Grandmaster Nabokov

by The New Republic | September 26, 1964

The Defense
By Vladimir Nabokov
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Translated by Michael Scammell

in collaboration with the author

Putnam; $5.00

One hesitates to call him an "American writer"; the phrase fetches to mind Norman Mailer and James Jones and other homegrown cabbages loyally mistaken for roses. Say, rather, that Vladimir Nabokov distinctly seems to be the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, the only writer, with the possible exception of the long-silent Thornton Wilder, whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly. His works are an edifice whose every corner rewards inspection. Each book, including the super-slim Poems and the uproariously pedantic and copious commentaries to his translation of Eugene Onegin, yields delight and presents to the aesthetic sense the peculiar hardness of a finished, fully meant thing. His sentences are beautiful out of context and doubly beautiful in it. He writes prose the only way it should be written--that is, ecstatically. In the intensity of its intelligence and reflective joy, his fiction is unique in this decade and scarcely precedented in American literature. Melville and James do not, oddly, offer themselves for comparison. Yet our literature, that scraggly association of hermits, cranks, and exiles, is strange enough to include this arrogant immigrant; as an expatriate Nabokov is squarely in the native tradition.

Very curiously, his oeuvre is growing at both ends. At one end, the end pointed toward the future, are the works composed in English, beginning with the gentlest of his novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and terminating, for the time being, in his--the word must be--monumental translation of Onegin, a physically gorgeous, sumptuously erudite gift from one language to another; it is pleasant to think of Nabokov laboring in the libraries of his adopted land, the libraries fondly described in Pnin, laboring with Janusfaced patriotism on the filigreed guywires and piled buttresses of this bridge whereby the genius of Pushkin is to cross after him into America. The translation itself, so laconic compared to the footnotes, with its breathtaking gaps, pages long, of omitted stanzas whose lines are eerily numbered as if they were there, ranks with Horace Gregory's Catullus and Richmond Lattimore's Iliad as superb, quirky, and definitive: a permanent contribution to the demi-art of "Englishing" and a final refutation, let's hope, of the fallacy of equivalent rhyme. In retrospect, Nabokov's more recent novels--obviously Pale Fire but there are also Humbert Humbert's mysterious "scholarly exertions" on a "manual of French literature for English-speaking students"--transparently reveal glimpses of the Pushkinian travail begun in 1950.

At the other end (an end, as in earthworms, not immediately distinguishable), Nabokov's oeuvre is growing backwards, into the past, as English versions appear of those novels he wrote in Russian, for a post-Revolutionary emigre audience concentrated in Paris and Berlin, during his twenty years of European residence (1919-1940), under the pen name of "V. Sirin." The Defense, originally Zashchita Luzhina, is the latest of these to be translated. In the chronology of his eight Russian novels, The Luzhin Defense (this literal title was used by The New Yorker and seems better, in clearly suggesting a chess ploy, though the ghosts of "illusion" and "losin'" fluttering around the proper name perhaps were worth exorcising) comes third, after two untranslated ones and just before Laughter in the Dark. It is thus the earliest Nabokov work now available in English. An author's foreword states that it was written in 1929--that is, when Nabokov was thirty, which is the age of Luzhin, an ex-chess prodigy and international grandmaster. Like his hero, the author seems older; few Americans so young could write a novel wherein the autobiographical elements are so cunningly rearranged and transmuted by a fictional design, and the emotional content so obedient to such cruelly ingenious commands, and the characterization so little colored by indignation or the shock of discovery. On this last point, it needs to be said--so much has been pointlessly said about Nabokov's "virtuosity," as if he is a verbal magician working with stuffed rabbits and hats nobody could wear that Nabokov's characters live. They "read" as art students say; their frames are loaded with bright color and twisted to fit abstract schemes but remain anatomically credible. The humanity that has come within Nabokov's rather narrow field of vision has been illuminated by a guarded but genuine compassion. Two characters occur to me, randomly and vividly: Charlotte Haze of Lolita, with her blatant bourgeois Bohemianism, her cigarettes, her Mexican doodads, her touchingly clumsy sexuality, her utterly savage and believable war with her daughter; and Albinus Kretschmar of Laughter in the Dark, with his doll-like dignity, his bestial softness, his hobbies, his family feelings, his craven romanticism, his quaint competence. An American housewife and a German businessman, both observed, certainly, from well on the outside, yet animated from well within. How much more, then, can Nabokov do with characters who are Russian, and whose concerns circle close to his own aloof passions!

