Chapter Nine

Zashchita Luzhina
"Remember, dear, that the greatest menace to happy domestic life is CHESS."
--Shakhmatnaia goriachka1
Zashchita Luzhina [literally, Luzhin's Defense] was written in 1929 while the Master and his wife were vacationing and hunting butterflies in the Pyrenées Orientales and published serially, first in Rul' (one chapter), then in Sovremennye zapiski, nos. 40-42, and finally in book form later that same year by Slovo in Berlin. An English version, translated by the author in collaboration with Michael Scammell, was published in 1964 by Putnam as The Defenestration. This edition is true to the original with the exception of two references to Zembla that the author, or the translator, or an unnamed editor, or an inattentive typesetter, chose to remove, or happened to remove inadvertantly, from Chapters Two and Five.

Zashchita Luzhina is a book about chess, "a game of skill played by two persons, each having sixteen pieces to move in different ways, on a board divided into 64 squares, alternately light and dark." (I owe this pithy definition to Webster.) If the reader does not know, or has forgotten, the rules to the game, he or she is invited to consult one of the many pamphlets devoted to chess that must surely exist in every language written and read in the civilized world. The word chess derives from Middle English ches or chesse, thence from Old French eschec (francophones will hear here an echo of the French word for failure, a not irrelevant observation for the case under discussion), or echac,2 thence from Persian shah, a king, the most important piece in the game. Luzhin, the eponymous hero, is our king:

i osobenno otchetlivo vspominalos' emu, kak eshche sovsem malen'kim, igraia sam s soboi, on vse kutalsia v tigrovyi pled, odinoko izobrazhaia korolia--vsego priiatnei bylo izobrazhat' korolia (p. 38, 4).3

He remembered especially the time when he was quite small, playing all alone, and wrapping himself up in the tiger rug, to represent, rather forlornly, a king (p. 70, 4).

(Indeed. A young and pretty princelet, I too played at being king. Note the tiger rug, which will reappear later as a "belaia medvezh'ia shkura, raskinuv lapy, slovno letia v blestiashchuiu propast' pola" (p. 68, 8) ["a white bearskin with spread paws ... as if flying in the shiny abyss of the floor" (p. 119, 8)], an image which links, alas, the raiments of royalty with a flying leap into the void.)

Even as a young child, then, our lonely king has his mantle, but it is not until he reaches seedy manhood that he receives a crown, and, simultaneously, a queen:

I ko vsemu etomu teper' pribavilas' dymchataia nevesta, i venets, kotoryi vzdragival v vozdukhe, nad samoi golovoi, i mog togo i gliadi upast. On ostorozhno kosilsia na nego, i emu pokazalos' raza dva, chto ch'ia-to nezrimaia ruka, derzhavshaia venets, peredaet ego drugoi tozhe nezrimoi ruke (p. 104, 11).

And to all this was added a veiled bride, and a crown that trembled in the air over his very head and looked as if it might fall at any minute [again the theme of falling, and again a reference to the heartrending precariousness of kingship]. He squinted at it cautiously and it seemed to him once or twice that the invisible hand of someone holding the crown passed it to another, also invisible, hand (p. 179, 11).

A commentator particularly prone to spook-spotting in Nabokov's novels and seemingly unwilling to grant any measure of genuine genius to mere mortals like me and you, dear reader, maintains that the two guiding forces in little and later big Luzhin's life are the watchful spirits of his deceased maternal grandfather and father. If we accept this commentator's premise, and I don't think we should, it pleases me to think that the unseen hands hovering over our king's head at his coronation belong to the two late gentlemen in question.

The same commentator further suggests that Luzhin's father, who passes away in Chapter Five, is responsible, posthumously and spiritistically speaking, for the appearance of the anonymous girl who later becomes Luzhin's bride. This, he says, explains the "unexpected move" the author claims in his English foreword to have made in Chapter Four, and the achronological arrangement of Chapters Four, Five, and Six:

The entire sequence of moves in these three central chapters reminds one--or should remind one--of a certain type of chess problem where the point is not merely the finding of a mate in so many moves, but what is termed 'retrograde analysis,' the solver being required to prove from a back-cast study of the diagram position that Black's last move could not have been castling or must have been the capture of a white Pawn en passant (p. 10).4
Meddling by benevolent spirits is a delightful if somewhat maudlin explanation for the sequence of moves in question, but there is ample evidence that Luzhin's and the nameless girl's paths came very close to crossing, as if unseen forces were unsuccessfully at work, well before Luzhin senior's death. This has all been said before, but let us review the evidence summarily here before moving on to more interesting matters.

