Nabokov’s third novel, The Defense, is a chilling story of obsession and madness. As a young boy, Luzhin was unattractive, distracted, withdrawn, sullen–an enigma to his parents and an object of ridicule to his classmates. He takes up chess as a refuge from the anxiety of his everyday life. His talent is prodigious and he rises to the rank of grandmaster–but at a cost: in Luzhin’s obsessive mind, the game of chess gradually supplants the world of reality. His own world falls apart during a crucial championship match, when the intricate defense he has devised withers under his opponent’s unexpected and unpredictable lines of assault.
You would have thought he’d opt for a winnin’ defence! Now that bad, not to mention obvious and cringeworthy joke is out of the way, I’ll leave the comedy and your tolerance in peace.
This being one of Nabakov’s earlier works, there are hints of the writer he would later become; with some wonderful prose in places, that demands the reader savour such lines appreciatively.
Like Stefan Zweig’s Chess, The Luzhin Defense is a fascinating leap into the mind (and abstract genius) of a grandmaster, with its sad but gripping descent into madness. In this case we see the beginnings in his formative years, a lonely, tortured child unable to integrate with his peers and family who comes across the game and becomes seduced by the simplicity and more importantly the complexity of the it.
Luzhin is a closed, provocative character and very hard to like to begin with, although I softened up to him quickly, he is exhausting, uncommunicative, both annoying and likeable, and absurd. Without this earlier connect to his childhood I probably would have become frustrated with the direction of the man over time and certainly a lot less sympathetic to him.
The challenge of combining and then discerning and deconstructing Chess patterns in life (both real and imagined) must be challenging for any writer, yet Nabakov nails it, detailing it down to its minutiae. This makes life and love become an even more complex ‘game’, combining these worlds with their inherent contradictions is very absorbing, not to mention almost hypnotic at times. Seeing Luzhin work through his ideas of life from a chess point of view – impenetrable for us mere casual players – is so both horrifying and enthralling.
There are plenty of awkward moments in the book from all involved but also some amusing and much welcome lighter moments, especially a certain drunken episode which had me laughing at its sheer ridiculousness and believability. The love interest seemed a little forced however, the patience this lady must have, not to mention her mothering and dialogue quickly become irritating. The first half of the book holds up better for me, the second, mirroring Luzhin himself, becomes more meandering. Despite the odd fault, I did enjoy the book and it is a very good read, being both unsentimental and so human.