His foreword, shameless and disdainful in his usual first-person style, specifies, for "hack reviewers" and "persons who move their lips when reading," the forked appeal of "this attractive novel"--the intricate immanence in plot and imagery of chess as a prevailing metaphor, and the weird lovableness of the virtually inert hero. "Of all my Russian books, The Defense contains and diffuses the greatest 'warmth'--which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract chess is supposed to be. In point of fact, Luzhin has been found lovable even by those who understand nothing about chess and/or detest all my other books. He is uncouth, unwashed, uncomely--but as my gentle young lady (a dear girl in her own right) so quickly notices, there is something in him that transcends…the coarseness of his gray flesh and the sterility of his recondite genius."

What makes characters endearing does not admit of such analysis: I would divide Luzhin's charm into (a) the delineation of his childhood (b) the evocation of his chess prowess. As to (a), Nabokov has always warmed to the subject of children, precocious children--David Krug, Victor Wind, the all-seeing "I" of Conclusive Evidence, and, most precocious and achingly childlike of all, Dolores Haze. The four chapters devoted to little Luzhin are pure gold, a fascinating extraction of the thread of genius from the tangle of a lonely boy's existence. The child's ominous lethargy: his father's brooding ambitiousness for him; the hints of talent in his heredity; the first gropings, through mathematical and jigsaw puzzles, of his peculiar aptitude toward the light; the bizarre introduction, at the hands of a nameless violinist who tinges the game forever with a somehow cursed musicality, to the bare pieces; his instruction in the rules, ironically counterpointed against an amorous intrigue of which he is oblivious; his rapid climb through a hierarchy of adult opponents--all this is witty, tender, delicate, resonant. By abruptly switching to Luzhin as a chess-sodden adult, Nabokov islands the childhood, frames its naive brightness so that, superimposed upon the grown figure, it operates as a kind of heart, as an abruptly doused light reddens the subsequent darkness.

As to (b), Nabokov has never shied from characters who excel. In Pale Fire he presumed to give us a long poem by an American poet second only to Frost; Adam Krug in Bend Sinister is the leading intellectual of his nation; no doubt is left that Fyodor Godunov Cherdyntsev of The Gift is truly gifted. Luzhin's "recondite genius" is delineated as if by one who knows--though we know, from Chapter XIV of his autobiography, that Nabokov's forte was not tournament play but the "beautiful, complex and sterile art" of composing chess problems of a "poetico mathematical type." On its level as a work-epic of chess (as Moby Dick is a work-epic of whaling) The Defense is splendidly shaped toward Luzhin's match with Turati, the dashing Italian grandmaster against whose unorthodox attack, "leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the center from the sides," Luzhin's defense is devised. Of Turati physically we are given the briefest glimpses, "rubbing his hands and deeply clearing his throat like a bass singer," but his chess presence is surpassingly vivid, and during the tournament in which Luzhin thinks himself into a nervous breakdown suspense mounts as to whether "the limpidity and lightness of Luzhin's thought would prevail over the Italian's tumultuous fantasy." Their game, a potential draw which is never completed, draws forth a display of metaphorical brilliance that turns pure thought heroic. Beneath the singing, quivering, trumpeting, humming battlefield of the chessboard, Turati and Luzhin become fabulous monsters groping through unthinkable tunnels:

"Luzhin's thought roamed through entrancing and terrible labyrinths, meeting there now and then the anxious thought of Turati, who sought the same thing as he….Luzhin, preparing an attack for which it was first necessary to explore a maze of variations, where his every step aroused a perilous echo, began a long meditation….Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain--and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess."

The game is adjourned, and after such an evocation we have no difficulty in feeling with Luzhin how the chess-images that have haunted the fringes of his existence now move into the center and render the real world phantasmal. The metaphors have reversed the terms.

