Nabokov, Vladimir Entries

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.

King, Queen, Knave


Upon opening Vladimir Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave (translated from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author), I was immediately struck by the degree to which certain passages reminded me of Proust. I consider Nabokov to be one of my favorite authors, and yet somehow this had never occurred to me. Maybe, I thought, the similarity is particularly pronounced in this novel, which I had never read before? But while this may be, I quickly realized that, previous to King, Queen, Knave, my most recent reading of any Nabokov actually happened before my discovery of In Search of Lost Time. Since I first read Proust the summer before returning to college and taking up French, this means that it's been a full decade since I read anything by this so-called favorite of mine. How does this happen? If nothing else, it makes me feel a bit silly for going around adding Nabokov to those "favorite author" lists on social media sites, when in reality I haven't read him in ten years.

In any case, the good news is that my appreciation of Nabokov's craft has only increased in the interim. Not only that, but now seems more or less the perfect time in my reading life to pick up this particular title: on the one hand, David and I are revisiting In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower via audiobook in preparation for our trip to Normandy in May, and on the other hand, the details of Madame Bovary are still clear in my mind thanks to Frances's excellent readalong of last October. Indeed, King, Queen, Knave is a more-or-less explicit re-working of Flaubert's novel, complete with playful intertextual nods: the trio of main characters, for example, goes to see a variety show that features selections from Lucia di Lammermoor, the same tragic Romantic opera that causes Emma Bovary to swoon. (This same variety show includes a mélange of other selections so delightfully and hideously heterogeneous that I can't help but think of Charles Bovary's hat.)

It must be said that King, Queen, Knave is not a novel for readers who need to sympathize with their characters. Despite the sordidness of Flaubert's protagonists, Nabokov's goal in re-shaping this story seems to have been to depict a world and a cast of characters even more banal and unsavory. The earnest Léon is transformed into Franz, a profoundly squeamish provincial whose dreams of the big city consist of making enough money to hire a prostitute now and then. Instead of loyal but clueless Charles, we get the abrasively jovial Kurt Dreyer, Berlin businessman and Franz's uncle, whose casual infidelities, ebullient athleticism and bizarre investment decisions distract him from the emotional lives of everyone around him. And in the place of Emma herself is Martha Dreyer, Kurt's disdainful wife and Franz's aunt, who considers an extramarital affair to be her social duty as a proper bourgeois Berliner, much like buying the right kind of furniture or knowing the latest dance steps. Whereas Emma Bovary expects high romance to result from taking a lover, Martha's satisfaction on seducing her nephew is more akin to checking off a box on a to-do list; this is true to such an extent, in fact, that she feels puzzled and irritated with herself when she shows signs of actual infatuation with Franz. Soon enough, Franz and Martha come to view Dreyer as an obstacle in the path of their rapidly-waning passion, and embark on a series of radically incompetent plots to do him in.

If not in the characters, then, whence the enjoyment here? Well, for me it came in passages like this one:

Yet if she must survive something had to be done. Dreyer was spreading out monstrously before her, like a conflagration in a cinema picture. Human life, like fire, was dangerous and difficult to extinguish; but, as in the case of fire, there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted, natural method of quenching a man's fierce life. Enormous, tawny-haired, tanned from tennis; wearing bright yellow pajamas, redly yawning; radiating heat and health, and making the various grunting noises that a man who cannot control his gross physicality makes when waking up and stretching, Dreyer filled the whole bedroom, the whole house, the whole world.

This passage does so much work, and makes it seem so effortless. It's a portrait both of Dreyer, exaggerated and distorted through the lens of Martha's suffocating impatience yet still accurately evocative, and of Martha's disordered thinking as she becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband's death. It's plainly beautiful: I particularly love "quenching a man's fierce life," and the final image of Dreyer's movie-monster proportions in Martha's eyes. So too, the passage extends the novel's themes of disgust and the physical: Martha flees from Dreyer's "gross physicality" into the arms of Franz—who is equally squeamish if unfortunately also equally disgusting to the reader—only to end up inspiring disgust in her nephew as well. To top it all off, the entire passage is also a playful joke on Martha herself: despite having lighted upon the metaphor of murder as quenching a fire, and insisting that "there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted method" of ending a life, it takes her an additional hundred-plus pages to arrive at the obvious epiphany that, like a fire, her husband could be drowned in water.

