Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"I imagine you've managed to debauch my little girl thoroughly?"

I am reading Vladimir Nabokov's early novel The Defense (also known as The Luzhin Defense), and I'm a little past the middle of the narrative. In his foreword to the English edition (written decades after the novel's original publication in Russian under his pen name of Vladimir Sirin), Nabokov plays with ideas of symbolic patterns, throws out a few red herrings for the readers and refers to the book as "this admirable novel." And it is a very admirable novel; there is much here to admire.

I don't merely admire the book's features that appeal to me as a writer of fiction, for I'm certainly emotionally invested in the principal characters and I fear for the futures of both Aleksandr Luzhin (emigre Russian chess grandmaster) and the unnamed woman with whom he falls in love. This despite Nabokov having spoiled the ending in his foreward. So as a story, as an amalgam of plot and character and setting, it's certainly an admirable novel. The prose is also wrought beautifully; possibly this is the most beautiful writing-as-writing that I've seen from Nabokov: it's precise and surprising and alive on the page without suffering from some of the self-indulgent cleverness of some of the later novels ("what? heresy!"). Absolutely lovely writing, this.

So it's an admirable novel when I speak as a reader of fiction, but I confess that I'm moved to write about what Nabokov is doing with the craft, maybe. I'm not sure what I'm going to say. Yesterday I wrote a great--truly some of my best work--post about this novel, but because I am short on sleep I managed to delete the whole thing before I could publish it. That just after I managed to delete an important and carefully-crafted business email that I still haven't managed to reconstruct. So today I remain moved to write about The Defense but I not only feel like I've already said what I had to say even though there's no proof of that saying, I also am thinking about different aspects of the novel today than I was yesterday. So my thoughts are a bit of a mess and you'll just have to bear with me or skip this post entire. I have lost my train of thought.

The Defense is the story of a middle-aged Russian chess grandmaster named Luzhin who was once a child prodigy with a bleak, emotionally isolated childhood. He is the son of a minor fiction writer (a long list of adventure stories for boys that featured a hero who was likely an idealized version of Luzhin the son) who was the son of a virtuoso violinist, as I recall. Aleksandr Luzhin, the chess player, lives in a private world where there is only chess, the abstraction of chess where the real world--including chess boards and pieces--is an annoying barrier to the purity of the game. But I was not going to give a summary of the plot.

What I wanted to talk about were two things: the Nabokovian description of the artistic mind, and the use of clowns in tragedy. Both are large subjects and I can only hope to give them glancing blows. So here are those tiny fists:

One of the most remarkable parts of The Defense is the description of Luzhin's inner world, a place devoid of solid objects and people and civilization; his mind is given over as much as possible to the abstract forms and strategies of chess. As I said, Luzhin doesn't imagine games in terms of pieces on a board; he envisions lines of force and areas of density, strong regions and weak regions, networks and nets and possibilities and this abstraction is more real to Luzhin than the physical world he inhabits. It's so abstract that Luzhin cannot express it in words, for there is no human language that applies to the deepest understandings of pure chess. It's all quite remarkable and I'm sure that this is not only a description of the mind of a chess master, but is also and primarily (via metaphor) Nabokov's representation of the artist's inner world, maybe especially that of the novelist, who sees a narrative not as a story with people and events, but as a sort of electromagnetic field, the words on the page just the pattern in iron filings that the energy leaves behind as a footprint of some kind. Or something like that. I said better, smarter stuff yesterday; you'll have to take my word for that. But if you look at the planning Luzhin's father was doing for his final novel, you'll find very similar stuff going on (the prosaic aspects of the narrative, like character and plot, are pushed aside while Luzhin Senior creates a symbolic network into which he'll write the story; he's for the first time really tapping into his inner understanding of the power and possibility of narrative).

The other thing, the thing that struck me so profoundly today, was how brilliantly Nabokov solved one of the big structural problems of the novel. At the midpoint of the narrative Luzhin faces his nemesis, an Italian grandmaster named Turati who has beaten Luzhin in the past. The "Luzhin Defense" of the title is an elaborate strategy Luzhin has devised to combat Turati's manner of play. So Luzhin and Turati meet in Berlin at a competition and their game goes on and on, a miniature version of the novel itself, which is instead maybe a larger version of the game, and after hours of gruelling play the game is suspended for the evening, to be resumed the next day. Luzhin, who has not been sleeping and has become lost in a state where he cannot tell where abstract chess ends and the real world begins--or vice versa--breaks down completely and wanders alone into the night, seeking his boyhood Russian home, collapsing eventually in a public park. It's a heartbreaking chapter and I was afraid to turn the page and see what came next.

Where do you go from such a tragic scene? A lesser writer would've just continued the narrative with Luzhin, or maybe cut to his fiancee worrying over him since he never returned home from the match, pulling back on the emotional intensity but still keeping a serious tone. This would've been a mistake for a variety of reasons I won't bore you by listing. What I will tell you is Nabokov's ingenious solution: comedy.

In "Macbeth," after Macbeth and Lady M have murdered the king and smeared his blood over his drunken knights, Shakespeare stops the action to give us a comic scene with a porter, or doorman. The porter appears nowhere else in the play. Macduff is banging on Macbeth's castle door, come to see the king. The porter has been roused from his drunken slumber to answer the door. He has some difficulty, and also a monologue wherein he invents "knock knock" jokes. I'm not kidding.

In "Hamlet," after Ophelia's suicide is discovered and Hamlet sends a threatening letter to the king and the king plots with Laertes to murder Hamlet, things have got about as tense as they can possibly get. The emotional level has to be brought back down so that the ending tragic action will have full resonance with the audience. So what does Shakespeare give us? The gravedigger scene, full of jokes and puns about lawyers. The fight between Laertes and Hamlet in Ophelia's open grave would not be so shocking or emotional had it come right on the heels of Laertes' conspiring with Claudius.

Just so, after Luzhin collapses in madness, alone on the grass of a public park in Berlin, Nabokov sends in the clowns: two drunken German gentlemen staggering home, following a third. The very world comes alive around the drunks, who swim over the bucking and swaying pavements and reel from walls and streetlamps in their altered state. A taxi is hailed. The wrong German is placed inside and spirited away. The remaining drunken Berliners find Luzhin and mistake him for one of their party. The same taxi is hailed. Luzhin is carried on board, the drunks climbing in after. Luzhin is delivered to his fiancee's home. The proper story continues from there, at a much reduced level of tension. It's laugh-out-loud funny and a perfect solution to Nabokov's having written himself into a corner in the previous chapter.

This is too long. I am very short on sleep and I've no idea if I've said anything but I do admire this novel very much and everyone should read it. Hopefully I'll still feel that way when I've actually finished the damned thing. Maybe tomorrow. We shall see.


  1. The violinist is Luzhin's maternal grandfather, actually, which becomes important when trying to solve the puzzles of the novel. Which is something anyone on the first pass should ignore. The "name" puzzle, for example, is not even visible until the last couple of sentences.

    Yes, a most admirable novel. When I last read it, I concluded that it was not only that, but genuinely new, that it did some things that novels had not quite done before.

    But, again, just ignore that.

  2. I'm currently enjoying all the black/white imagery and wondering what (if anything) N's Luzhin has to do with Dostoyevsky's Luzhin.

    I'm also noticing how Nabokov animates the inanimate props around his characters. Tree limbs are "paws" and tables become insulted when someone bumps into them, etc. He creates a whimsical sort of world in which tragedies take place.

  3. Your description of Luzhin's internal world makes it sound very cool. I want to read this book. The power of the humor also seems to be the idea that the rest of the world continues around all the tragedy, which makes it more tragic.