Review: The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Luzhin Defense [1929] – ★★★★★

Of all my Russian books, The Luzhin Defense contains and diffuses the greatest “warmth”, which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract Chess is supposed to be” (Vladimir Nabokov).

This was an audio-book which I listened to in its original language, Russian. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s only third novel in Russian (he wrote his last series of books in English), but it impressed me hugely. In this book, the author imagines the life of a once chess prodigy and now a respected retired man Alexander Luzhin, and, while the first part of the book is a touching coming-of-age story of one talented but misunderstood and lonely boy, the second half of the story is a penetrating study of one eccentric, increasingly mentally-confused man who still tries to accustom himself to the society that, surprisingly to him, is far from chess rules and boards. Through this character study, which is both tender and ironic, tragic and farcical, Nabokov underscores the parasitic relationship of madness to genius, as he also unveils a deeply sympathetic situation of one man always in the midst of a battle to lead a life which seems natural to him.

It is said that Vladimir Nabokov was inspired to write The Luzhin Defense by the 1925 Moscow Chess Tournament and the Soviet film Chess Fever (1925), while he also based his central character on one of his acquaintances, Curt von Bardeleben, a chess master. A lover of metaphors of all kinds, Nabokov could not perhaps resist the comparison of a game of chess to a life lived. A game of chess, that “game of the Gods…with endless possibilities”, can resemble our own lives in some ways. As in a game of chess, we “act out” our life situations looking for opportunities, defending our positions, compromising constantly, perhaps holding back when threatened, attacking prospects when we are sure of ourselves and are trying to come out victorious in any threatening life situation. We also take pride and joy in small pleasures and conquests, and learn to prioritise the most important.

The focus of Nabokov’s novel is the enigmatic, magnetic personality of Alexander Luzhin, and the author unravels so very delicately the different facets of this character and the unusual, fascinating workings of his mind. This character study seems both painfully familiar to us, and yet so in want of a deeper exploration, and Nabokov exercises effortless control over his story-telling. In the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Luzhin as a young boy and sense the loneliness of the child’s introversion. However, his aunt teaches him chess and his world is never the same again – he is a true chess prodigy. We then sense his guilt of hiding his developing chess skill form his father, the misunderstandings in school, and the difficult familial situation in Luzhin’s home. Later, Luzhin’s chess genius is exploited by one Valentinov, who takes the young boy on a “chess tournaments” trip around the world. Nabokov shows the development of Luzhin’s talent over the years and his possible growing disappointment at his “wasted” life, in which the mastery of the sport also meant the perpetual spiritual longing for human connection. Luzhin’s fateful encounter with one kind young woman in a hotel and his clumsy, old-fashioned courting of her demonstrate his sympathetic attempts to lead a normal family life. It is in these attempts that Nabokov captures the “unsaid”, knowing seemingly instinctively what to withhold and what to reveal to the reader and at what point in the story. There is much situational tragicomedy in this novel, but also the tender suspension of the resolution, the vivid exploration of the subtle drama, and much nostalgia and the play on words. Nabokov had a talent of capturing the intensity of a moment in fiction, and his use of literary allusions, hyperboles and personifications in his completely-uncluttered sentences is beautiful. Thus, we have a staircase which “came alive” and a bell that “was born”.

As is the case with any great novel, The Luzhin Defense will be interpreted differently by different people. Is it a tale of liberation vs. entrapment?, a tale of an increasingly fragmented mind wanting happiness desperately, but not possessing “earthy” tools with which to build it? A triumph of an individual over his obsessions and passions? Or maybe a story of one unrealised potential that realised itself in the end by the only way possible? There is a definite influence of both Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov felt in Nabokov’s writing, but that combination of a dash of caricature, a splash of sentimentality, and a tad of irony in the story is Nabokov’s very own: “The secret for which he strove was simplicityharmonious simplicity, which can amaze one far more than the most intricate magic…”; “[that inevitable day came] for Luzhin when the whole world suddenly went dark, as if someone had thrown a switch, and in the darkness only one thing remained brilliantly lit, a new-born wonder, a dazzling islet on which his whole life was destined to be concentrated” [The Luzhin Defense, Nabokov/Scammell, 1929/2012: 39]; “…no one has yet managed to discover in her the most attractive feature…it was the mysterious ability of her soul to receive from life only that which attracted and tortured one only in their childhood, in that epoch when the soul’s sense of smell never makes any mistakes, digging out only that which is amusing and touching, [while also] always feeling unbearable pity for any sentient being that lives helplessly and unhappily…” (excuse my amateur translation of the latter sentence).

Having in the past read only a couple of Nabokov’s novels (Lolita [1955] and Despair [1934]), I was simply enchanted by this early tale of Nabokov, which captures first the wonders of childhood, when the child’s soul is awakened by new discoveries and imagination takes hold, and then the wonders of one intellectual world of a few gifted adults that has its own traps and demands many sacrifices. I realise that listening to an audio-book in Russian is bound to be a rather different experience from reading a book in English, but I am also sure that this subtle, heart-felt and eloquently-written book with one unforgettable character study is equally good in any format.

19 thoughts on “Review: The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well. My favorite of his early novels. I have a soft spot for his pre-Orwellian brutal dystopia Bend Sinister as well (if I’m not mistaken, his first novel in English)!

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    1. I am glad to know you also loved it. Interesting, I think I will add Bend Sinister to my TBR. I myself have had a strange relationship with Nabokov. Like most, I read Lolita first and when I was a teenager and then thought that I would like both The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Invitation to a Beheading, but did not progress far in either of these books, which is odd because at least The Invitation to a Beheading reminds me of the work of Sartre and Kafka, whom I adore. Perhaps the problem for me is Nabokov’s certain wordiness and the audiobook here alleviated it for me? Who knows, I am prepared to try again. I want to read next Pnin and Dar (The Gift).

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    1. That’s great! I do remember that about your son since I think you mentioned it in my review of another chess non-fiction book. That is so amazing. It turns out that with Nabokov it is equally fascinating to get to know this fascinating world of chess-players vicariously. I never review books I read in my native language, but The Luzhin Defense was so good I just could not resist!

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  2. I have read and enjoyed quite a few of Nabokov’s Russian novels besides ‘The Defense’ (which my translation was called): ‘Invitation to a Beheading’, ‘King, Queen, Knave’, ‘Despair’.

    Of his later novels, ‘Pale Fire’ is a masterpiece, as well as ‘Pnin’. I have read ‘Lolita’ in college, didn’t care for it much then, and have never tried it again. My reaction might be a lot different a second time.

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