In addition to the exuberant beauty of his language, think it's Nabokov's lightness, his playfulness, which really got me on board with King, Queen, Knave. In contrast to Flaubert, one gets the sense the Nabokov takes neither himself nor his characters quite so seriously—and, by extension, that he does not envision the Marthas and Franzes of the world to be the only available alternatives to the author's own enlightened bohemianism, or any such nonsense. All three protagonists are horrible people, but I never got the feeling from this book that most people are horrible, or that the author is horrible, or that he thinks I am horrible. (Of course, if I hadn't had Madame Bovary to compare it to, maybe I would have felt differently.) The world outside the Franz/Dreyer/Martha trio, in other words, is not the hyper-realistic (read: suffocatingly banal) portrait of provincial life offered us by Flaubert, but is on the contrary brimming with strangeness and originality. Consider, for example, Franz's landlord, the great illusionist with the perpetually absent wife, who has convinced himself that his tenants are all figments of his own imagination; or the inventor financed by Dreyer, who is working on robotic, flesh-covered mannequins capable of walking around by themselves. I'm not sure whether these characters are supposed to represent artistic freedom or sinister madness (or both!), but they do give the impression of a more diverse realm of possibilities than does the world of Flaubert's Rouen.

And even if Nabokov does poke ample fun at his cast of bourgeois Berliners, the three protagonists are never cardboard buffoons, never anything less than people: his psychological portraits are insightful and eerily familiar, despite the reader's understandable desire to admit nothing whatsoever in common with the minds depicted. I was particularly in awe of the author's ability to combine, often in the same paragraph, several moods that seem mutually opposed. In this passage, for example, he begins with a Proustian reflection on dreams and psychological associations, transitions to an example of the phenomenon discussed, which rings true despite the silliness of his characters and their ridiculous behavior; and ends with a typically Nabokovian display of lingual virtuosity:

As happens in dreams, when a perfectly harmless object inspires us with fear and thereafter is frightening every time we dream of it (and even in real life retains disquieting overtones), so Dreyer's presence became for Franz a refined torture, an implacable menace. [ ... H]e could not help cringing when, with a banging of doors in a dramatic draft, Martha and Dreyer entered simultaneously from two different rooms as if on a too harshly lit stage. Then he snapped to attention and in this attitude felt himself ascending through the ceiling, through the roof, into the black-brown sky, while, in reality, drained and empty, he was shaking hands with Martha, with Dreyer. He dropped back on his feet out of that dark nonexistence, from those unknown and rather silly heights, to land firmly in the middle of the room (safe, safe!) when hearty Dreyer described a circle with his index finger and jabbed him in the navel; Franz mimicked a gasp and giggled; and as usual Martha was coldly radiant. His fear did not pass but only subsided temporarily: one incautious glance, one eloquent smile, and all would be revealed, and a disaster beyond imagination would shatter his career. Thereafter whenever he entered this house, he imagined that the disaster had happened—that Martha had been found out, or had confessed everything in a fit of insanity or religious self-immolation to her husband; and the drawing room chandelier invariably met him with a sinister refulgence.

"Invariably met him with a sinister refulgence"! Delicious. In the end, it was this sensual vitality of language that enabled me to leave King, Queen, Knave feeling exhilarated rather than depressed or disgusted, and kept me enthusiastic about digging into the more cerebral aspects of the novel.


A big thanks to Nicole at bibliographing for giving me the impetus to get back on the Nabokov train. See her posts on King, Queen, Knave here, here, here, and here. Hey lady, any ideas on when you're reading The Luzhin Defense?

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography