Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense

The DefenseThe Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Defense, originally titled The Luzhin Defense, is Nabokov’s third novel. It was published in Russian in Berlin in 1930 under the name V. Sirin, Nabokov’s pseudonym from his émigré years. This 1964 English translation was done by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the author after Lolita made him famous and created a market for his early works.

When you open the book, you encounter a foreword that displays the maestro, by then already retired to his Montreux palace, in all the hostile virtuosity that still endears him to some readers and embitters others against him. After helpfully informing us, and with a thematic clue, how to pronounce the protagonist’s name (it “rhymes with ‘illusion’ if pronounced thickly enough to deepen the ‘u’ into an ‘oo'”), he then hints, for the ironic aid of “hack reviewers” and “persons who move their lips when reading,” that this novel about a chess master is itself patterned after the game:

My story was difficult to compose, but I greatly enjoyed taking advantage of this or that image or scene to introduce a fatal pattern into Luzhin’s life and to endow the description of a garden, a journey, a sequence of humdrum events, with the semblance of a game of skill, and, especially in the final chapters, with that of a regular chess attack demolishing the innermost elements of the poor fellow’s sanity.

Whether or not The Defense has precisely the structure of a chess game, I cannot quite say, and the very thought of it gives me a headache—I know how to play chess, but I’m not very good at it and lack the mathematical intelligence to ponder it abstractly; I moreover dislike inorganic narrative gimmicks, imposed superstructures. But given the patterns of theme and imagery I detect in the narrative, I doubt that Nabokov means to valorize abstract gamesmanship as such.

Perusing some other assessments of the novel, from the New York Review of Books to Goodreads reviewers, I see that critics tend to read The Defense as if the chess-obsessed protagonist, Luzhin, were its victimized hero and his nameless wife, who tries to save his life by keeping him from the game, correspondingly its villain. As I interpret the novel, though, this is exactly backward. The narrator tells us explicitly that Luzhin is, by the age of 30, a failed artist, one who has not developed:

Luzhin’s present plight was that of a writer or composer who, having assimilated the latest things in art at the beginning of his active career and caused a temporary sensation with the originality of his devices, all at once notices that a change has imperceptibly taken place around him, that others, sprung from goodness knows where, have left him behind in the very devices where he recently led the way, and then he feels himself robbed, sees only ungrateful imitators in the bold artists who have overtaken him, and seldom understands that he himself is to blame, he who has petrified in his art which was once new but has not advanced since then.

Judging from this paragraph, even Luzhin in his prime was a flawed artist: his “having assimilated the latest things” makes him sound like a passive dilettante or faddist, and his “temporary sensation” suggests flash-in-the-pan audience manipulation. On the other hand, not only is Mrs. Luzhin the novel’s true hero, she is also its only true artist, albeit an artist at living, a novelist at home:

…she would think vaguely that there were probably greater joys than the joys of compassion, but that these were no concern of hers. Her only care in life was a minute-by-minute effort to arouse Luzhin’s curiosity about things in order to keep his head above the dark water, so that he could breathe easily.

While “the joys of compassion” could easily become an unctuous idea, when it’s wed to “effort,” and moreover the effort to “arouse…curiosity” and thereby stave off despair, it sounds like the art of the novelist (especially considering Nabokov’s frequent opposition of curiosity to cruelty), and I am reminded of Nabokov’s defense, in his later Lectures on Literature, of Dickens:

I should not like to hear the charge of sentimentality made against this strain that runs through Bleak House. I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is. […] For instance, how different is the world of Dickens from the world of Homer or the world of Cervantes. Does a hero of Homer’s really feel the divine throb of pity? Horror, yes—and a kind of generalized routinized compassion—but is the keen sense of specialized pity as we understand it today, as it were, in the dactyllic past? For let us nurse no doubt about it: despite all our hideous reversions to the wild state, modern man is on the whole a better man than Homer’s man, homo homericus, or than medieval man. In the imaginary battle of americus versus homericus, the first wins humanity’s prize.

Luzhin, on the other hand, ostensible hero of the anti-bildungsroman, has been without curiosity or compassion from the beginning of the book. In its opening pages, we encounter him having a tantrum about his education—his parents are afraid of him—and mocking his governess with caricatures of her bust. We are roused to sympathy for him by his boarding school classmates’ bullying, but his escape into chess is just that: an escape from life, not the deeper investigation of life signified by the combination of curiosity and compassion that the scientist-artist Nabokov elsewhere recommends.

In the surprise move on the narrative board for which the older Nabokov congratulates himself in the 1964 foreword, the novel elides the entire period of Luzhin’s life from his first mastering chess in adolescence to his meeting of his eventual wife at around age 30 and his subsequent nervous breakdown that leads him to abandon the game under doctor’s orders and Mrs. Luzhin’s care. In other words, the only periods of Luzhin’s life that Nabokov concerns himself to represent, as if to say that these are the only periods when he’s lived, are the periods when he does not play chess. The novel’s witty, playful, and observant third-person omniscient narrator makes clear that for Luzhin, chess is the opposite of life, as when he notes that Luzhin prefers playing blind because

one did not have to deal with visible, audible, palpable pieces whose quaint shape and wooden materiality always disturbed him and always seemed to him but the crude, mortal shell of exquisite, invisible chess forces.

