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Alekhine's Anguish: A Novel of the Chess World
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Very good read. As I've posted in my other reviews, I collect chess novels. This book is along the lines of a "Luneburg Variation" by Maurensig or "The Chess Team" by Sawaski in terms of writing quality. Either I'm not used to the author's style, or the manuscript was a little choppy. The plot was there - but description of setting did lack some. The author uses much dialogue and dialogue tags to get description across. And the book is a bit pricey at $25 - I think this book should cost more around the $12 mark.

Now for the GOOD part! Any chess player will enjoy this book on the early 20th century chess heroes. If you do not know how to play chess that is fine too, but you won't get much technical display with this book, which I personally feel is appropriate for a chess novel. The characters have excellent life! The Marshall character, the Capablanca character - very well done. The main character, Alexander Alekhine - I felt could have been a hair better. You see a chunk of Alekhine, yet there is this hollowness to his character. The situations of the characters and how they come to life in the chess world - fantastic! So, that's why I gave this book a 4 star rating. I'd probably only go 7 out of 10 on a ten point scale, but ultimately, outside of a little choppiness in reading, it was a very good story and that is essentially what a novel is about.
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on October 14, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Like all chess players who have discovered this book, I was happy to learn of its existence. Alekhine was one of the great creative spirits of the twentieth century and, if that were not enough, led one of the most reprehensible lives of any chess master I know. Food for great fiction.

How, then, is it possible to turn this raw material into such a boring book? I’ll try to explain.

First, kudos to the author for disproving the claim there are no second acts in American life. He was born in 1910 (when Alekhine was still a teenager!), and published this, his first novel, in 1999. I’ve never hear of a first novelist of that age.

In every other respect, this book was a deep disappointment.

1. The action zips all over the globe, and there are scenes in chess clubs, hotels, tournament venues, ships at sea, city streets, down-at-heel lodgings . . . but the scene-setting is almost nonexistent. The author does not give the reader a vivid word picture of any location.

2. Related to the first complaint is the way the narrative is structured. It consists almost entirely of dialogue between two characters. Sometimes it’s three characters, and rarely it’s more; and there are the occasional bridging passages between the large chunks of dialogue. But most of the time, it’s a two-character stage play, act after act, scene after scene.

3. And as for the dialogue. There are three fundamental deficiencies here.

One, the dialogue is almost entirely in complete sentences, full of prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and agonizing verbosity and courtesy. People simply do not talk like that. Here is a random example. Alekhine is talking about his wife, who had died the night before.

“Last month she insisted on accompanying me, as always, to a tournament. It was in Athens, and lasted two weeks. A couple of days before it was over she had an upset stomach, which she thought was from some shellfish. She stayed in the cabin most of the time during the trip back to Marseilles, and seemed better once we were on the Paris train. She felt all right the next couple of days, then suddenly just collapsed.” (p. 127)

What is wrong with this paragraph? By itself, nothing. But the whole book is like this. Long, perfectly balanced, grammatical sentences, utterly emotionless sentences, no matter who is talking, no matter what the situation. It’s torture.

The second deficiency of the dialogue is that it is all on-point, logical, and tediously expository. This is called Dragnet dialogue, after the old TV series. Nobody suddenly remembers something; nobody ever gets distracted; nobody goes off on a tangent; nobody misunderstands. Nobody talks the way people actually talk.

Third deficiency. The author seems to have no awareness of the distinctiveness of speech. The way a person talks is as individual as his or her fingerprints. In this novel, everyone talks the same way. The only exceptions are some of the American characters, who use a few Americanisms.

When you are building a character in fiction, you must put a lot of effort into establishing his speech patterns. You give him a characteristic vocabulary, phrases he is fond of using, the ways his ideas usually flow, the kinds of sentences he uses. I see no evidence that Yaffe did this. His dialogue is used strictly to move the story along, not to establish character.

4. The characters are awfully thin, even Alekhine’s. What do we learn about him? That he loves chess, that he is attracted to older women, that he will tell any lie that suits his interests, that he is a drunk. And that is about it. The novel gives us almost nothing of this inner life, which is odd in view of the novel’s title, promising as it does a story focussed on his inner life. The characters in this novel are almost as undifferentiated as their dialogue.

5. Well, if none of these things are up to snuff, surely we have some good chessic content. The author is a lifelong player. Surely he describes Alekhine’s feeling for the game and philosophy of the game; surely he unfolds the drama of some of Alekhine’s greatest games, such as his victories over Bogoljubov at Hastings in 1922 and Reti at Baden-Baden in 1925.

Nope. The chess is this novel is virtually non-existent. Think about that. We learn about Alekhine’s tournament and match victories, almost as news items, but the games themselves, and the Game itself, scarcely put in an appearance.

6. For the readers who are not too familiar with chess history or Alekhine’s life, it would have been thoughtful for the author to fix the events in the calendar a bit better. The only thing that helps us with the years is the world events that are taking place in the background, like the Russian Revolution, the Depression, and the two world wars.

7. There are a few mistakes of fact that I noticed. Capablanca died in 1942, not 1944, as implied in Chapter 30. And it wasn’t just the British and the Americans who were involved in D-Day; the Canadian army took Juno Beach.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
This fictionalized history of Alexander Alekhine's life is an exciting read. I don't usually go in for history or biography, but the inclusion of conversations between Alekhine and the people whith whom he interacts give real life to this book. While it helps to have a basic knowledge of chess, the reader does not have to be a world chess champion himself to understand the excitement and frustrations of pursuing a career in the game.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
The author develops a character that is so real, so tragic, yet so talented that I was unable to put him out of my mind. Although Alekhine was a real person, the author fictionalized him in the most creative and unpredictable ways. Just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next, something totally unexpected occurred. The plot was exciting from beginning to end. It is truly a must read book!
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book is a page-turner from beginning to end. For those who love chess, twentieth-century history, or simply an exciting story, this is a wild and fascinating ride.
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