Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov's "The Defense": Book Review.

For a novel about Luzhin, a grandmaster, there's less chess than I expected. What you do glimpse unfolds often on a mystical plane within the player's mind, and this is how I imagine chess reveals itself to those skilled in its strategies, as if on a visionary understanding of the game, rather than merely mathematical tactics or rote calculation. More often the book's full of interiors as physically evoked and the memories they elicit-- typical for a Nabokov narrative-- told in the author's ruminative, ornamented, and calm style.

Luzhin grows up pre-revolution in Russia. He goes to school, is bullied, and finds solace in learning chess. He soon triumphs over his rivals until a showdown with Turati halts his rise. He suffers a nervous breakdown, marries, and struggles against the temptation, half-remembered, to return to the game that drove him over the edge. In exile among the emigré community, he must decide how he will respond to the opportunity to play again. The pace remains steady until the last pages, when it satisfyingly accelerates. Nabokov over and over manages to pull a fiction from a melancholy or contemplative state into a dramatic epiphany as the tale reaches its end. Here, for Luzhin, such a revelation unfolds exactly as it should.

Every time I read Nabokov, a few sentences deserve attention. Here's a sample. His father hears his son elsewhere in the house:
"Little Luzhin would go away, trailing his satchel over the carpet; Luzhin senior would lean his elbow on the desk, where he was writing one of his usual stories in his exercise books (a whim which, perhaps, some future biographer would appreciate), and listen to the monologue in the neighboring dining room, to his wife's silence persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa." (32)
The alienation of the father from the son, and the son from his mother in turn, and the strangeness of the silence itself as heard by the separated father all echo poignantly in this domestic setting.

Luzhin, grown-up-- although he never seems quite mature compared to his fully sketched father-- wanders in Berlin and sees a strange site near where his father used to live.
"Presently he stopped stock-still in front of a stationery store where the wax-dummy of a man with two faces, one sad and the other joyful, was throwing open his jacket alternately to left and right: the fountain pen clipped to his left pocket of his white waistcoat had sprinkled the whiteness with ink, while on the right was the pen that never ran. Luzhin took a great fancy to the bifacial man and even thought of buying him." (204)
The passage goes on to drift into the things his father had left behind after his death. The odd description illustrates, with pleasing suggestion yet an indirect symbolism, off-kilter, the patterns of alternating color that still dominate Luzhin's consciousness after his collapse and his withdrawal from the clashes on the chessboard.

This is an understated novel, published in Russian in 1930. Nabokov's forward in expected manner mocks nimbly the "Viennese delegation" of Freudian critics overreading his every reference. While Nabokov gives away slyly the whole plot in advance, his prefaced explanations of the chess patterns in the storyline will assist readers who, like myself, struggle otherwise to keep up with such a master of narrative moves.

Cover: I prefer the British Penguins whenever possible over the American Vintages! The book was made into a film with John Turturro & Emily Watson in 2001 as the original title in Russian: "The Luzhin Defense."

(Review posted to Amazon US today.)

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