Nabokov’s Game

The Defense

by Vladimir Nabokov, Translated from the Russian in collaboration with the author by Michael Scammel
Putnam, 256 pp., $5.00

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

The uncovering of the enigmatic V. Sirin proceeds. Three novels and three volumes of short stories, to be sure, remain in the original Russian, but publication of The Defense (originally, and better, titled The Luzhin Defense when it first came out in 1929) now brings to five the number of novels which appeared under Vladimir Nabokov’s favorite pseudonym, and which, more than thirty years later, have reappeared in a new language under his own name. Among his other distinctions, it appears, Nabokov is one of our more eminent recidivists. To have a buried career blossoming afresh, while he proceeds with another, on the upper level as it were, is a special and delightful destiny.

The Gift (1937/1963) is thematically and stylistically the richest of the early books. Taking the author’s exile from Russia as its central theme, it comes close to rejecting the self-pity and self-glorification that usually surrounds that experience. It describes, summarizes, and rather coldly dismisses the business of writing in a dead language for a dying audience. Thus it is a highly self-conscious “literary” book, in which is chronicled, almost clinically, the demise of a great Russian novelist. The Defense, on the other hand, is lighter, less ornate, more of a story. With Invitation to a Beheading and the still earlier and more primitive Laughter in the Dark, it belongs in the class of macabre entertainments, novels which try to spook us. Looked at chronologically, these novels seem to emancipate themselves progressively from the clichés of villainy and menace to become genuine studies of obsession, mechanisms within which the chief actor is both executioner and victim. Alexsandr Ivanovich Luzhin, protagonist of The Defense, represents a major advance over the wretched Cincinnatus C. (of Invitation to a Beheading) and the manipulated Albinus R. (of Laughter in the Dark) precisely in this way. No villains stand over Luzhin. His grim destiny is generated by nothing less than his extraordinary, and only, talent for the game of chess. His gift is to sense, beneath the position of the pieces on the board, the first wavering and then inescapable rhythms of an attack directed against him by an implacable, impersonal opponent. Unable to defend himself against the assaults of his own talent for subtle diagnosis, he commits suicide. To say that he has suffered checkmate is more than a metaphor; it is a way of defining a confusion about life and a game in which there has been an actual, disastrous interchange. If there is a villain, it is perhaps the most helpless creature in the book, the girl who becomes Luzhin’s wife. For in effect she is trying to rescue her husband from the world of chess, urging him to live in the “real” world, where he can never hope to be more than an ungainly fish out of water, where he is always secretly, compulsively solving chess problems in his head.…

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