The Luzhin Defense


If Nabokov's second novel reminded me of one of my favorite writers—Marcel Proust—his third, The Luzhin Defense, brings to mind another: Virginia Woolf. Given that The Luzhin Defense concerns the gradual mental disintegration of a Russian chess grandmaster, and given that Nabokov had apparently not yet read Woolf (when he did, in 1933, he claimed a low opinion of her work), its Woolfian overtones are a bit surprising. But consider this passage, in which the now-middle-aged Luzhin remembers how his asthmatic French governess used to get stuck in the family elevator:

Finally something would shudder and stir and after a little while the elevator would descend—now empty. Empty. Goodness knows what had happened to her—perhaps she had traveled up to heaven and remained there with her asthma, her liquorice candies and her pince-nez on a black cord. The recollection also came back empty, and for the first time in all his life, perhaps, Luzhin asked himself the question—where exactly had it all gone, what had become of his childhood, whither had the veranda floated, whither, rustling through the bushes, had the familiar paths crept away?

Despite the asthma and the liquorice candies, I can hardly fail to think of Clarissa Dalloway here, remembering her days at Bourton, or Cam, in To the Lighthouse, looking back at the family house from the boat:

But Cam could see nothing. She was thinking how all those paths and the lawn, thick and knotted with the lives they had lived there, were gone: were rubbed out; were past; were unreal, and now this was real: the boat and the sail with its patch; Macalister with his earrings; the noise of the waves—all this was real.

Even the inter-leaved sentence structure with its many comma-delineated phrases, that repeated "whither" and the reiterated "Empty," are viscerally reminiscent of Woolf. So too is the way in which the physical objects of the past—Luzhin's veranda and bushes, Cam's life-knotted paths—are melded with the character's mental image of them, so that the mental image attains a tangible solidity whereas the objects are capable of disappearing or floating away, thought-like. The unreality of the past is stressed in both cases: both characters are substantially unable to access the memories they have left behind, even as those memories alter almost physically the reality in which they currently find themselves. Even as Luzhin acknowledges the gulf between himself and his childhood memories, for example, the image of the vacant elevator provides him with the very metaphor he uses to describe his mental state: "the recollection also came back empty."

Indeed, The Luzhin Defense, like much of Woolf's work, is preoccupied with the past and memory—specifically, in the case of Luzhin, with the effects on memory and perception of a concrete breaking-point in a character's personal history. Luzhin's boyhood is divided neatly into the aimlessly morose existence preceding his discovery of chess, and the single-minded, initially joyful obsession that follows it. In another instance of the mental and physical worlds bleeding into one anther, though, Luzhin's chess obsession becomes a burden as his perception of the world around him becomes ever-more dominated by chess imagery. Any dappling of light and shadow become, for him, a chess board; any arrangement of objects in relation to one another become a problem to be solved. As his perception of his actual tournament games becomes more vital—he sees the relation of pieces on the board during a game as a "thunderous harmony" that "breathe[s] with life"—the vitality of the the people and places around him, of his own past and any aspect of himself unrelated to the game, wanes. It eventually becomes so imperceptible that he can no longer sleep, feed himself, or find his way out of rooms.

After Luzhin's mental break, when he is encouraged by his doctors and fiancée not to think of chess any longer, he struggles to recover some version of himself independent of his obsession. He reverts to memories of himself before his discovery of chess, which although unhappy at the time, become a source of safety for the middle-aged man:

On the other hand, constantly nudged by such interrogations, his thoughts would return again and again to the sphere of his childhood. It was impossible to express his recollections in words—there simply were no grown-up words for his childish impressions—and if he ever related anything, then he did so jerkily and unwillingly—rapidly sketching the outlines and marking a complex move, rich in possibilities, with just a letter and a number. His pre-school, pre-chess childhood, which he had never thought about before, dismissing it with a slight shudder so as not to find dormant horrors and humiliating insults there, proved now to be an amazingly safe spot...

To make yet another possibly misguided comparison, Luzhin's story strikes me as akin to a religious conversion narrative of the type pioneered by Augustine of Hippo. In the Augustine model, there is a complete, definitive break between the outlook and personality of the narrator before religious conversion (or in Luzhin's case, before discovering chess), and the outlook and personality of that same person after conversion. Augustine's Confessions present a new convert who is changed utterly by inviting the Christian God into his heart. Once he has finally converted there is no more earthly struggle or strife; he is elevated into a spiritual realm. There's no possibility, for example, that the post-conversion Augustine might be tempted to back-slide into stealing pears or frequenting prostitutes; his conversion changes him utterly. Not only is he relieved of the temptations of his former life, but his perceptions of the events of that former life also change, so that he is looking back at them through the altering lens of his newfound Christian faith.1

Similarly, Luzhin is altered completely with the discovery of chess, to the extent that his entire world comes to be composed of nothing but chess boards and chess pieces, and he exiles his pre-chess self almost completely from his consciousness. On those rare occasions when he thinks of it at all, he associates his non-chess past with "dormant horrors" and "humiliating insults": in other words, through a lens that privileges his current, chess-centric lifestyle as the thing that bestows value on his existence. Central questions of the latter half of the book, after Luzhin has been denied chess and attempts to reestablish some version of himself outside the game, are what happens when "salvation" becomes "damnation" (when the thing that bestowed value on one's life threatens to wipe out all meaning from that life), and whether Augustine was right about the irreversibility of a conversion. Quite apart from the question of whether or not a chess-less life could be compelling or worthwhile to him, is Luzhin even capable of converting back, once the fatal discovery has been made?

