Bibliography: Nabokov, Vladimir. The Defense. 1990. New York. Vintage Books, Random House. ISBN: 0679727221
Plot and Analysis:
The Defense follows a professional chess player named Luzhin from his childhood when he discovers chess to his adult life in which chess has become not just an occupation but the very center of his life, if not the only substance of it. A nervous breakdown during a championship match (for which he has meticulously devised the titular defense) leads him to drastically change his life to one more suited to “normalcy”. The specter of chess and the need for a ‘defense’ never quite leave him, the stress of which gradually presses upon his new carefully constructed (yet fragile) life.
The Defense is one of Nabokov’s earliest novels, and was originally written in his native language of Russian (unlike his more well-known English works written later in life). Due to this being a work composed earlier in his life, and a translation no less (albeit supervised by Nabokov himself), I found that the prose fell short of Nabokov’s later work. That being said it is still quite good, at times even brilliant. There were several times while reading that a particular line would stand out as being especially well-composed. Some choice examples include “…she had one turn of the head which betrayed a hint of possible harmony, a promise of real beauty that at the last moment remained unfulfilled.” or “Out of all this, out of all this crude mish-mash that stuck to the pen and tumbled out of every corner of his memory, degrading every recollection and blocking the way for free thought, he was unavoidably coompelled to extract- carefully and piece by piece- and admit whole to his book- Valentinov.” The focus of it, its unusual construction, and rising tension in the latter half that contrasts with the languid and almost suffocating first half makes it more than worth reading. This contrast of tone is present in other ways throughout the latter half as we go through the transformation of Luzhin’s life to something approaching normal and sweet with his inner turmoil. Throughout the book are musings and interesting portraits of various kind of figures, from Russian expatriates to writers of modest reknown to carousing drunkards, so on and so forth, which add life to the world around Luzhin and bear interesting connections, parallels, and contrasts.
Often times we will see the narration and Luzhin’s internal dialogue shift in and out of chess metaphors with an eerie yet natural grace, aided by Nabokov’s skill with language and structure. While Luzhin’s situation is an extreme example, anyone who has allowed a diversion to take a central role in their life can relate, at least to a degree, to this particular novel. There have been times in my own life that games, logic puzzles, etc. took so much focus of my attention that I would go over strategies and minutiae as I would fall asleep. During my waking hours I would even find my approaches to my daily conflicts and frustrations translated into the language of the game. To see these types of behaviors taken to their logical conclusion and beyond can be unsettling (albeit interesting). That Nabokov does so in such a vivid manner makes it all the more effective.
If you enjoy “The Defense” I would recommend Nabokov’s other works as they are of equal, if not higher, quality; of note is Pnin which takes a similar heavily introspective tone but is much more languid and with a heavier emphasis on wry humor. If the concept of an obsession with what one would normally think of as a diversion grabs your interest, you may also consider looking into Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
“One of Nabokov’s…most heartwarming works, and the one I often recommend to wary readers as the place to begin” -Publisher’s Weekly
“Reading Nabokov, any Nabokov, there is a 99% chance it’s going to be worth it, this splendid novel was a delight, and even though it doesn’t go all out in terms of plot or story, there are early signs here that the masterful narrative that showed up in his American novels was starting to emerge.” -GoodReads
Reviewed by Emmanuel R.