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Joseph Leydenbach: Jeu d’Echecs [Game of Chess]

The beginning of this novel is somewhat odd in that the events described in this part are completely abandoned after the first few pages. This does matter too much, as they are not important but still strange. Leydenbach makes the point that they take place in Africa but the rest of the novel will take place in Europe, apart from a few briefly described holidays abroad. Two men in Africa – a Dr Michel Surot (who will have a minor role) and a journalist, called Casal (no first name and never to be heard of again) play a game of chess (hence the title). Casal attacks strongly but eventually loses to the doctor’s patient approach. Casal then tells the doctor about a book he is planning to write. The plot concerns a doctor who is about to discover a cure for cancer. He knows a nuclear scientist who is working on military applications using nuclear energy. The doctor is treating the scientist’s wife for cancer and, indeed cures her. However he hates the scientist for promoting death and kills him. While in prison he carries out experiments on himself and dies. The doctor says he knows a similar story which he proceeds to tell. This story, which makes up the rest of the novel, has only a limited relationship to Casal’s novel outline.

The story concerns Pierre Botra, head of an industrial company in Abraville, a fictitious town in France. He had inherited it from his father, who founded it. The company is successful (we never know what it makes) but takes up all of Botra’s time and has taken away his individuality. Il a fini par ressembler à une machine. Il est devenu anonyme. [He ended up being like a machine. He became anonymous.] At a party celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the firm, Dr Surot tells him that he looks unwell and persuades him to have some tests. The tests show that he has cancer. The doctor tells Botra that it is curable but he tells Surot’s wife that it is not. Botra, also a chess fanatic, sees the situation as a chess game and decides that the first move will be a sacrifice of a pawn, meaning he will, on the doctor’s advice, give up work for six months. And that is the end of the chess metaphor, as Leydenbach will not use it again.

The rest of the novel is how he deals with his life now that he no longer has to work. Another patient introduces him both to spirituality and music but, while briefly trying both, he does not adopt either. When a doctor in a hospital in Paris tells him to live, he decides to go down to Saint Tropez and enjoy himself there. He cannot find a hotel but stays in a bed and breakfast, which he enjoys more. He goes for walks, gambles a bit, goes to night clubs and passes his time in cafés drinking. He meets an old schoolfriend and they go after girls together. When he is advised that Saint Tropez is not the right place for him, his cousin Paul, lends him his house in Provence and he goes there and his wife, Monique, joins him there. It is at this point that we realise that things are, unknown to him, not in good shape in his family. As he has often been absent, his wife has an affair with a younger man. When her father finds out, she is forced to break it off but this really makes her upset. She will be even more upset later in the novel when she learns her lover is getting married. Their son, Daniel, is at school in Paris and staying with one of Monique’s friends, Françoise Fontaine. He is also doing drugs. Monique finds out from her friend but does not tell Pierre till later. Their daughter, Nadine, is also worried, upset about the issues between her parents. Pierre will try to resolve the problems of all three by having separate holidays with all of them – in Scandinavia and the Netherlands with Daniel, in the USA and Italy with Nadine and on a round the world trip with Monique.

For his own part, Pierre, unaware of what is going on around him, also makes his own contribution to deception. He has an affair with Françoise. He also buys his own house in Provence. He also tries to change his factory and make it more of a model factory. In short, he tries to do something with his life before his likely death but none of it really succeeds or, rather, Leydenbach leaves it all rather open whether it does. Monique is still miserable about her lover, Daniel still does drugs and Nadine is worried about her parents. They like the house in Provence, wittily called Mirèio. And the factory may or may not change. In short, it is a strange novel, leaving unfinished business and threads hanging but ultimately it is his bowling buddies that gives Pierre the most fun and maybe that is the message – hang out with your friends and forget the rest.

Publishing history

First published by Editions de la Renaissance du Livre in 1976
No English translation