Book Review: “The Defense” by Vladimir Nabokov

November 22, 2010

Unlovable, flabby Luzhin has lost his mind, unfortunately right in the middle of a paramount chess match against another reigning international champion. Leaving the game at a cliffhanger, the forename-less Russian prodigy waddles off into the Berlin night, where he will ultimately collapse on a curb in an emotional fugue and, for some time, cease to exist.

Following this, imprisoned in the banalities of pleasantries, doilies and dinner parties, Luzhin for some time occupies an infantile dream state, cared for by his equally nameless wife (she doesn’t even get a surname until she share his, post wedding)…until the momentum of Luzhin’s original impetus—chess, chess, chess—comes pounding back at him in a furious tyrannical inevitability, and all is lost.

Nabokov’s third novel, a Russian-German mash of European humanity between the wars, is a heavy tale of fate and obsession. Here Nabokov sheds most of the charming, naive elements of his earlier books, instead giving glimpses of the headstrong and flawlessly self-confident literary powerhouse that he would continue to display for the next half century.

The novel’s cornerstone is one of Nabokov’s hallmark character themes: the social outcast. Where the novelist’s genius blazes is in his unflinching ability to flaunt the grievous shortcomings and depravities of his protagonists, whether lecherous Humbert Humbert in Lolita or possibly sociopathic Charles Kinbote (Pale Fire). And yet, as the reader, you grind your teeth and wonder why you don’t hate these people. But you don’t, exactly. Only Dostoevsky leaps to mind as someone with comparable facility to make the anti-hero into, if not the hero, the acceptable protagonist.

We start in Luzhin’s childhood. Luzhin, poor Luzhin, who only warrants a surname, as he isn’t so much an extant child as an extension of his literary father, a container of vague aspirations for those around him. He slouches, he avoids contact. He’s not good in school or with people.

As we watch Luzhin remain, mostly, an uncompelling null, Nabokov takes some time to throw literary daggers at those assholes we all had to deal with in our adolescent school years, those ruddy youngsters who never seem to be beset by angst or awkwardness, who assign nonsensical, retroactive depth to schoolyard friendships and look back on the regimented, conformist years in bleak classrooms with a wistful smile. Those idiots. We identify, ever so briefly, with Luzhin here.

But it’s difficult to gain footing with Luzhin. He is a tight shell within a tight shell of a novel, and I lost some fingernails trying to prise into his psyche. He sulks until one day he discovers chess, which he learns in secret from his father (a friendly, philandering and vapid writer whom Luzhin thoroughly rejects by the age of ten), building up a world-class skill and single-mindedness in the game that launch him into the international spotlight.

Time meanders on, we imagine, but we don’t see Luzhin again until he’s 40; his father has died; an unmoved Luzhin is puttering around a spa hotel in Germany, re-living teenage chess tournament highlights, preparing for a significant showdown with the Italian master, Turati, in Berlin. It is here that he meets the young, graceful girl who, perplexingly, falls for him and marries him against the wishes of her dull, Russian emigré parents.

By this time, Luzhin has suffered his mental collapse. He swears off chess. But it’s a mere, futile pause—the shadow of the 8-squared grid, the strategic metaphors of the game keep leaking into his life. Elaborate constructs, in particular his failed defensive strategy with Turati, swap out of abstract existence and become, to Luzhin, concrete inevitabilities. Consummately selfish, diabolical Valentinov—erstwhile chaperone/”chess father” to Luzhin’s teenage European chess career—reappears, now Luzhin’s arch-nemesis. There is no hope here, see, except to make a move so bold as to break the fated game’s outcome, once and for all.

3.5 stars

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