The Luzhin Defense – Vladimir Nabokov

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 As a young boy, Luzhin was unattractive, distracted, withdrawn, sullen–an enigma to his parents and an object of ridicule to his classmates.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.Save

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17 Replies to “The Luzhin Defense – Vladimir Nabokov”

  1. I very much enjoyed Chess, picked up following your review, so I guess the Nabokov will need to go on the TBR too… (sigh!). I have always steered clear of him because I loathe the idea of Lolita and have refused to read it on principle – ie because it always comes top of those ‘100 books you must read before you die’ lists and I can’t understand why. Oh wait, perhaps i should read it to find out? Grrrr….

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    1. From the bits referenced in some book I read earlier in the year (although the name escapes me) it seems like a brilliantly written book, even if the subject matter is not the most appealing. I made a conscious decision to pick anything but Lolita whilst I was browsing his books for the same reason.

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  2. I’m not sure this is for me at the moment, Ste. I’m trying to give up obsession and madness! With regard to the annoying love interest, do you think Nabokov really wanted this character but didn’t get it quite right or did he add her because he felt he ought to? Do you think others might find her an appealing character? Do you think she adds anything to the story? I apologise for all the questions 🙂

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    1. I think she was needed as a logical counterpoint to Luzhin, I do wonder think he probably cared less for her development wise although she does get some sympathy from my cold heart. I would be surprised if anybody found her appealing though. I welcome the questions and sometimes a bit of madness, as long as I can have a nap at some point.

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  3. Learning to play chess properly was meant to be one of the things my husband and I could do this year to reduce the slob-out telly viewing that his social work degree stress has reduced us to (not sure what my excuse is!). Unfortunately, tv won out, and not much chess was played (It was The Detectorists that done it!) Still, there’s always next year, and this might be just what I need to whet my appetite. I shall see if the library have a copy! 🙂

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    1. This year has been utterly fantastic for TV so I don’t blame you, I’ve read less this year than in over a decade do this once, I will let you off.

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  4. Thought I’d check in. (no apologies). Those chess masters really do live in an alternate reality. Hermann Hesse’s novel, Magister Ludi, deals with the same abstract subject; he even invents a rarefied glass bead game, which I never understood at all. For us regular people it’s hard connect to the world, or the abyss, that these chess masters occupy. Because it’s not the Czech Republic.

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    1. I shall add that to the list, it sounds like something mental Borges would have written about, does that glass bead game. I can’t imagine anybody being so obsessed and consumed, unless its for pretzels of course.

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  5. You don’t really think of him as having written any other book – I read Lolita years ago and can’t really recall my thoughts on it. It’s interesting to hear about another.

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    1. I wanted to avoid Lotita for that reason, I was actually going to buy Pale Fire but then read the back of this one in the shop and had to get it because of Chess.

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  6. A nice, in-depth review, Steve, though I don’t know how you found the time to read and review while at the same time getting ready for a major move.

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    1. It is a challenge to juggle but I have neglected the blog for a few months and really missed it so am trying to make the time to get my numbers back up. Especially as next year will be one of change and I want to be in the habit of writing and visiting so I can keep up properly.

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