Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Prize

[News item: As reported in The New York Times on August 27, 1986*, an article in the Russian chess magazine 64 has printed the first work by Vladimir Nabokov ever openly published in his native land. The excerpt, in its August edition, describes one of Nabokov's last days "in a dark and torpid Paris". His labor on a chess problem emerges as an allegory for his difficulties in getting his family out of Nazi-occupied France and to America in 1940. Born to an aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, in 1899, Nabokov became a United States citizen in 1945. He died in Switzerland in 1977.]

Vladimir Nabokov has been credited with writing the best novel concerning the game of chess. Originally published in Russian using a penname under the title Zashchita Luzhina (or The Luzhin Defense), it is better known by the title of its English translation The Defense. Although it was first brought out in book form in 1930, The Defense had to wait until 1965 for an English-language edition, as the author himself relates to us in the foreword to this attractive novel.

The protagonist of The Defense is one Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, born in Russia around the turn of the century but who lives in Berlin from age fourteen until his untimely death some eighteen years later, largely in exile because of the October Revolution of 1917 which has taken place during his absence. Early in the novel, while Luzhin is still a schoolboy in Russia, there are forebodings of the disaster which is to overtake Luzhin later in life with the seeming inevitability of an announced checkmate. His father, a writer of boys' adventure stories, remarks: "Being born in this world is hardly to be borne." The young Luzhin is introduced to the chessboard when he encounters one in the attic of his house, after having fled from the rest of his family at a railway station.

Luzhin's behavior as a schoolboy in his early teens can only be described as unsociable, preferring to sit alone on a woodpile each day in the schoolyard rather than participate in sports. His future genius as a chess prodigy, on the other hand, is intimated by his fascination with Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes, and jigsaw puzzles. One day while hiding in his father's study he eavesdrops on a violinist - speaking on the telephone to some unknown party at the other end of the line - who describes chess as the game of the gods. This encourages young Luzhin to play hookey from school and visit his aunt's house, where the elderly woman teaches him the rules of chess. Soon Luzhin, who has never shown an aptitude for anything else, is defeating not only his aunt but his father, doctor, and geography teacher as well. Then, at age fourteen, having been recognized as a genuine prodigy, he quits school. Shortly thereafter, he becomes ill; and in order to help him recuperate Luzhin's father accompanies him to a resort on the Adriatic. As luck would have it, a chess tournament is about to begin, Luzhin enters it, and he finishes in third place. He never turns his back on chess again - not for the deaths of first his mother and then his father - until eighteen years later, now a grandmaster, he suffers a second illness: a nervous breakdown.

It happens just after adjournment in a difficult position against Turati (whose name and playing style remind one of Reti) with whom he is tied for first place, late in a strong tournament in Berlin. By this point, Luzhin has engaged to be married. He spends some time in a sanatorium. Then, symbolically, he closes the lid on his chesspieces - and his chess career, as well - for what he deludes himself into thinking is marital bliss. The theme of exile re-emerges: first, exile from Russia; now, self-imposed exile from chess.

Little by little, chess images begin creeping back into his life. At the movies with his wife one evening, he is disturbed by the sight of a chessboard with a fantastic position on it in the background of the screen. When he, by chance, meets an ex-classmate from school at a ball and the chum remarks upon Luzhin's chessplaying, Luzhin begins to replay the moves of his life from the time of the nervous breakdown onward. He begins to see a repetition of theme in the game of life, leading him inexorably to the chessboard and tragedy. He starts to construct a defense against this attack, just as earlier he spent days constructing a defense to Turati's favorite opening. When his former chess trainer, now movie director, Valentinov invites Luzhin to his movie studio named Veritas (or Truth) to have Luzhin play the role of a chess grandmaster along with Turati in an upcoming movie, Luzhin suddenly hits upon the correct defense to this irresistible attack by the forces of life. He must play an unexpected surprise move!

So, sadly, the novel ends with what Nabokov referred to in his foreword as a sui-mate: Luzhin falling to his death from a window ledge where he has crawled. Hauntingly, as Luzhin plunges to destruction, there is a scene of great symbolism: the reflection from a nearby window has divided the chasm of darkness below into dark and pale squares.

Perhaps the plot of The Defense is best summarized in this single sentence from the jacketflap: "The Defense is the tragic story of a man destroyed by his own genius and of the hopeless efforts of the wife who loves him to save him from himself." Although the novel ends on a tragic note, it is not all gloom and doom. There are beautiful lyrical passages describing the game of chess. Here, for example, is how Nabokov portrays Luzhin's state of mind during a game of blindfold chess: "He saw then neither the Knight's carved mane nor the glossy heads of the Pawns - but he felt quite clearly that this or that imaginary square was occupied by a definite, concentrated force, so that he envisioned the movement of a piece as a discharge, a shock, a stroke of lightning - and the whole chess field quivered with tension, and over this tension he was sovereign, here gathering in and there releasing electric power."

*{This book review originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1986}