Musical Analogies in The Defense*
by Alexander Drescher


There are two levels of analogy to music in Nabokov's The Defense. The first is in the "musical" character of the novel itself, with respect to thematic content [melodies], narrative perspective [keys] and structures in which patterned repetition is an organizing principle.

[A theme is presented, then others. Then a shift of perspective and other new themes are put forth. A return to the initial perspective and then, again, the second. After a theme is developed at length, a recapitulation is accomplished, in which the second set of themes are resolved in the perspective of the first. All the repetitions, as Papa Leopold instructed, "with a difference." Thus, the Mozartean allegro sonata.]

Perspectives [keys] in the first three paragraphs of Chapter 1: 1] The omniscient [known thoughts of characters, outcome of events] narratorial view of the sequential past; 2] An implied [and later alluded to] narratorial present]; 3] Direct report of conversation; 4] A wide-angle lens, objective view of time and events; 5] A leap forward into the future to allow retrospection.

While alternation of the first 4 techniques is standard novelistic practice, the rapid shifts in the opening sequence suggests a purposeful signaling to the reader; be alert to their repetitive patterning. As an example, the last key, the relative minor of future retrospect, sets up the dramatic leap forward of Chapter 4, page 72. It is a structural parallel to the theme of pre-ordination and the author's creative rather than reportorial function.

Themes [melodies]:

1] Repetition of thematic material is the central device of the novel. Again the opening two sentences provide a prime example:

Naming as a connection to the world is muted for the American reader who does not expect [or much care about] patronymics. In a theme that recurs throughout the novel, mainly by omission en passant, none of the significant characters appear to have first names, existing only in their functional relation to Luzhin's self-preoccupation. Although Nabokov intends to disguise his device, he also tweaks and teases us to think about it:

p. 33: a Russian reader might have known, at least subliminally, Gonchorov's given and patronymic names, anticipating Luzhin's;
p. 56: the reader turning back "checking a detail....a name..";
p. 129: the otherwise insignificant Smirnovski is always graced grandly with full identification;
p. 197: when Petrishchev not only humiliates Luzhin with the name of the character in his father's book, but reminds us "....Tell me, Luzhin...your name and patronymic";
p. 232: A careful re-reading is required to decide whether Petrov and Vasiliy Vasilievich are separate characters.
It is not until the recapitulation in the closing two sentences of the novel that the unposed problem is resolved: Luzhin senior is Ivan. For good or otherwise, Ivan's are vectors of chess. Was Mme. Luzhin an Ivanovna? Is VAleNtInov to be understood as an anagram. The visit of noxious little Ivan suggests the pattern may be malignant. Courtesy of Charles Kinbote, the anonymous, chess-playing geographer was named Valentin Ivanovich in the original Russian edition, perhaps too obvious a clue to retain in the English translation. Thus naming is not only a connection to a world of human relations, but to some sort of fateful process.

2] Another recapitulation theme adds to the ambiguity between fateful design and chance. The quiet chess-playing boy of Luzhin's school days becomes the shy tennis partner of his fiancee's youth and the wounded Russian officers of her early exile; the same bouncing geographer is employed sequentially at both their schools, making characteristically different impressions [or the lack of one].

Structures. The novel does not appear to be arranged in musical form. Unlike Joyce, who was a trained musician, Nabokov does not play with the structures of sonata allegro, minuet, rondo, etc. The musical device, of a silence preceding an intense passage occurs in Chapters 7 and 10, in which there are no musical themes, as life appears to compete with chess. This parallels the " ...opera on 15 records--Boris Godunov--with church bells ringing in one place and with sinister pauses [p. 190]."

Before the chess game is interrupted, as Luzhin begins to gain his element, his thought process appears to take on a rondo-"variations" form [p. 139]. There are also two passages in which distinct melodic lines move contrapuntally, the simultaneous chess instruction and attendance on a social crisis by "Aunty" [p. 46 "And this is how one piece eats another."] and Luzhin solving a chess problem while his wife reads political commentary [p. 224]. The first instance results in humorous dissonance. In the second, our double-take of the commentary permits a fugal fit.

This is clearly a jig-saw puzzle novel. The various pieces [puzzles, characters, events], each with its own shape and fascination, become melodies and counter-melodies, sustaining chords, in the harmony of Luzhin's uneasy passage through a world not of his choosing; a world possibly random but suggesting pattern and unknown purpose..

(This essay was original composed in response to an assignment from the Virtual Nabokov module on The Defense.)

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