Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw
by Thomas Glavinic
First published in German as Carl Haffners Liebe zum Unentschieden, this English translation was even mini-launched at the Austrian Institute in London in the presence of (wait for it) GM Raymond Keene, a PR coup which did not, as far as I am aware, lead to this first novel storming up the bestseller list. This young (in his twenties) Austrian author has selected the life and chess career of Carl Schlechter as his book’s inspiration, with particular emphasis on the famous 1910 match with Emanuel Lasker, although crucially he shies away from any technical discussion of the margin of victory required by Schlechter (he led 5–4 going into the final, tenth game), offering the scenario that Schlechter deliberately risked all to win the final game for personal reasons (pride, a sense of unworthiness as winner by ‘merely’ drawing, etc.) – and this is where the novel takes over from accurate historical reporting, of course.
But it is not Carl Schlechter we read of, but Carl Haffner, a device perhaps meant to give the author more artistic freedom in relating his hero’s inner trauma. Other Viennese chess masters (Albin, Horak, Wolf) appear in their same names, while without undertaking any detective work I assume that many other chess luminaries (patrons, presidents, organisers) are also ‘themselves’. One character who must be pure fiction is the mysterious Anna Feiertanz, who, without even herself knowing why, is attracted to Carl and the whole aura of the World Championship match, although prior to this she had ‘founded a nudist club that shocked summer visitors to the banks of the Danube’. She comes to the games, meets Haffner for coffee, beats him and Lasker (with assistance from the men around her) in a joint simultaneous display arranged (ludicrously, it seems to me – surely this cannot be factual) shortly before the fourth game, and even gets a journalistic assignment for the Berlin half of the match, yet when it is all over she abandons all interest in chess, and abandons Carl. One does wonder why she features at all. As her role fails to convince, so does her whole character, except in the vaguest ‘love interest’ sense. At times the suggestion seems to be that she is some kind of a call-girl, although this is never actually stated.
Carl’s sexuality is highly ambiguous. Anna herself ‘suspected that women held no attraction for him’. He is abnormally close to his mother; his father leaves the family home when Carl is still young, and dies of alcoholism. At school: ‘it was the very warmth of Franz’s affection that confused and somehow touched him deeply’. Another youthful chum says, ‘ “Like to bet I wouldn’t put your thing in my mouth?”’. Are we to infer Haffner’s (and Schlechter’s?) homosexuality? The real plum is Carl’s near-incestual adoration for his half-sister, Lina, the fruit of the relationship between his father and Leopoldine, the ‘other woman’. Carl constantly dotes on her, indeed seems to live for her alone; she plays the piano for him and ‘He didn’t know why, but he felt nothing for any woman, apart from the one who was playing his favourite tune…’ Or, musing in a cafe, ‘What could a brother and sister do without offending against propriety?’ The climax comes back in Vienna after the match is over: ‘He clasped her to him. It was the first time he had kissed a woman on the lips. Lina freed herself, avoiding his eye. She looked rather upset (…) They never mentioned the incident.’
It is no criticism of this book (it is, after all, a novel), but is any of this actually based on events in Schlechter’s life? Did he have a half-sister? Perhaps Edward Winter or someone else can elaborate on these themes in a future issue. The book is divided into ten chapters – certainly a nod at the ten games of the match. Odd-numbered World Championship chapters compete with even-numbered Haffner-grows-up chapters. Harsh family life and general poverty abound: even when Haffner is playing Lasker we are meant to believe that the former can hardly afford a simple meal in a restaurant. He is loathe to accept charity from wealthier members of the Viennese Chess Club. The chess scenes are surprisingly punctuated by both players casually getting up and going to talk with spectators, even discussing the game in progress: can it really have been like that?
The writing (or the translation) is fresh throughout, with plenty of atmosphere and style, although the subject matter makes it difficult for the story to build up any real tension. The jumping back and forth between chapters I found slightly annoying. It is a very readable work, but lacks any remarkable qualities, other than (for chess fans) the curiosity of the topic. Even at the very end, when Carl is dying of starvation in Budapest, I was somehow emotionally disengaged from his plight, perhaps simply because I wasn’t sure whether to lament Haffner or Schlechter. And one still fails to understand why Carl (in the novel) almost deliberately rejects strong moves at critical moments in the tenth game – as if he feels more at peace by not winning the match. Of course, by losing he still draws the match: an apt result for this book’s title.
The jacket describes the author as being ‘by the age of fifteen … one of Austria’s leading players’. A quick database search produced zero games. I did however locate some Haffner games, but from the 1990s. Maybe the man who died in 1918 was Carl Schlechter, after all.