Luzhin's Defense
by Vladislav Khodasevich
translated from the Russian by Jeff Edmunds

Luzhin’s Defense, a novel by the young writer V. Sirin, has been issued in book form by the Berlin publisher Slovo.

Luzhin was a chess player, one of those who wander from country to country, from city to city, earning fame and subsistence by taking part in tournaments and with mnemonic tricks, like playing blind or simultaneously with several opponents. This profession, at once ennobling and pitiable, like the now forgotten profession of improvisator, has engrossed Luzhin for a long time. The gift for chess was awakened in him long ago, still in adolescence, and, like every gift, became his fate. Everything happened somehow of its own accord. Unexpectedly for his relatives, for his schoolmates, for himself, Luzhin became a chess prodigy. A certain Valentinov, half tutor, half impresario, a Jack-of-all-trades, “the amusingest gentleman,” led him throughout Europe on the very eve of the war. For him, however, all the cities were identical: “hotel, taxi, a hall in a café or club.” Soon the real world dropped, as it were, out of Luzhin’s consciousness. He noticed neither the war nor the Revolution, though he was in Russia in 1917. He lost his mother, his father—and did not notice this.

“Similarly, in his way of dressing and in the manner of his everyday life, he was prompted by extremely dim motives, stopping to think about nothing, rarely changing his linen, automatically winding his watch at night, shaving with the same safety blade until it ceased to cut altogether, and feeding haphazardly and plainly. From some kind of melancholy inertia he continued to order at dinner the same mineral water, which effervesced slightly in his sinuses and evoked a tickling sensation in the corners of his eyes .... Only rarely did he notice his own existence, when for example lack of breath—the revenge of a heavy body—forced him to halt with open mouth on a staircase, or when he had a toothache, or when at a late hour during his chess cogitations an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox failed to evoke in it the rattle of matches, and the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth by someone else suddenly grew and asserted itself, solid, soulless, and static, and his whole life became concentrated in the single desire to smoke, although goodness knows how many cigarettes had already been unconsciously consumed.”
It is not so much that Luzhin was unsociable, but gradually he had become excessively awkward in his contact with people, as in his handling of inanimate objects. His movements had become so automatic and unexpected even to himself that compared to him an actual automaton appears more animated. At times when walking Luzhin would suddenly stop and then continue on his path with the same inexplicable suddenness. Naturally he grew absent-minded and forgetful. His senses did not die, but they became dulled and made hazy. He was unable, in any case, to understand them and lost especially the ability to express them. His speech became abrupt; in it, the smoothest, most well-turned phrases were those in which he was given to using ready-made verbal alloys heard somewhere once and automatically retained in memory. By some strange means one girl fell in love with him and became his fiancée. In his own way he loved her too, unable, however, to understand or name his feeling. “‘There’s no need to put it off any longer,’ muttered Luzhin, putting his arms around her and interlacing his fingers on her hip. ‘Sit down, sit down, there’s no need to put it off. Let’s do it tomorrow. Tomorrow. Most lawful matrimony.’”

Only in the abstract world of chess combinations is the air more congenial to Luzhin. Burdensome to him even are the chess pieces, “whose quant shape and wooden materiality,” Sirin notes, “always disturbed him and always seemed to him but the crude, mortal shell of exquisite, invisible chess forces.”

Such is the exposition. The principal part of the novel finds Luzhin precisely at the moment when he is faced with solving three important problems. First, to find a defense against the complex opening with which, in all likelihood, the Italian Turati will begin his match at the forthcoming Berlin tournament; second, to learn to live without Valentinov, who has abandoned Luzhin, having become enamoured of the movie business; third, to marry.

For Luzhin the complex problems of his abstract art are infinitely easier that the simple problems of life. He is “no inhabitant of the empyrean”;1 life without Valentinov and marriage are for him bound up with the necessity of, as it were, finding an incarnation and adapting oneself to the conditions of real existence. Outwardly at first everything just manages to sort itself out. Surprising the people around him with the absurdity and clumsiness of his actions, Luzhin accomplishes the everyday tasks that are infinitely difficult for him: living, courting. But accomplishes them in appearance only. Luzhin is moved by an automatism that is an inadequate substitute for genuine realization. With every instant, realization becomes more difficult, and as the chess problem nears resolution, the problem of life draws the spiritual strength from Luzhin. Just prior to the match with Turati, “Luzhin’s defense” seems to have been found, but before the onslaught of the real world Luzhin becomes utterly defenseless. There is almost nothing he understands about it any more. In the decisive hour, when Luzhin and Turati are already seated at the chessboard, there occurs an event, simple in appearance, but arrived at with remarkable astuteness by Sirin: Turati does not play his opening. He does not dare risk it. He is moved by a calculation not of chess, but of the world, and, in this fashion, the logic of the real world becomes wedged into the world of chess. A miniscule particle of reality, a mote of dust fallen into Luzhin’s abstraction, displaces, confuses, muddies everything in it. Under these conditions, “Luzhin’s defense” is inapplicable. Luzhin turns out to be defenseless before Turati, as before everything related to actuality. He even fails to complete the match—his consciousness has grown dim. In the end he is taken to a sanitorium.

The novel’s protagonists wrongly think that Luzhin has been overstrained by the world of chess. No, he cannot bear the real world. The match with Turati placed him a losing position—because it was then that for the first time he fell completely out of reality; “the abyss of chess” engulfed him.

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Translator’s note: I am indebted to Alexander Dolinin for bringing this essay to my attention, for helping me to track down a copy, for looking over a draft of the English translation, and for providing the explanations found in footnotes 1 and 2 (which I would have never been able to supply on my own).

The original Russian article first appeared in Vozrozhdenie (Paris) on October 11, 1930.

1. From the second line of Evgenii Baratynskii’s poem “Nedonosok” [The Prematurely Born] (1835), in which the poet’s soul is depicted as a strange spirit unable to find a home in either empyrean or earthly realms and forever caught between them.

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