The most persistently occurring near-link between Luzhin and his future bride is of course the geography teacher at Luzhin's school, who first appears, or rather, fails to appear, in Chapter Three: "Kak-to, cherez neskol'ko dnei, mezhdu pervym i tret'im urokom okazalos' pustoe mesto: prostudilsia uchitel' geografii" (24, 3) ["A week or so later, an empty gap occurred between the first and third lesson: the geography teacher had caught a cold" (47, 3)]. A few pages later Luzhin resolves to skip school, and on his way to his aunt's house to play chess, inopportunely crosses paths with the same teacher: "Po doroge emu popalsia kak paz uchitel' geografii, kotoryi, smorkaias' i kharkaia na khodu, ogromnymi shagami, s portfelem pod myshkoi, nessia po napravleniiu k shkole" (p. 26, 3) ["On the way he happened to run into the geography teacher, who with enormous strides, a briefcase under his arm, was rushing in the direction of school, blowing his nose and expectorating phlegm as he went" (p. 50, 3)]. In Chapter Four we learn via a later reminiscing Luzhin that he had once beaten the geography teacher at chess: "gde tikho, v ugolku, pochti nezametno dlia tovarishchei, on obrygal uchitelia geografii, izvestnogo liubitelia" (p. 37, 4) ["where in a corner, almost unnoticed by his schoolfellows, he had quiety beaten the geography teacher, a well-known amateur" (pp. 68-69, 4)], an incident recalled a page later ("uchitel' geografii, ostolbenevshii ot poluchennogo mata" [p. 38, 4]; "the geography teacher, petrified with the suddenness of the mate" (71, 4)]). Much later, in Chapter Twelve, to highlight the teacher's importance as a clue to the novel's structure, Luzhin's former classmate Petrishchev reminds us once again of the man: "Pomnite, pomnish', Luzhin, Valentin Ivanycha? Kak on s kartoi mira uraganom vletal v klass?" (p. 116, 12). No doubt because only the most careful reader will remember who Valentin Ivanych is, Nabokov makes the reference more explicit in the English version: "'Do you remember our geographer, Luzhin?" (p. 198, 12).5

The link, of course, is that this same geography teacher, Valentin Ivanych, is an instructor at the girls' school attended by Luzhin's bride-to-be. This we learn in Chapter Six as the future Mrs. Luzhin reminisces about her school days: "... i byl nekii uchitel' geografii, predpodavshii takzhe v muzhskom uchilishche" (p. 49, 6) ["and the geography teacher--who also taught in a boys' school" (p. 88, 6)]; there follows a list of traits (tuberculosis, tousled hair) that mark this geographer as being the very same Valentin Ivanych known to Luzhin and passed by him on that fateful day. To emphasize the potential imminence of an early meeting between Luzhin and his future bride, one page later Nabokov mentions offhandedly that the crippled Party buffoon who visits the girls school speaks at length not only about the lectures in sociology he would be giving, but "o skorom sliianii s muzhskoi shkoloi" (p. 50, 6) ["about an imminent merger with a boys' school" (p. 89, 6)]. A further, albeit tenuous, link between the geographer and Luzhin's wife is that the latter owns a copy of Kak sdelatsia iugom by the Swami Abedananda.6 Could this book possibly have been given to her by the geographer, who, we are told, was once the guest of the Dalai Lama?

The second prominent link between the two parties is the quiet classmate of Luzhin's who later loses an arm in the civil war and receives the St. George Cross for a dangerous reconnaissance. We first meet him in Chapter Two, the "edinstvennyi tikhonia v klasse," and then we are suddenly transported forward in time, to the twenties of the present century,7 to witness this same boy, now a war hero, trying to recall his former classmate Luzhin's face, where he is again described as "tikhonia" (a quiet person). The link to Mrs. Luzhin occurs in Chapter Six, where we learn that this same person was an intimate friend, perhaps even the romantic interest, of Luzhin's bride: the memory of a famous writer once glimpsed from a dacha in Finland "ostal'sia strannym obrazom riadom s russkim ofitserom, vposledstvii poteriavshim ruku v Krymu,--tishaishim, zastenchivym chelovekom, s kotorym ona letom igrala v tennis, zimoi begala na lyzhakh" (p. 50, 6) ["he remained in some strange manner beside the Russian officer who subsequently lost an arm in the Crimea during the civil war--a most shy and retiring boy with whom she used to play tennis in summer and ski in winter" (p. 90, 6)]. There are other links I haven't the time to tabulate here, but these should be sufficient to convince even the most skeptical reader that something was conspiring to bring Luzhin and his future wife together long before Luzhin senior passed away.

