The Luzhin Defense, described by Mike Fox and Richard James as the best novel about chess ever written, is an early (1930) work by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The central character is the Luzhin of the title (we never discover his first name), one of the strongest chess players in the world. The “Luzhin Defense” is the chess opening he prepares to combat his chief rival for the world title, the Italian grandmaster Turati. Ironically, although the encounter between Luzhin and Turati forms a crucial passage of the book, the defense is never played, since Turati avoids his own trademark opening when they finally meet over the board.
Nabokov himself was a chess enthusiast. Like the Luzhin of the novel, he was born and raised in St Petersburg; also like Luzhin, he left Russia after the 1917 Revolution to live abroad. Nabokov is better known as a composer of chess problems than as a player. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory (New York: 1960) he compares the intellectual challenge that the composer of a chess problem sets the solver to the challenge that the author of a book sets his reader. The fact that Nabokov felt this comparison to be apt explains at least two aspects of his work: firstly, his liking for unreliable narrators or other narrative devices that make following his novels a problem-solving challenge for his readers; and secondly, the frequent appearance of chess within his books, always with metaphorical significance. In his most famous work, Lolita (1955), there is an early scene in which Humbert Humbert (an extremely unreliable narrator) plays a game of chess; in the game, he freely sacrifices material to achieve his goal: to turn a small, white pawn into a queen, and using her to mate. Indeed a metaphorical prefiguring of the action of the novel. The role of chess in Nabokov’s fiction generally is explored in ‘Solus Rex: Nabokov and the Chess Novel’ by Strother B. Purdy (Modern Fiction Studies 14:4, 1968).
The Luzhin Defense, however, is the only one of Nabokov’s novels in which chess is, as it were, the main subject of the narrative. Luzhin is taught the game by an aunt, when a boy of 12 or 13, after being fascinated by the sight of a chess set in his father’s study. His phenomenal powers in the game are quickly evident, and innate (in this, his story is not unlike that of Bobby Fischer much later, who was taught the game at the age of six by his sister, from the instructions in a set she had happened to find in a local candy store).
What Nabokov’s novel captures, entirely successfully, is the obsessive compulsion of the game, which occupies Luzhin entirely and to the exclusion of all other interests, skills or social relations. He meets and marries another Russian emigré, and settles in Berlin. There he reaches the pinnacle of his career, playing chess of an unbelieveable standard in a major tournament which culminates in his confrontation with Turati. During this long-anticipated game, he suffers a kind of mental collapse and is hospitalised. He gives up the game in order to preserve his sanity, and is nursed to health by his new bride. At the denouement of the novel, he is lured back to the game by his former manager, with catastrophic consequences.
The character of Luzhin is a literary creation, but is also to some extent an amalgam of real people: some of the events recounted of his childhood are those of Nabokov’s own; the end of the story was suggested by the fate of a real Berlin chess master, Curt von Bardeleben (1861-1924); as a Russian escapee from the Bolsheviks who reached the very heights of the game, he recalls Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), the fourth chess World Champion. His arch rival Turati is hardly developed at all as an independent character in the novel; but his name recalls that of Richard Réti, as does Nabokov’s description of Turati’s playing style, which corresponds exactly to the “hypermodern” style of play developed by Réti and others in the 1920s:
This player, a representative of the latest fashions in chess, opened the game by moving up on the flanks, leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the centre from the sides.
(Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense, trans. Martin Scammell [1930, translation 1964], Penguin Classics 2000, p. 61)
Music in the novel
Why, then, write at length about this novel in a blog devoted to the connections between chess and music? The answer is that, throughout the novel, Nabokov himself makes analogies between the two. Sometimes the connection is overt, sometimes hidden or symbolic. But it is a theme that runs through the whole book, as the following quotations demonstrate.
