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.