Monday, March 03, 2014

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

I don't find time to read enough "classics", though whenever I read an old book I find different qualities than in newer fiction. Asking on Facebook which Nabokov I should read apart from "Pale Fire" and "Lolita", a range of selections came up. I wanted to read one of his Russian novels, and The Luzhin Defense (or "The Defence"), his third novel, written in 1930 under his émigré pseudonym "V. Sirin" intrigued me.

Chess is one of those pastimes that has fascinated other artists, whether film makers, songwriters or novelists, though like cricket, its a game that I understand only in the rules, not in the nuance. Luzhin is a young boy from an aristocratic St. Petersburg family whose world will be disrupted by war and revolution, though neither of these events really impinge as much as the personal horrors of being bullied at school, or his estranged unemotional family. The book is in some ways a biography of a man, in the same way that John Williams' "Stoner" is, but that conventionality only goes so far with Nabokov of course. In other ways, the life story is an extended metaphor, a game of chess in itself. Nabokov writes beautifully of course, and Luzhin's (it rhymes with "illusion" appropriately) childhood is told with the same sensitivity to a lost world as we find in his later exemplary memoir "Speak, Memory."

Once Luzhin's chess ability sets him even further apart from his dislikeable peers, he becomes a driven child, taken on by an impresario who acts as a second father, but with no more empathy than the first one. Luzhin's father is a writer of boy's adventure stories, plucky tales, where "Tony" is a fictionalised version of Luzhin. Such unwanted fame gives Luzhin even more trouble at school and it is obvious that he is a disappointment to this weak man, whose own marriage is compromised by his affair with a younger aunt. His mother is a willing invalid, and Luzhin's childhood is as brutally unpromising and damaging as so many in literature. The usual opportunities for a quiet child are not his, either, though he enjoys Phileas Fogg and Sherlock Holmes, as much for the structures of their adventures and deductions as for the escapism. Nabokov rushes us from this early pre-chess life, and the subterfuge he has to undertake to play the game, and we find Luzhin again in a post-revolutionary Europe, a ridiculous figure, his Grand Master status on the wane as other younger players usurp his techniques, and making money from playing "blind" exhibition matches, whilst reaching a limit in the grand tournaments he competes in throughout Europe. His parents dead, and, with his powers waning, his mentor moving off into the new movie business, Luzhin finds himself checking into  a health spa that he remembers from his childhood, where a younger Russian woman, herself an émigré from the revolution living in Berlin, takes an interest in him, half out of curiousity, half out of pity. She has unwittingly hitched herself to an impossible task: for Luzhin himself is as unknowable and as abstract as the game he plays.

Their awkward courtship, where Luzhin asks for her hand more like a drowning man than a suitor, sees him entering into the pseudo-Russia of the émigré community, where entire apartments are decked out in nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia. Luzhin's chess playing sees him reach a limit in competing against an Italian Grand Master, and he collapses mid-game, his "defence" against this formidable opponent apparently unknown, and becoming a puzzle for chess fans ever afterwards.  Picked off the street by a bunch of German revellers who assume his prone state means he is one of their own party he is dumped at this fiancées house, where the disapproving family at least take on the role of his repair and convalescence.

Released from the asylum, Luzhin is recovered, but his ailment is seen as being his obsession with chess, and he not only has to give up the game, but for all mentions of it to be avoided. Only after he marries, does the impossibility of this separation become apparent. He only needs the hint of the game to recall the puzzle that he left following his breakdown, and unable to mention it to his wife, in an unconsummated marriage, he begins seeing the world around him as a giant chess game, with repeated patterns and moves from his childhood. Life, like the game, becomes a project which he has to solve, and Luzhin's "defence" is as impossible in life as it appeared in the abandoned game. As the past refuses to leave him alone, with his chess mentor wanting to use him in a film (or as gambit to bring him back into tournament play), his wife wanting him to visit the grave of his dead father, an old school acquaintance bringing back memories of his unhappy school days, and a young Soviet woman who knew his aunt coming to visit, he sees that the chess game of his life is being played around him again. Locking himself in the bathroom of his apartment he scrabbles to find an escape through an open window. The novel ends with the door bursting open, and his fate ambiguous.

It's a short, compelling novel in many ways, though its the early part, in Russia, which - like "Speak, Memory" - is the most exquisitely written. In other parts, one is reminded of the essentially comic side to much of Nabokov's writing. Certain scenes are Mr. Bean-like farces of near-physical comedy for the inarticulate, lugubrious Luzhin to fall around in. I'm reminded of later, darker characters - from absurdist drama perhaps - in this Luzhin. He's what Americans might call a putz. How can we have such sympathy for such a man-child? I think that Nabokov's metaphor possibly extends here. For "here he is", Old Russia, and look what you've done to him - took him away from his homeland, and his usual methods, as absurd as they were, and put him where exactly? He's a travelling freakshow. There seems a Weimar-ish absurdity to this portrayal; a character in a freak show that chimes with the times. Yet the chess motif is also vitally important of course. Though the signature of the book may not be structured too tightly to that of a game, it is structured: and part of the unreality of the novel is this use of metaphor. Yet it is a playful construction, rather than a restrictive one. Later Nabokov would be more elaborate in his scaffolding, but here's there's something of a construction nonetheless.

Reading a more minor work by a major writer has its own pleasures. There's none of the "Lolita" theme that Martin Amis has worried about as being his repeating trope, though there is the idea of aman who is unable to function in the adult world - whose marriage is that of mother/son, nurse/patient - and seems to be a lens through which Nabokov can offer both candour and absurdity. For despite being a burlesque figure (I'm reminded of that other misfit in a poor marriage, Quoyle in Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News") it is through his obessions and innocences that we see the world that is described. Like "Citizen Kane" there's a prelapsarian moment which becomes the point where all things went wrong; where the young boy is told he will now be known by his family name "Luzhin"; yet there's no "Rosebud" for Luzhin, rather, he hangs onto chess as a life raft that takes him away from a world that is infinite in its disorder. In one of many affecting scenes, we see him looking at the atlas of the world and finding no sense of order or meaning in the way the planet's land masses are laid out. The chess board offers this secular man a sense of spiritual meaning like no other thing; yet in its infinite variations, there is also the impossibility of a life "won". I liked the book a lot.

1 comment:

Mytwostotinki said...

A very erudite, thoughtful and interesting review of this book. Although it is an early work of Nabokov, it already shows the tremendous talent and genius of its author in many respects. By the way, the book was written in 1928 and published in a Russian journal in three instalments in 1929, a year prior to the book publication. My own review in case you are interested: