with Defense of Luzhina novel written in Russian in 1929, Volodymyr Nabokov describes a character obsessed with the game of chess, which completely dominates not only his life, but also his way of seeing and imagining the world around him.
If Volodymyr Nabokov is known first of all for his novels, which he wrote in English (in the first place in which we find, of course, lolitabut also Ada or Ardor), we must not forget that the novelist, who was born and raised in Russia, initially spoke in Russian. His first novels are not only written in Pushkin’s language, but also imbued with Russian culture, in particular with the feelings and fates of Russians expelled after the October Revolution (as in the case of the Nabokov family). This is also one of the topics developed in Defense of Luzhinthe writer’s third novel, published in 1930, first in a Russian magazine published in Paris, then in a Berlin publishing house, both specializing in the literature of Russian emigration.
The main topic Defense of Luzhinit is the obsession that is symbolized here by the game of chess. This obsession gradually captures the main character, Luzhin, a bland character with no taste for anything, mediocre in every way, who accidentally finds an interest in life by discovering chess. Chess will become his obsession (in the medical sense of the word), to the point that only chess will become a reality and that it will flood the world. And they will also invade the novel, especially in the descriptions of landscapes and settings. Shadows draw black and white objects that collide. The tiles are transformed into a checkerboard. Trees and posts become pawns and frets. And the guests of the party are perceived as opponents who prevent Luzhin from joining the tsarina (= his bride).
Delving into his memories, Luzhin perceives his life only as a continuous series of chess games. Everything else is forgotten, abandoned:
“He knew only one thing for sure: he had been playing chess for an eternity, and as between two mirrors reflecting a candle, in the night of his memory only one perspective was illuminated, which was diminishing and, in this perspective, he saw himself in front of the chessboard, and then an infinity of other Luzhins sitting in front of the chessboard, smaller and smaller. (chapter 8, translated by René and Genia Cannac, Gallimard Editions, Folio Collection)
“What was there in the world but chess? Fog, obscurity, nothingness”
Defense of Luzhin, so it is a portrait of a person detached from reality, who knows nothing about the outside world. A mediocre student without much knowledge, his discovery of chess locked him into this monomania to the exclusion of everything else. Gradually, he will skip school. Chess will serve as a school for him, but will also force him to escape parental authority. And finally we get a boy who wanders from hotel to hotel, cut off from society, closed in on himself and his chessboard. He has no social relations, he does not meet anyone and therefore does not know how to behave in society. When he first introduces himself to his fiancée’s mother, she calls him rude.
Actually, we can say that Luzhin has no education (except for chess). He does not communicate, except when it comes to chess. In this way, these words take over everything and ultimately destroy any attempt at dialogue. This meeting with the father of his bride should be considered as follows: the honorable man tries to start a conversation about chess in order to please the guest, and Luzhin then speaks only about this, not hearing the guest’s attempts to change him. or even his embarrassment. In addition, any attempt at dialogue succeeds only in extracting one or two confused monosyllabic words from Luzhin.
Another proof that there is nothing but chess for Luzhin is the use of surnames. We never learn the surname of Luzhin’s bride or her parents (and we are not even sure that Luzhin himself remembered it, just as he does not remember their address and is forced to take out an old postcard all the time to inform the taxi driver of his address). The only secondary characters that can be named directly are… his opponents in chess tournaments. Others have no name, as if they had neither existence nor reality. In addition, in several cases they are described as shadows or ghosts. According to Luzhin (whose name we do not even know), everything that is outside of chess is like outside of life.
To further emphasize this, Nabokov repeatedly describes scenes where Luzhin is lost: he desperately searches for the room where he played or is going to play chess, and cannot find it in the hotel, which is described as a maze. This boy, lost in what he sees as a maze (but where everyone manages to move quite correctly), is a symbolic description of the great precision of the life of a person who cannot recognize himself in the real world. , but is able to represent, since his childhood, the most difficult chess games thanks to the sheer power of his imagination.
The more time passes, the more this alienation from reality increases. Chess is so obsessed with Luzhin that he perceives rest only as a dream. So, slumping wearily on his bride’s shoulder, he’s convinced that what happened earlier was just a dream, and he’s not even sure that he’s actually awake.
Furthermore, Nabokov likes to share this ambiguity with us without creating a clear distinction between reality and what the characters imagine or dream. In addition, often the story develops through the imagination of the characters. Strictly speaking, Nabokov’s novel never talks about reality: like Proust, the Russian writer immerses us in the inner life of his characters, he prefers their dreams, he deciphers their imagination, he immerses us in their mental representations, to the detriment of reality. world. As a result, the novel is organized as the characters’ thoughts, with memories, dreams, cultural references, desires, and more.
It should be added that Luzhin is not the only one lost in a world inhabited by fantasies. Most of the other secondary characters, Russians in exile like Luzhin (and like Nabokov himself), live in a dreamlike universe where they have to rebuild Russian society in the West (whether in Berlin or in France). We live among Russians, cut off from the outside world, immersed in the utopia of “Russian” life. Only the bride, it seems, is fully aware that this is bad Russia, which has nothing to do with memories of St. Petersburg life.
In this sense, the last two chapters of the novel are very significant, which describe the main character, who, although she was expelled from Russia, is not interested in politics, but believes that this topic can distract Luzhin from her morbid passion for chess. And Nabokov will then apply his works to this topic, which are at the same time precise, highly elaborated, sophisticated and at the same time gently sarcastic, rejecting white exiles and Bolshevik supporters back to back.