Chess imagery has infiltrated the book from all sides. Nabokov in his foreword preens perhaps unduly on the tiled and parqueted floors, the Knight-like leaps of the plot. His hero's monomania plays tricks with the objective world: "The urns that stood on stone pedestals at the four corners of the terrace threatened one another across their diagorials." "He sat thinking . . . that with a Knight's move of this lime tree standing on a sunlit slope one could take that telegraph pole over there . . ." ". . . Luzhin involuntarily put out a hand to remove shadow's King from the threat of light's Pawn." He warily watches the floor, "where a slight movement was taking place perceptible to him alone, an evil differentiation of shadows." Throughout the book, glimpses of black and white abound--tuxedos, raspberries and milk, "the white boat on the lake, black with the reflected conifers." Many lamps are lit against the night; Luzhin's father thinks it "strange and awesome…to sit on this bright veranda amid the black summer night, across from this boy whose tensed forehead seemed to expand and swell as soon as he bent over the pieces," this boy for whom "the whole world suddenly went dark" when he learned chess and who is to glide, across the alternation of many nights and days, from the oblivion of breakdown into the whiteness of a hospital where the psychiatrist wears "a black Assyrian beard."

The squares on the board can also be construed as chess vs. sex. The child maneuvers his own initiation on the blind board of an illicit affair. His father, while he is poring over chess diagrams in the attic, fears that "his son might have been looking for pictures of naked women." Valentinov (!), his sinister "chess father," part manager and part pimp, "fearing lest Luzhin should squander his precious power in releasing by natural means the beneficial inner tension…kept him at a distance from women and rejoiced over his chaste moroseness." His marriage, then, is a kind of defensive castling undertaken too late, for the black forces that have put him in check press on irresistably, past his impotent Queen, toward certain mate. The Luzhin defense becomes abandonment of play--suicide. Such a design eminently satisfies Nabokov's exacting criteria of artistic performance, which, in a memorable section in Conclusive Evidence concerning butterflies, he relates to the "mysteries of mimicry": "I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception."

However, I am not sure it perfectly works, this chess puzzle pieced out with human characters. In the last third of the book, the author's youth may begin to show; emigre parties, arranged by Mrs. Luzhin, are introduced for no apparent better reason than that Nabokov was going to such parties at this time. A "mercilessly stupid" Leningrad visitor pops up irrelevantly, as a naked index of editorial distaste for the Soviet regime. It is as if pawns were proliferating to plug a leaky problem. The reintroduction of Valentinov, though well-prepared, does not function smoothly; if the plot were scored like a game, this move would receive a (?). One becomes conscious of rather aimless intricacies: the chronic mention of a one-armed schoolmate (Nabokov's teasing of cripples, not the most sympathetic of his fads, deserves a monograph to itself), and the somewhat mannered withholding of the hero's first name and patronymic until the last sentences, which then link up with the first. In short, the novel loses inevitability as it needs it most. Suicide, being one experience no writer or reader has undergone, requires extra credentials to pass into belief. I can believe in the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary as terrible but just--in the sense of fitting--events within the worlds the authors have evolved. I am even more willing to believe in Kirillov's suicide in The Possessed as the outcome of a philosophic-psychotic mental state explored with frightening empathy. But I am unable to feel Luzhin's descent into an eternity of "dark and pale squares" as anything but the foreordained outcome of a scheme that, however pretty, is less weighty than the human fictions it has conjured up.

Early in The Defense Nabokov describes an obtuse chess spectator who, exasperated by what seems to him a premature concession, itches to pick up the pieces and play the game out. So too, I cannot see why, now that Luzhin is equipped with a willing if not enthusiastic female caretaker and furthermore a wealthy father-in-law, the grandmaster is hopelessly blocked from pursuing, this side of madness, his vocation. He is lovable, this child within a monster, this "chess moron," and we want him to go on, to finish his classic game with Turati, and, win or lose, to play other games, to warm and dazzle the exquisite twilit world of his preoccupation with the "limpidity and lightness" of his thought. He seems blocked by something outside the novel, perhaps by the lepidopterist's habit of killing what it loves; how remarkably few, after all, of Nabokov's characters do evade the mounting pin. But in asking (irrationally, he has been dead for over thirty years) that Luzhin survive and be fruitful, we are asking no more than his creator, no pet of fate, has asked of himself and has, to his great honor, done.

John Updike

By John Updike

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