Let's just say that his attempt to talk about his childhood in chess-like terms, "rapidly sketching the outlines and marking a complex move, rich in possibilities, with just a letter and a number," does not bode well. What's more, it sheds new light on the hundred-plus pages of waffling that precedes Augustine's Christian epiphany. There can be dire consequences, in this model, for a misplaced or overly zealous conversion.


Thanks again to Nicole for coming up with the fantastic idea of this Nabokov read-through; she'll be starting a series of posts on The Luzhin Defense later today. Looking forward to it!


1I'm no expert, but I've read it was Teresa of Avila who began to question this all-or-nothing model of the conversion experience, daring to write about struggles with doubt and physicality that continued even after her religious vows. If this is true, more power to her; I find Augustine's model pretty self-defeating.


  • I can definitely see why this novel would make you think of Woolf - it's the emotional interiority of it, and one reflected back through everyday objects, that is so reminiscent of her style. Woolf's narrative perception shimmered with the feelings of her characters in a new psychological form of realism. I still haven't picked up Nabokov yet - is this a better place to go (after Lolita) than the previous novel you reviewed? (It was the Knave, Heart one, can't recall the title exactly.)

    • "emotional interiority reflected through everyday objects": beautifully and succinctly put. That technique is one of the many, MANY things I find inspiring about Woolf's work.

      As far as where to go after Lolita, there was a rather spirited debate about that over at my King, Queen, Knave post. If you are a lover and scholar of Madame Bovary, I might suggest King, Queen, Knave for its explicit retelling of that novel. Nicole, Anthony and I share Ada, or Ardour as a favorite, but Amateur Reader thinks that one might be a bit advanced for someone not yet won over to the Nabokov cause; he suggests Pnin and Speak, Memory. As you can see, we have very little consensus! ;-)

  • Oh, this does have a Woolf feel to it. How exciting! I had no idea either about this book or its style. Will have to give it go sometime. Liked your conversion comparison, sounds like it fits to me.

    • And there's more where that came from on the Woolf front. It was oddly striking given that Nabokov apparently hadn't read her. Maybe they both just read Proust and launched from him in similar directions. In any case, I'd recommend this one!

  • I have N's Speak, Memory visible on the horizon, Emily, so I'll soon be able to put all these Proust/Woolf/Augustine comparisons of yours to the test in a nonfiction format at least. One of the many problems I have with Augustine, by the way, is that he was only able to accept his "conversion experience" as an intellectual fully by interpreting the Bible figuratively: that is, aspects of "heresy" were attacked on rational, intellectual grounds but problematic or inconsistent passages supported by official church doctrine were accepted with the weak argument that parts of the Bible needed to be read allegorically rather than literally. Kind of hypocritical, no?

    • Oh man, I find Augustine's struggle with literal versus figurative interpretation to be so bizarre & comical. The whole, like, 50 pages where he's talking about the Manichees and ridiculing their beliefs in (if I recall correctly) the transmutation of food? I suppose that my own personal outlook plays into this - for me OF COURSE it's a metaphor, not a literal truth. But your point about the attacks on heresy (based on literal interpretations) do bring these issues to a darker, less funny level. Augustine is definitely one of those folks I don't really enjoy reading and definitely don't agree with but find extremely useful in terms of thinking about other literature.

      And I haven't read Speak, Memory, but Amateur Reader recommends it. :-)

  • When I was reading this one I actually thought less of Woolf than when I read Mary, although the comparison is clearly just as good here. And now that this door has been opened for me I'm very curious as to how Woolfian or otherwise I'll be finding his later work, since the focus on memory and nostalgia won't be going away any time soon.

    The gloss of "salvation becom[ing] damnation" is very helpful to me, I think. Thanks for continuing to read along!

    • Grr, I should have started with Mary along with you. I was bamboozled by the lack of a sexy new cover. I agree, it will be interesting to track the Woolfianisms as we go on, especially post-1933 when he had actually read (and ostensibly not liked) her stuff.

      Will be interested to see what if anything you do with the salvation/damnation idea!

  • What was it Nabokov said about the good reader? One who embraces and "fondles" the details? And who better to write that level of detail, of text immersion than Woolf or Nabokov? I would love to read this as I think about the nature of the game of chess, something in fact caught up in the details, the small movements to the whole. Envying you your Nabokov reads!

    • Both authors are definitely very strong on the tangible details, both physical and psychological - so true. I've always been an execrable chess player (my own fault, since I never practiced), but from my position as a neophyte I think the chess theme was extremely well done.

