The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in Russian in 1930. The English translation was first published in 1964 – which is the edition that I read. This is the fourth novel by Nabokov that I have read and it is also the one that I am giving the most stars to: four stars out of five for this one. An interesting phenomenon has occurred in my reading of Nabokov. The first book I read by him was Lolita – which I still despise completely. Then I read Despair, which I reviewed in this blog, giving it two stars. Then I read Invitation to a Beheading which I enjoyed much more and gave three stars to. Three stars is probably the closest estimation of an “average” read. Then I read The Defense and am giving it another star. So, in theory, if I am to read another Nabokov (the only one left that I have any desire to read is Bend Sinister), the pattern suggests I will give it five stars.
I loved The Defense. I am honestly surprised and dismayed that most people do not like this novel as much as his other novels. I mean, in my world, between The Defense and Lolita there is no comparison – Lolita is dreck and The Defense is the magnum opus. I have speculated in my other blog about why The Defense is not so well-loved. I have only two ideas (feel free to share any you have): (1.) people are turned off by chess; (2.) it’s way more Russian than the other novels (and therefore difficult to immerse oneself within).
All the great praise that I hear about Nabokov’s writing (that I found to be absent in the other novels) is here in this novel. Here it is – all the marvel and fame and glory and skill and insight and so forth. Finally! After four novels I found the Nabokov I was waiting for!
The main character, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, is one of my favorite characters of all time. He just has to be. I feel like he is autistic, though there is no mention of this in the novel whatsoever – this is just me hypothesizing. He is indeed loveable and wonderful. Sure, he seems surly or distant to the other characters, but Nabokov somehow understands this character so well. Nabokov writes with insight and intuitiveness that makes Luzhin accessible and yet not fake or overdeveloped as a character. Nabokov understands Luzhin and he writes so that we can understand too. This means the author is able to cause sympathy in the reader for the character – the sign of a masterwork novel.
Luzhin does not really understand us. When he is a child there is a line in the novel that I absolutely love because it’s amusing and it truly depicts an autistic child’s viewpoint. His household is having an argument and the adults are edgy and grouchy:
Luzhin reflected disgustedly that today everyone had gone mad and went to his room.
That is an awesome line. I love that Nabokov uses the word “disgustedly” and I love that Luzhin views the incongruous moods of his parents as having “gone mad.” Nabokov’s genius is right there in that line. He understands the character and in a short sentence allows us to understand Luzhin, too.
Luzhin proposing to his girlfriend is epic awesome. He bustles, out of breath, into her room and starts pacing nervously. He says:
And therefore in continuance of the above I have to inform you that you will be my wife, I implore you to agree to this, it was absolutely impossible to go away, now everything will be different and wonderful.
He sits, exhausted, in a chair and starts crying. So, he does not really ask her to marry him, but rather has it all sorted out in a sort of chess-like way which only seems reasonable to him. His girlfriend responds to his outburst and tears by stroking his forehead and taking a good look at him. She comes to this conclusion:
It was then that she realized clearly that this man, whether you liked him or not, was not one you could thrust out of your life, that he had sat himself down firmly, solidly and apparently for a long time.
This line is reminiscent of Oblomov. Both Luzhin and Oblomov actually have some similar characteristics (though I say only the former is autistic). Both characters instantiate themselves into their friends’ lives – not boisterously or rudely – but by virtue of their very innocence, naïvité, and reason. They are surprising because they are so different from the social behaviors of the society they live within. They draw people to them without necessarily trying and by simply being themselves, so to speak. And both characters are wonderful.
There are a number of phrases and descriptions that, though not lengthy, are full of masterful wordsmithing. The first paragraph(s) of chapter 13, for example, are descriptions of winter – without describing winter. Nabokov somehow describes the scene as if viewed through Luzhin’s eyes, maybe. And the writing is actual simple and not convoluted, but it is beautiful because it shows Nabokov really really really experiences the scene and can tell us perfectly his experience. He describes a boy, a storefront, a frozen pond, a dog – all of this with such deft ease. This is the Nabokov we’ve been hearing about; the one that’s a world-class author.
Late in the novel, Luzhin is trying to hide a notebook. His wife retires to bed and Luzhin walks around the house searching for a “safe-place.”
Everywhere was insecure. The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of that rapacious vacuum cleaner. It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing: the other things are jealous and inhospitable, holding on firmly to their places and not allowing a homeless object, escaping pursuit, into a single cranny.
Now, I do not know if you have ever sought for a “safe-place” or a secure place to put something, but yes, this is precisely what it is like. And Nabokov describes this scene so perfectly. And there’s this touch of autistic understanding in Luzhin’s attempt to hide the notebook. I like how the difficulty of hiding an object is not the fault of Luzhin or the object – but that of other objects. Thanks for this, Nabokov!
The novel is a tragedy. The ending is sudden and done in a few paragraphs. It can seem like a ludicrous ending to some readers. However, I think reading the whole novel in terms of a life lived within a chess game – the ending makes sense. The ending also is congruent with the same, small Luzhin who years ago went to his room disgustedly. It matches, too, the Luzhin who “proposes” to his girlfriend by stating it must be so. Because Luzhin, above all, is a grandmaster of chess, life for him is chess. And he sees all the incidents and circumstances as if they are on some kosmic chessboard. The Defense is, in his mind, the correct move. The fallout from that is almost inconsequential. Dear Luzhin…..