We find in The Luzhin Defense
many of Nabokov's playful tropes: madness (monomania, solipsism), resistance to meaning (particular jabs at the "Viennese delegation"), genius outcast from society. It is apparent that his is an early work of the master, though a masterful work still. Luzhin is a remote but somehow lovable obsessive. Our affection for him has true potential, perhaps a potential unusual for the typical Nabokovian protagonist. But that affection is abated by our narrative distance from Luzhin: while the first person brings us closer to the monsters of Humbert and Kinbote, the third person alienates us from the more awkwardly lovable Pnin and Luzhin. This alienation is not unique to the reader, but a feeling felt by all who meet Luzhin: he is remote, inaccessible, too odd and too genius for the world in which he lives.
Ultimately, like all of Nabokov's memorable puppets, Luzhin's sanity is the vicitm of his own illusions: a victimhood manifest even in his characteristic conception, as Nabokov informs us in the Foreward: "The Russian title of this novel is Zashchita Luzhina, which means 'the Luzhin defense' and refers to a chess defense supposedly invented by my creature, Grandmaster Luzhin: the name rhymes with “illusion” if pronounced thickly enough to deepen the 'u' into 'oo.'
" Luzhin is at once a man totally blinded by illusion, and also a man of preternaturally clear vision. His acuity and understanding in the realm of chess blinds him to the reality of his larger environment. As in Despair
, Nabokov parodies his own focus on detail to comedic effect: focus on detail becomes dangerous myopia. Luzhin feels that attachment to the real world is a source of endless fatigue, even the chessboard is a burden to him. His consciousness, all of his senses, are focused so microscopically that he becomes a solemn object of ridicule:
Luzhin was indeed tired. Lately he had been playing too frequently and too unsystematically; he was particularly fatigued by playing blind, a rather well-paid performance that he willingly gave. He found therein deep enjoyment: one did not have to deal with visible, audible, palpable pieces whose quaint shape and wooden materiality always disturbed him and always seemed to him but the crude, mortal shell of exquisite, invisible chess forces.
Chess is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Nabokov's style of art: precise, calculating, pure-play and pure-skill removed from chance. Nabokov's works are ruled by his aptly named (in Lolita
) "McFate" - man-made, authored, Fate: fate which is removed from fortune. When interviewed for the Paris Review, he was asked if E.M. Forster's claim that [Forster's] character's had lives of their own, and wrote their fortunes for themselves, resonated with him, Nabokov answered (characteristically):
My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
Pot-shot at Passage to India
aside, the closing seal on his answer is significant to understanding Nabokov's approach to art. "My characters are galley slaves.
" Slaves, like chess pieces beneath the hands of their master, ever part of a greater artwork: the game. Nabokov's artistry is a game, he is a parodist and a trickster. That stills our emotional reaction, but invokes our appreciate for his aesthetic achievements. Luzhin does not move us, and The Luzhin Defense
is as much a chess defense as it is a defense against interpretation, against emotion. The Luzhin Defense is a case in the particular of the Nabokov Defense - a defense against meaning which he artfully employs to distance the heart, while drawing in the mind.
Despite the parallels between Luzhin Defense
and Zweig's Chess Story
, it would be in poor taste to imagine it a parody of Zweig's post-Nazi novella - however the comparison is unavoidable. There is a notable exchange in values when one moves from Zweig to Nabokov's takes on Chess obsessives. In Zweig we encounter a man literally tortured, and chess being a mental manifestation of both escape and continued imprisonment. Chess Story
is a poignant, post-WWII tale, with heavy-laden messages against human cruelty, the double-edged sword of escapism, and the pervasive loss of innocence and beauty following the Nazi rule. In Luzhin Defense
we are withheld meaning and given farce. While Nabokov plays with us, manipulates our affections and our perceptions, his art is a cold and distant art. The genius of Zweig's novella is to make chess warm to us, familiar, an obsession-affliction which is at the very border of our admiration and fear. The genius of Nabokov's novel is the inverse: it instills on the sympathetic narrative of a man gone mad by his own monomania with the cold aloofness of a chess match.