Before reading it, an internet search did indeed confirm that it was published in 1929, however, I’ve since discovered, thanks to Nabokov’s Foreword to the book, that it was published in a Russian quarterly magazine in 1929 and not in book form until 1930! So I’m bending the rules a little with this one.
The Luzhin of the title refers to Alexander Luzhin, an awkward and lonely boy who discovers a love of chess and subsequently becomes one of the best players in the world while remaining an awkward and lonely man. Despite worldwide fame, financial success and the love of a beautiful wife, Luzhin is unable to maintain any kind of normality outside of the confines of a chess board. His genius soon gives way to madness, with devastating consequences.
The Luzhnin Defense is regularly described as a ‘chilling’ tale of obsession, but I didn’t find it chilling in the slightest. The first half of the novel, which explores Luzhin’s childhood and upbringing is an interesting exploration of a lonely boy who finds a way to control his life through the medium of chess.
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 how everything obeyed his will and bowed to his schemes.
Unfotunatley for Luzhin, this innate ability to reign in the chess world doesn’t last. In preparation for a match against his arch-rival Turati, Luzhin studies his previous games and devises a fool-proof defense (the defense of the title)which will allow him to win. Turati, anticipating this, plays a different start to the game, meaning Luzhin has to abandon his well-prepared defense. This bluff-calling throws Luzhin to such an extent that he has a mental breakdown and, on the orders of his wife, must give up chess altogether, or risk being consumed by the game that has given his life meaning.
In his rather self-satisfied Foreword to the novel, Nabokov makes much of the clever way in which the plot of The Luzhin Defense mirrors the moves of a chess game and indeed the plot is filled with chess related imagery, which becomes particularly potent when Luzhin is no longer allowed to play. Squares of light fall across his vision, tiled floors and glazed windows feature heavily and as his wife creates diversionary tactics to distract Luzhin’s mind from chess, he can never quite settle into real life or stop thinking about the moves he needs to make to win the only game he knows how to play.
But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess? Fog, the unknown, non-being…
There is much to admire in The Luzhin Defense, but little I found to love. Luzhin’s awkwardness and loneliness as a boy is endearing, but as an adult he becomes a somewhat unpleasant character, lazy, rude and unkempt. His marriage to Mrs Luzhin (we never find out her first name) rings false as there is little about Luzhin himself to appeal, which means that his descent into madness doesn’t wholly convince.
Nabokov can certainly write and the prose is fluent and poetic, at times even showy and the pacing of the novel is masterful. The showdown with Turati is a high-point perfectly depicting Luzhin’s disorientation and the ending is brutally shocking, even if obviously foreshadowed.
However overall, The Luzhin Defense left me cold, mainly because I was unconvinced by Luzhin as a character. I skim-read several passages which went off on tangents about minor characters and their backgrounds, and possibly I don’t know enough about chess to fully appreciate what Nabokov has done here from a structural point of view.
An interesting read but an unsatisfying one.
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