      And hey, there are a whole set of beautiful new covers to tempt you further into the Nabokov camp! ;-)

  • Very funny linking Luzhin's discovery of chess to Augustine's conversion experience, since Luzhin's epiphany is part of \ caused by his mental illness!

    The Defense is a clever and unexpected anti-Proustian novel. Childhood and the past are dangerous and terrifying. Structures must be erected to wall it out. Patterns and sensory detail that lead back to the past are destructive.

    • Yeah well—I'd go so far as to suggest that Augustine does not come off as a poster child for sanity either. Ba-dum ching.

      So, do you interpret Luzhin's initial, childhood discovery of chess as tainted with mental disorder from the start, to the extent that if he were not mentally ill he wouldn't have been drawn to chess? It seems like a pretty bleak view; chess is the thing that enables this morose little kid to attain some confidence and passion about his life. Would a life without chess, in which he just continued to mope resentfully around his family's dacha, have been preferable, or healthier? Or are we positing a world in which he, like, gets diagnosed with OCD and prescribed ritalin? (I don't know my own answers to these questions, by the way.)

      • I vote Ritalin. Nabokov is pretty clearly describing an OCD case, something he must have observed. I'm thinking, for example, of a scene at the hotel where Luzhin insists on touching every tree and post. His lack of ordinary love for his foolish but adoring father is the main early symptom that something is terribly wrong.

        Chess is always opposed to his father, something Luzhin has to hide from him. I'm not sure "confidence" and "passion" are the words I want to describe his life as a chess champion.

        Yes, this is bleak! Nabokov revisits the idea, pushes it to an extreme, in his best short story, "Signs and Symbols." The patterning that the great novelist, VN, say, imposes on the world is just an inch away from catastrophic mental illness.

        This, by the way, I take as a difference from what Woolf is doing. She is committed, conceptually, in Mrs. Dalloway, to the limited third person, to interiority and nothing but. Nabokov uses the device in his early novels, but also claims the freedom of the omniscient novelist - thus the leaps in time and space and skipping around within a scene. He is in charge of the patterns, not his pudgy pawn.

        • Hm, I didn't read the father as "foolish but adoring." Young Luzhin is shunted to the side by his father's affair with the red-haired aunt, with both of his parents seeming to ignore him and/or order him out of the room when his presence is inconvenient, and order him INTO the room only when it suits their passing whims. Luzhin Senior's attitudes toward his son, at least the ones we see, are more to the tune of "I occasionally think about how I always expected my son to be some kind of prodigy" than "I enjoy my son and like to think about the things he does and says." Luzhin Sr. hides a LOT from his son and wife; I interpreted Luzhin Jr.'s penchant for hiding the chess set as him acting out the behavior he'd seen modeled in his family circle.

          That said, Luzhin Jr. is definitely a hard little kid to love, what with all the sulking and the temper tantrums, and I see your point that there is something wrong there, maybe some kind of attachment disorder in addition to OCD. So maybe the whole chess issue is basically moot: Luzhin would have descended into more and more severe madness regardless of whether he had discovered this outlet or not.

  • I'm thinking of passages like:

    "He would look greedily at his son, who turned his face away, and would want to take him by the shoulders, shake him and kiss him soundly on his pale cheek, on the eyes and on his tender, concave temple." (31)


    "Sometimes his father would come in, look at the puzzle and stretch out a hand tableward, saying: 'Look, this undoubtedly goes in here,' and then Luzhin without looking round would mutter: 'Rubbish, rubbish, don't interfere,' and his father would cautiously apply his lips to the tufted top of his son's head and depart - " (38) and then we get a reminder of L. Sr's foolishness as the chapter ends, a reflection of the last sentence of the chapter's first paragraph.

    This is long before Luzhin, or the reader, has any hint of an affair, and knows the sweet copper-haired aunt as anything but the supplier of Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes, and expensive jigsaw puzzles.

    • AR, my apologies - I keep thinking I'll find time to sit down with the book and give these citations and my reaction to Luzhin Sr. some good hard thought and some textual support...but then Easter weekend happened and now I have a backlog of posts and well, I think I've moved on. :-P

      You're probably right anyway. Or, I like Nicole's construction: "the affection is genuine, even if it is more about Luzhin Sr. than about Luzhin Jr." That self-centeredness is, I think, what I was picking up on. This is obviously a novel that would reward several re-reads!

  • When you start comparing this book to Woolf, I'm sold! Even after the Augustine comparison, I'm still sold :) (Just kidding -- Augustine is fascinating). I tend to think I've read only two Nabokov books, Pale Fire and Lolita, but I've also read Glory, although I don't remember it well, and Speak, Memory, which I loved. Highly recommended.

    • Haha, excellent: Virginia is the last woman standing in the Woolf-Augustine referential showdown. :-) Glad to hear good things about Speak, Memory from several different sources—I tend to need a bit of hand-holding to convince me to cross the fiction/non-fiction divide if I've become used to reading one or the other by a certain author.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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