As you may know from my previous post I had some adventures getting to read The Queen’s Gambit. But I finally got there, and decided to follow my mum’s footsteps in reading the book before watching the series. Which, having now done both, I still think was sound advice.
Now, you either already know what the book/series is about, or if you don’t you probably will not want too much detail anyway. So I shall be brief when it comes to plot summary. After her mother died in a car accident, Elizabeth Harmon comes to live in an orphanage. Understandably, given the circumstances, she is a bit dour eight-year-old. She melts into the background in the institution, which offers scarce chances of adoption. And all would probably stay this way for the next ten years if not for a chance encounter with Mr Scheibel, a janitor at the orphanage. One day when tasked with cleaning the sponges, Beth comes into the basement to see Scheibel playing chess. From here, I’ll take it a breakneck speed, Scheibel teaches her the basics, she quickly outgrows him and luckily is soon adopted. From there on her career picks up, but not without the support of tranquilizers she got addicted to at the orphanage. Beth is our classic troubled prodigy, a character not uncommon in literature.
So why did her story took the world by storm and created a new wave of chess-mania? When it comes to the series it is hard to underestimate the wonderful creation of Anya Taylor-Joy, as well as beautiful scenography and costumes that are thought through n every detail. With the book, the situation is a bit different. The world will be what we imagine, so the heavy lifting here is done by Beth’s internal monologue. Every time she plays we get to know her thoughts and struggles. This is exactly what was missing for me in the series, this internal knowledge. One can show a lot of emotion with one’s face, but not when at the same time you try to also show the chess/poker-face. So the book certainly gives us more insight into Beth’s emotional state, but also her development and growing up.
And let’s be very honest here, the book is a classic Bildungsroman, with all the trimmings. But there is something captivating in Beth’s single-mindedness. She is not a nice character, certainly not one to evoke in us warm and fuzzy feelings. It feels like she has a core made of iron, her resolve rarely bends. She may fall and stumble, but she has a single point of focus. And while it is not something that makes her endearing it does make us respect her and root for her despite all the bad decisions she is making. For m she was one of those characters I don’t really want to meet personally, but I am happy to cheer for her from the sidelines.
In that respect the book is similar to the series, both hanging mainly on Beth’s character, as the supporting characters feel like shadows floating in and out of Beth’s life. Apart from Borgov of course, the evil of the book. He is the shadow that charts Beth’s career, the only player she is truly terrified of. And yet we never get to meet Borgov, he and Beth separated by the language and cultural barrier and connected only over the chessboard. The fear existing purely in her mind and forming the crux of her development.
Tevis also quite often touches on gender roles and how Beth is the only woman to climb to the top of the chess-world. He contrasts her career and choices with those more typical at the time (we are in the ’60s and ’70s). But somehow it feels a bit hamfisted, a touch too obvious and forceful, but also at the same time superficial. As if the author was thinking: ‘if I make my main character a woman and add the equality aspect I’ll be able to cover one more base or check off one more box’.
It was an interesting read, maybe not a classic, despite all the rage it now causes, but a very decent example of its kind nonetheless. And given how much smaller our lives have gotten I am not surprised so many people now turned to chess, it is a fascinating game and one that can be played at home or remotely with ease. There is something reassuring in the fact that it is a game with relatively simple rules and based on complete information. But then there’s always the thrill of nearly endless combinations and the impact of human decisions and mistakes on the game’s progress and outcome. It gives us a safe space to fail and learn. And so does this book.
Cover: Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist’s sisters playing chess), 1555, National Museum in Poznań, Poland