Nabokov here represents chess as a stand-in for art considered by Neo-Platonism (probably as the author had encountered it among the French and Russian Symbolists): art as the sensory expression of the ideal that stands behind all mere sense. Luzhin ironically neglects his own health, is mired by his adulthood in short-winded corpulence, precisely the excess material he is trying to evade, because he is so fixated on the supposed Platonic higher reality disclosed by the “chess forces.” Such an attitude, Nabokov implies, will degrade this reality, the only one we know for sure.

Consider as proof that the novel associates chess with disordered love—often the Lolita author’s choice metaphor for aestheticism gone wrong. Luzhin first becomes aware of chess from his mother’s younger cousin, also his father’s mistress, on the day the affair seems to explode into the open (the narrator, keeping to Luzhin’s youthful viewpoint, implies the reality of the situation to the reader over the child’s understandably oblivious head). Once his aunt is expelled from the family home, he skips school to see her, in an echo of his father’s own surreptitious visits, and is taught chess by another of her lovers, an older man who is presumably keeping her.

Furthermore, the manager and minder who takes Luzhin on when his precocious mastery is discovered and leads him on his initial tour of the Russian tournaments is ironically named Valentinov, though there is nothing of love’s patron saint about him:

Luzhin, recalling that time, was surprised to note that not a single, kind, humane word had passed between him and Valentinov.

Valentinov’s recurrence toward the novel’s conclusion on the narrative gameboard, calling himself Luzhin’s “chess father” and seeking to exploit him for the movies, precipitates the hero’s final suicidal crisis. Adultery and exploitation—the perversion of the private life and the evasion of fidelity—are the conveyances of the game to Luzhin, and it is no coincidence that marriage is figured as chess’s opposite by the novel’s second half.

But the idealism for which “chess forces” stand can damage public life as well as private. This is the implication, for instance, of Luzhin’s complete incognizance of the cities and countries he passes through as an itinerant chess master, stressed several times in the book: he sees only chess cafes and chessboards, missing travel experiences that most people would envy in pursuit of illusive and delusive (“rhymes with ‘illusion'”) spiritual experiences.

Luzhin’s father, a novelist, speculates just before his death about how he might write his son’s life and begins to despair about the need to account for the Great War and the Russian Revolution, which to him “had seemed an encroachment on creative freedom.” Yet Luzhin is ignorant of politics and even geography:

“But in general, all this could have been arranged more piquantly,” he said, pointing to the map of the world. “There’s no idea behind it, no point.”

The danger that the Platonist might re-arrange reality allies Luzhin not with the victims of totalitarianism but with its perpetrators—

Real life, chess life, was orderly, clear-cut, and rich in adventure, and Luzhin noted with pride how easy it was for him to reign in this life, and the way everything obeyed his will and bowed to his schemes.

—with those who wish to reign over recalcitrant reality and make it obey their will and bow to them.

Contrast Mrs. Luzhin, the novel’s real hero. She is the daughter of nostalgic right-wing Russian exiles, bigots who recreate a kitsch fantasy of Russia in their Berlin lodgings and fear that Luzhin’s “real name is Rubinstein or Abramson.” But, with an artist’s insight, she understands that what she has lost is not a social order that can be reimposed on the world, but rather a set of “completely irreplaceable” personal experiences whose chief good to her in adulthood is as an impetus to her aforementioned pity and curiosity.

We’re told of “the mysterious ability of her soul to apprehend in life only that which had once attracted and tormented her in childhood, the time when the soul’s instinct is infallible,” and that “[w]henever she did come across a creature who was being hurt, she experienced a kind of legendary eclipse.” Eventually, her curiosity impels her to study the political situation in Russia, and she concludes of the then-free society of Berlin in the 1920s that

both here and in Russia people tortured, or desired to torture, other people, but there the torture and desire to torture were a hundred times greater than here and therefore here was better.

We can imagine her author readily concurring in the judgment. She is inspired to investigate contemporary politics by the visit of an old family friend from Russia who has married a Soviet engineer. This symbolically treacherous guest, reprising the role played earlier in the novel by Luzhin’s aunt, is depicted as a stupid vulgarian lost to communist propaganda, as is her young son:

“Even my boy—what, you didn’t know I had a little boy?—well, I have, I have, a cute little squirt—well, even he says that at home in Leningrad, ‘they wuk, while in Bellin the boulzois don’t do anything.'”

This shy child has an affinity for Luzhin: he helps him to make the discovery of a pocket chessboard lodged in his jacket lining and is even described as “[h]is terrible little double, little Luzhin,” the echo of himself as a child—thus finalizing Luzhin’s identification, and that of chess, with a selfish, evasive, and totalitarian sensibility.

The Defense, then, is an early warning from Nabokov about the danger of art divorced from experience, material, love—in short, from real life. Luzhin is not a portrait of the artist, not a David Copperfield or even a Stephen Dedalus whose flaws come from an excess of the very sensitivity and sensibility that will correct them, rather than from an innate cruelty, and which therefore portend the talent of the authors they will become. Luzhin is rather a sketch for the likes of Humbert Humbert.

In the foreword, Nabokov describes Luzhin’s suicide as a “sui-mate,” presumably the self-sacrifice, for others’ sake, of a wicked king. As for the admirable Mrs. Luzhin, I believe I do grasp enough of chess to understand Nabokov’s intention in creating this character: the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.