Nabokov - Защита Лужина (aka Luzhin's Defense)

2023-01-29 @Literature

For too long I craved to read something of the earlier Nabokov. While his English-language prose from the 1940s onward produced such infamous hits as Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), the preceding Russian period likewise saw plenty of solid Vladimir Nabokov.

I don’t count the 1923 translation/adaptation of Carrol’s Alice (Аня в стране чудес) I read many a year ago, however manifest of Nabokov’s writing potential.

Had to be an original creation and a tad more accessible than the esoteric Дар; my impression, however, quiet obsolete: the initial pages of that magnum opus, though wrought me into a state of desperate denial some time back (premature modernist reading can have that effect), I’d now anticipate a smoother passage … had I the actual bloody book hereabouts.

Now Защита Лужина – I did by chance have the bloody book: a hardback trilogy that also assembles the fairly short novels Камера Обскура and Приглашение на Казнь, the latter of which I’m eyeing to read soon enough.

Written circa 1929, then an emigre somewhereabouts in France pending arrival in Berlin (the fertile territory for most remaining Russian material), Защита Лужина (Luzhin’s Defense) concerns a genius Russian chess player of world renown for having devised all sorts of clever openings, combinations and, in particular, defense maneuvers published and revered in chess journals.

The narrative draws on Nabokov’s upbringing: the St Petersburg aristocracy, the Revolution-driven exile into the European emigrant ranks and ultimately Berlin: whose immigrant community, politics, Russian upper-class society paint the backdrop for Luzhin’s crumbling psyche.

Chess, metaphorically and otherwise, serves manifold function within the novel, not limited to the following:

  1. The game in and of itself as the vehicle for Luzhin’s inner and outer development (and madness).
  2. An art-form. At one point chess notation even sees a parallel with music: chess combinations with musical phrasing, both forms of composition manifest of poetic byproduct.
  3. The lens through which Luzhin perceives his surroundings. Possibly autistic (although the narrative makes no argument for the case - the extent of any autism, per our definition of the contrived word, is left entirely up to interpretation), Luzhin largely appeals to chess grammar (syntax, semantics and timing) in qualifying, or better yet, reconciling his entire existence. I was fascinated by this manner of cognition.

As for narration, fairly opaque: unreliable/incomplete access to though. The narrator only goes to subtle means in expressing own voice, which projects but mainly through the cast. Anything authentically intrinsic we acquire by means of fragmentary dialogue and externally observable physical minutiae (of which Nabokov spares us little).

What we know is mostly what we’ve managed to spectate as a sequence of clever chess moves, incognizant of the players' ultimate stratagem.

On the one hand, the purposed dryness paves the way for sharp satire. On the other, I found tough to genuinely empathize with any character, Luzhin included. Probably by design.

Speaking of the satire, Gogol’s influence abounds. These are among the brightest and the wittiest of moments. As for the author’s distinct voice, Nabokov’s falls three measures more subdued. (These Gogolesque sentiments tend to be fairly universal. Cannot evade their influence in structuring my argument.)

Whatever we don’t acquire through almost point-blank, theatrical eye-witness, Nabokov unveils in mostly impartial manner of narration with occasional vignettes not devoid of nostalgia (and severe beauty), thereby drawing on the romantic literary tradition. But then Nabokov doesn’t stray too extensively into the sentimental.

I thus consider the novel a half-modernist, half-romanticist tragicomedy, a foot on each side of the still arbitrarily delineating line.

Further enjoyable points

The lacking

Nothing objective. Entirely individual:

The prose, although sound and downright good, proceeds too seamlessly for my preferred reading paradigm. Unless reading older classics (which compensate by means of more lucid historical insight), anything beyond and I seek rhythm-challenging maneuvers.

Why not an entirely obtuse chapter of nothing but chess notation and mathematical reasoning? Or an extensive poetical discourse, of which this novel offers but bite-size samples. Or some discordant manner of narration? I evidently need to read the aforementioned Дар (that is, The Gift).

Like I said, personal caprice, the mention of which I felt divided over. Nabokov would cater to increased experimentalism later, once gained certain traction and fame, I suppose.


Damn fine stuff. After some deliberation, the novel probably passes my book repository heuristic as something indeed rereadable. Though not for some twenty years.

Questions, comments? Connect.