The first time that Luzhin sees a chess set is during a party given by his father in their St Petersburg home. The boy is hiding in his father’s study, trying to avoid attention, when a violinist, who has just performed for the guests, enters to take a call on the telephone. He opens a box of chess pieces on Luzhin’s father’s desk, and on seeing the boy (who has never seen the set before), he asks him if he knows how to play:
‘What a game, what a game,’ said the violinist, tenderly closing the box. ‘Combinations like melodies. You know, I can simply hear the moves.’
Luzhin steals the chess set, and asks his aunt to teach him the game. When his extraordinary talent is discovered, his first chess teacher is an elderly doctor friend of the family:
He spoke about the grand masters he had had the occasion to see, about a recent tournament, and also about the past of chess, about a somewhat doubtful rajah and about the great Philidor, who was also an accomplished musician.
Music is already a Leitmotif of the narrative.
Later on, once Luzhin is celebrated as one of the great players of his day, his father, a writer, imagines writing a novella about his son. He remembers watching him giving a simultaneous chess display as a child:
The writer Luzhin did not himself notice the stylized nature of his recollection. Nor did he notice that he had endowed his son with the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy, the results being both sickly and angelic […].
Finally, the crucial episode of the novel arrives, when Luzhin is to encounter Turati at last. Nabokov turns again to music; not this time using the craft of a musician as an alternative or parallel occupation to that of a chess player, but using music as the metaphorical backdrop to the game itself. Just as the violinist at the St Petersburg party could “hear the moves”, the grandmasters seem to find music within the board:
At first it went softly, softly, like muted violins. […] Then, without the least warning, a chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati’s forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin’s side also. […] Turati finally decided on this combination – and immediately a kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony. […] But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?
This game is never finished. Luzhin’s mental crisis intervenes, and the remainder of the novel charts his attempted recovery, which depends on his avoiding the game of chess at all costs. It is his wife who superintends this, and at a party that mirrors the one at the start of the novel, she regrets that Luzhin is no longer recognised, as she overhears another confusion of the careers of chess master and musician:
A rather pretty but boring young lady. And that strange marriage to an unsuccessful musician, or something of that sort. ‘What did you say – a former socialist? A what? A player? A card player? […]’
As the end of the novel approaches, representations or artificial reproductions of both chess and music become prominent. Luzhin is tracked down by his former manager, a man called Valentinov, who wants him to return to the game; not to play competitively, though, but to take part in a film about the game. This is enough, however, to provide a fatal and musical recapitulation of Luzhin’s past:
To the sound of this voice, to the music of the chessboard’s evil lure, Luzhin recalled, with the exquisite, moist melancholy peculiar to recollections of love, a thousand games that he had played in the past. […] There were combinations, pure and harmonious, where thought ascended marble stairs to victory; there were tender stirrings in one corner of the board, and a passionate explosion, and the fanfare of the Queen going to its sacrificial doom.
And the final denouement of the novel comes when Luzhin gives up trying to avoid what seems to him an inevitable chess combination played against him by fate:
And suddenly Luzhin stopped. It was as if the whole world had stopped. It happened in the drawing room, by the phonograph.
The appearance of the phonograph here is significant: it reproduces music mechanically, just as Valentinov’s film reproduces the life of a chess master artificially. In the early part of the novel, the music was real, and the chess was Luzhin’s real life too; at the end, he is trapped in an unreal world of mechanical reproduction: on a pocket chess set, he repeatedly sets up the pieces as they had stood in his game with Turati at the point that they had adjourned play. He distracts himself by listening to music with his wife, but as reproduced on the phonograph. Chess and music still mirror or echo each other, but no longer sustain lived experience.
Why chess and music?
Nabokov, it seems to me, understands intimately and at first hand the power and seductive attraction of the game of chess. It is small wonder that he turns to music as the central metaphor to articulate his novel. Great technical skill, unremitting devotion to practice, a reliance on inspiration, and the appreciation of great aesthetic beauty by connoisseurs: all these are shared by both music and chess. The two arts are also, of course, bound up with Russian cultural and political identity in the early twentieth century.
If you have read this, I urge you to go and read (or re-read) the novel. Try and read it as if you were listening to a recital.