Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Merely Morphy

As the year 1987* - the 150th anniversary of the birth of Paul Morphy - closes, the time is right to discuss the literary merits of the only novel written about him. I am referring to The Chess Players by Frances Parkinson Keyes, published in 1960.

I would like to preface my remarks by making passing reference to a certain psychological school of thought which would have us believe that both Morphy and Fischer avoided 1.P-Q4 in order to escape the clutches of possessive mothers. One such writer has gone so far as to suggest that Fischer's queen sacrifice in "The Game of the Century" represented his final break with his mother. This theory is lent further plausibility by the fact that Fischer's mother was named Regina, which is Latin for "queen". Mrs. Keyes would seem to subscribe to the possessive mother theory, as she devotes the first chapter of her novel to Paul's mother, Telcide. Significantly, this chapter bears the title "The Queen is the Strongest Piece on the Board".

I will not elaborate on the historical facts of Morphy's life, since these are already well-known, other than to mention that the author occasionally disregards these in favor of literary invention. For example, Mrs. Keyes creates the fictitious character Charmian Sheppard to represent Paul's sweetheart, although we are told in the Author's Note that the true identity of Paul's love was known to be a Creole girl and not the Yankee that Charmian is.

Mrs. Keyes also uses her imagination in crediting Paul with being a Confederate agent, in explaining why he spent the war years 1862-1865 in Europe. The author defends her altering some facts as follows: "...The fame of Paul Morphy should not be permitted to die. The logical answer to the question 'How can this be prevented, in the absence of a definitive biography?' seems to be 'Through a thoughtful and comprehensive novel, the work of a writer who will make use of all known facts about the protagonist, and who, when straying into the field of fiction, will try to correlate the real with the imaginary in such a way that the connection between the two will seem not only possible but plausible'."

Nevertheless, many factually minded readers will be disturbed by much of the "imaginary" treatment of the greatest chess player who ever lived. Somehow it is hard to imagine that Morphy lost the first two games of his match with Daniel Harrwitz in Paris because Paul was having midnight trysts in a horsedrawn carriage with Charmian Sheppard, a woman who we already know never existed. Then again, who can say for sure why Morphy unaccountably lost those games before rallying to win the match? Mrs. Keyes's explanation is as good as any, although not necessarily the objective truth.

The thought has occurred to me that perhaps the author's disregard for the facts, at times, can be compared favorably with Morphy's disdain for the value of a minor piece in pursuit of checkmate. After all, the task of the novelist is essentially no different from that of the chess player, namely to arrive at one interpretation of the truth as economically as possible; and often this process entails a sacrifice or two along the way. I would recommend that The Chess Players be read only in conjunction with Lawson's book on Morphy, so that the reader is better able to sort fact from fiction. [Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess by David Lawson, David McKay Company, published in 1976.]

Another telling comment about Mrs. Keyes's novel is that it is really two novels in one. The first half, which concludes with Paul's last competitive game of chess, is light-hearted and easy to read. The remainder of the novel, on the other hand, portraying Paul as gradually being caught up in a world of lies and deceit, is so morbid that it took an act of will on my part to get through these pages. However, this is less a criticism of the novel than it is a sad commentary on the course of Morphy's life.

Paul's demise is tragic, both in the real sense and the literary sense. The death notice in the local newspaper on July 11, 1884 expressed eloquently why Morphy has come down through the ages as "the pride and sorrow of chess". [From The Daily Picayune] "The many sidedness of genius is too well known to permit the assumption that Morphy, whose legal education was superior, could not have distinguished himself at the bar had he so willed. But it is the misfortune of genius almost always to lack perseverance."

Yet, as I indicated earlier, the first half of the novel - the opening and middlegame years of Paul's life, if you will - contains more of the pride and less of the sorrow. One example of the humorous wit which prevails here takes place at the commemorative banquet honoring Paul, following his victory at the American Chess Congress. The runner-up finisher Louis Paulsen fails to show, probably out of pique. And someone jests that perhaps Paulsen, who was noted for his ability to play chess without sight of the board, had also mastered the art of eating his meals without actually appearing at the table!

I also enjoyed Mrs. Keyes's carefree description of a childhood game of blind man's buff in which Paul is remarkably unable to catch Charmian despite his proven ability to excel at blindfold chess.

And most tournament players can readily identify with this depiction of young Paul's frame of mind during his first public encounter with Lowenthal: "He had suffered agonies of embarrassment in that great room filled with hard-drinking, heavy-smoking men, watching him like hawks, ready to scoff and mock if he failed and to slap him on the back and guffaw uproariously if he succeeded."

Those readers who are interested only in the statistics of Morphy's career are urged to read Lawson's definitive work. But those of us, who want to go beyond the mere facts and discover what the man Morphy might really have been like, will find in The Chess Players an imaginative account, courtesy of Mrs. Keyes's woman's intuition. The Morphy who emerges on these pages is not so much a chess prodigy as a man of genius, who chose to express his genius through the medium of the chessboard - a choice which, in large part, was dictated by the circumstances of his life.

*{This book review originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1988}