, 1983