He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. ‘My dream is to have a little house out in the country,’ he said, ‘by a lake or a river, where I could fish, and the sun would be shining and the children would play and in the evenings we would sit down together for dinner and there would only be us, the family—my family. Nothing else, no one else. A simple meal, a light breeze, deer and rabbits running over the fields. And I would sleep for ten hours and wake refreshed and content and the day would start all over again, the sun shining and the children playing.’‘What you are describing is an impossible idyll.’ ‘I said it was a dream, didn’t I? It’s never going to happen. My life is not like that. It never will be like that. But what’s wrong with having a harmless little dream?’ ‘Does it help you solve the fundamental problem of your life?’ ‘Which is what?’ ‘I don’t know. You won’t tell me.’
—Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang
Admit it, if like Ronan Bennett, you had thought of naming your novel Zugzwang you would have rewritten it so that the title made some kind of sense given the plot, characters, and setting. And Bennett’s historical thriller, which I borrowed from the local library the other day, whips up some kind of intrigue in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1914, right before the October Revolution, involving a chess tournament and a Jewish psychoanalyst. I haven’t finished it yet, but it looks promising.
Zugzwang is a chess and game-theory term for a situation in which (as Wikipedia puts it): “every move would make their position worse, and they would be better off if they could pass and not move.”
The part I’ve quoted is where the analyst, Otto Spethmann, has one of his patients, a high-level Bolshevik called Petrov, on his couch. I like how the overly realistic analysand becomes the romantic, while Spethmann, the protagonist, who is ordinarily kind of flighty, becomes very focused and direct while treating his patients.