Let us return, finally, to the statement Nabokov makes in his English preface, and note that what we are seeking, and expected to work backwards from, is a mate, and this is precisely what Luzhin finds, in both senses of the word--a double entendre that Nabokov certainly intended.

Compiling these dry tidbits is exhausting business and I'm glad for the opportunity to move on to the gist of this chapter.

* * *

Laboriously tracking this or that minor character or theme can be a bracing game or a good academic exercise for students who lack the critical skills to appreciate literature's true depth, but, ultimately, real scholars are called upon to evaluate and then communicate as lucidly as possible the elusive links between life and art. Where did the young Sirin, a passable player and sometime composer of chess probems, find inspiration for his work? Commentators have claimed a whole list of chess masters as models for Luzhin, from the brilliant Pole Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961) to the gifted if erratic Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Alekhin (1892-1946, who challenged Cuban Grandmaster José Raul Capablanca for his title in 1927, just two years prior to the composition of Zashchita Luzhina), to Zemblan prodigy and grandmaster Lukacs Freivalds (b. 1905), to the eventually paranoid American Paul Morphy (d. 1884), to the German champion Bardeleben who committed suicide in 1924 by leaping from a window just like our poor Alexandr Ivanovich.8 These are all beguiling possibilities, some more beguiling than others, but my intent is not to track down models but to find the source of the book itself. What could possibly have motivated Nabokov to write a novel in which the protagonist goes chess mad?

To answer this question we must begin by taking two steps backwards, to 1925, and the composition of Mashen'ka (v. supra, Chapter Three). In the second chapter of that novel, the nameless narrator, whom we can accept--as we usually can in cases of first-person narrators summarily shielded from their creator's persona by a series of weak devices and translucent or transparent masks--as being more or less equivalent to the author, notes of Ganin that "Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he had even sold his shadow, as many of us have. In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness" (Mary, p. 9).

Nabokov's other biographer confirms that the young writer did indeed work as a film extra in the outskirts of Berlin sometime in the springs and summers of 1924 and 1925. And it is here, after we wander somewhat farther afield, into the history of Soviet film, that our detour will begin to bear fruit.

Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, although subsequently a puppet of his Bolshevik handlers, was a skilled director whose work was well-known to the Berlin rabble, then very much enamoured of moving pictures, as it was of almost everything new and frivolous. In 1924, Pudovkin orchestrated the formation of a joint German-Russian production and distribution company known as Derufa (from DEutscheRUssische Film Allianz), later Derussa. Though short-lived--the firm folded in 1929--Derufa was responsible for a number of highly successful films, including a whimsical short feature directed by Pudovkin entitled Shakhmatnaia goriachka (Chess Fever), sequences of which were filmed, according to film historian Kersten Schumacher, in a renovated barn outside Charlottenberg, a suburb of Berlin.

Chess Fever is the tale--intended to be amusing but which I found to be only marginally so--of a young suitor so obsessed by chess that he all but forgets about his fiancee, a rather horsey looking lady played by Anna Zemstov (whom the apparently none-too-choosey Pudovkin was to marry shortly after the film was made). The hero plays chess constantly, on checked tablecloths, on the floor at his lover's feet on a checked handkerchief, and mentally as he distractedly walks the snowy streets of what is supposed to be Moscow, nervously fingering a pocket-sized handbook of chess. His mania is shared by a number of the city's inhabitants, including a policeman about to chide a citizen for some minor pedestrian infraction, a plasterer of handbills, and two pharmacists, all of whom are shown engrossed in chess when they should be policing, or plastering, or pharming.

