Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Luzhin Defence”

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John Turturro starring as the eponymous hero in the 2000 film adaption

“The Luzhin Defense,” Vladimir Nabokov’s third novel, is a wild, energetic story about one man’s singular obsession with chess and how, in two hundred and fifty pages, it eats him from the inside.

“Being born in this world is hardly being borne,” Luzhin’s father, Luzhin senior, tells his son at one point in the novel. It serves eventually as the epigraph of both men but it is applied, firsthand, to Luzhin senior: a young adult novelist of no small ambition who is convinced and convinced utterly that his son is a genius. “An enigma…an enigma,” Luzhin senior thinks. The fact that his son shows no precocious talents befitting a Wunderkind does not bother the latter in the slightest: people who decry his normalcy simply do not understand him as his father does, and besides, Luzhin junior has all of his childhood to find the medium of his genius, which he does, eventually, in the game of chess.

“The secret for which he strove was simplicity, harmonious simplicity, which can amaze one far more than the most intricate magic,” Luzhin junior realizes at his tender age. It’s a subtle, camouflaged move placed by Nabokov (Luzhin junior attributes this thought to the practice of magic) that will come to illustrate the paradox of chess later: the simple binary of white versus black confused into a million million different combinations of offense and defense.

It’s also an apt illustration for the structure of the novel as a whole. “The Luzhin Defense” is a deceptive piece operating under the visages of simplicity. The first quarter of the novel is devoted towards the young Luzhin discovering and refining his abilities at chess. The structuring of these opening pages is done carefully—a small, simple cast of characters is introduced, a relationship between the Luzhins buds; a passion begins to grow; Luzhin becomes the prodigy he was promised to be.

And then, suddenly, we’re thrown a spectacular curveball—so subtle and adept that it’s easy to miss it on a first read. Three quarters through chapter five and Nabokov takes a staggering leap: the shady character Valentinov, “a man of undoubted talent, as he was characterized by those who were about to say something nasty about him” is introduced as a kind of mentor and considered, namely, by Luzhin senior, to be or not be an appropriate influence on his son. This consideration weighs upon both Luzhin senior’s mind and distracts the mind of the reader as Nabokov works in a subtle time shift: “now, a decade and a half later,” he writers, with everyone appearing to be where we last left them, only fifteen years and a revolution later. Summary narration is provided in two pages and suddenly Luzhin senior is dead with little pomp. We see Luzhin junior again; fat, unhappy, chain-smoking and inexorably driven by his passion for chess. It’s an astonishing change, the montage of minutia culminating into the moment that we see Luzhin for what’s he’s become, made all the more brilliant by the finesse of translucency used to age the picture.

“Everything will be spilled, that’s certain,” are Luzhin’s first lines in fifteen years, made to an unnamed “She” who will remain a mystery into it is revealed, midway through the novel, that this “She” is in fact Luzhin’s fiancée to be. A series of flashbacks narrates their coming-together while driving the story towards the premises of their rendezvous, that is, a decisive tournament Luzhin is to play in Berlin against the reigning chess champion, Turati.

It is likely that, in the hands of a lesser novelist, the story might have been concluded with this match, or at least climaxed with it. And yet Nabokov, though still a young writer by the time of this novel, masters the scene and its aftermath with a poise that foreshadows well the genius of his future novels. The match is far from the novel’s climax: rather, it is the instigator, the first taste the reader has that Luzhin’s obsession with chess is manifesting itself harmfully into his life. Even so, the scene is a monumental achievement in nail-biting dramatization, like the game of bridge in Fleming’s “Moonraker,” or the scenes of baseball in Malamud’s “The Natural.” Much of it is worth quoting:

“At first it went softly, softly, like muted violins. The players occupied their positions cautiously, moving this and that up but doing it politely, without the slightest sign of a threat—and if there was any threat it was entirely conventional—more like a hint to one’s opponent that over there he would do well to build a cover, and the opponent would smile, as if all this were an insignificant joke, and strengthen the proper place and himself move forward a fraction. Then, without the least warning, a chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati’s forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin’s side also. For a moment mysterious possibilities were quivering, and then all was quiet again: Turati retreated, drew in…”

What were in the beginning of the novel craftily placed hints of single-mindedness: binary colours, a motif of a frosted window (reflecting both a square on a chess board and the means by which Luzhin will eventually commit suicide), attempt, after Luzhin plays the match, to overwhelm his world.

The remainder of the novel is a marvelous decompression. Luzhin staggers away from the world of the game, traumatized with his memories of his grandmaster days of chess nearly lost, and into reality; his rehabilitation provides the circumstances of the latter half of the novel. At any costs, chess must be avoided: in conversation, in newspapers, in film. It is inevitable that the silence will break, but Nabokov keeps his reader suspended in the tension for an aching hundred pages.

Amateur writers (indeed, all writers) would do well to read early Nabokov, if not to be astonished, than to learn the carefully placed, well-constructed rudiments of engaging fiction: the suspension of tension; the maintenance over characters (whom Nabokov called his “galley slaves”); the drama built from ground up; the nonlinear, though far from confusing, narrative arch. They are the elements of a master storyteller.

 Nabokov, Vladimir. The Luzhin Defense. 1964. Trans. Michael Scammel. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print. 

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