The 'production designer'--I have this term from a former colleague in the theatre department of the college where I worked until unfairly dismissed by a jealous and vindictive dean--of the film took great fun in embedding the decor with chessboard motifs, which are ubiquitous, appearing not only where one might reasonably expect them, but also almost everywhere else: as the pattern of the hero's socks and sweater, on a tablecloth, in the icing of a cake, in the arrangement of dark and light objects in a storefront window, and even, as shown below, and akin to the patterns that grow to gradually overcome Luzhin's chess-obsessed mind, the black and white squares of a courtyard's flagstones. (Note the hero's harried look, and his shadow--compare the image of Luzhin at the end of Chapter Seven, in which his shadow falls upon the floor within "an enormous square of moonlight" [p. 117, 7].)

from Shakhmatnaia goriachka

Sirin, his thin face and high forehead heavily waxed, his dark brows further darkened with greasepaint, appears briefly as an extra in an early scene in which a chess tournament is depicted. Shots of various competitors--among them recognizable masters such as Capablanca--are intercut with shots of the wildly enthusiastic audience, in the midst of which can be seen, over-emoting with classic silent-era film hyberbole of gesture and gaze, the hero, and very high up and to the left, nearly at the edge of the frame, an anomalously indifferent-looking Sirin, staring straight ahead as if posing for a portrait, seemingly unmoved by the rapturous ooh-ing and aah-ing and sleeve-tugging and pointing going on all around him.

Not only was Shakhmatnaia goriachka the point de départ for Zashchita Luzhina, but the novel's late subplot--the prodigal Valentinov's intention to cast Luzhin in a chess film--is derived directly from the cameo in the film of Capablanca, who plays himself and saves the lovers' romance by nearly running off with the fiancee (an implausible eventuality, to say the least, given the contrast of the Grandmaster's soft features and mild ways with the financee's rather repellent, big-boned femininity).

* * *

An acquaintance of mine, with whom I occasionally play chess, or rather used to play chess before adopting the nomadic and solitary existence I now lead, claims that Zashchita Luzhina is patterned after a game of chess, and that the game can be precisely summarized as follows:

1. d2-d4 d7-d5 2. c2-c4 e7-e6 3. Nb1-c3 d5xc4 4. Ng1-f3 a7-a6 5. a2-a4 c7-c5 6. e2-e3 Ng8-f6 7. Bf1xc4 Nb8-c6 8. O-O Qd8-c7 9. Qd1-e2 Bf8-e7 10. Bc1-d2 O-O 11. Ra1-c1 Rf8-d8 12. Bc4-d3 c5xd4 13. e3xd4 Bc8-d7 14. Nc3-e4 Ra8-c8 15. Nf3-e5 Bd7-e8 16. Ne4xf6 Be7xf6 17. Bd2-c3 Nc6xd4 18. Qe2-e4 Nd4-f5 19. g2-g4 Bf6xe5 20. Qe4xe5 Rd8xd3 21. Qe5xc7 Rc8xc7 22. g4xf5 e6xf5 23. a4-a5 f7-f6 24. Rf1-d1 Rc7-d7 25. Rd1xd3 Rd7xd3 26. Rc1-e1 Be8-c6 27. Re1-e3 Rd3-d1 28. Re3-e1 Rd1-d7 29. f2-f4 Kg8-f7 30. Kg1-f2 Bc6-e4 31. Re1-e2 g7-g5 32. Re2-d2 Be4-d5 33. Kf2-g3 Kf7-e6 34. Rd2-e2 Bd5-e4 35. Re2-d2 Rd7-g7 36. f4xg5 Rg7xg5 37. Kg3-f4 Rg5-g4 38. Kf4-e3 Rg4-h4 39. Rd2-f2 Be4-d5 40. Bc3-d4 Rh4-e4 41. Ke3-d3 Bd5-c6 42. b2-b4 Bc6-b5 43. Kd3-c3 f5-f4 44. Bd4-c5 Ke6-f5 45. Kc3-d2 h7-h5 46. Kd2-c3 Bb5-e2 47. Rf2-g2 f4-f3 48. Rg2-g7 Be2-b5 49. Rg7-g3 Re4-c4 50. Kc3-d2 Kf5-e4 51. Bc5-b6 Rc4xb4 52. Rg3-h3 Rb4-b2 53. Kd2-c3 f3-f2 54. Rh3-e3 Ke4-f4 55. Re3-e6 Kf4-f5
I hope I have accurately transcribed his barely legible napkin scribble. In support of his argument, which I concede I do not fully grasp, he points out that the fourth move is made by a Knight--Nabokov's khod konem in Chapter Four, and that White, after a long sequence of desperate moves, finally loses, mated by Black's rook, or 'tower'--presumably the tower out of which our dear big unfortunate Luzhin, like "a white bearskin with spread paws," ultimately leaps.9


1. In English, Chess Fever (1926), a film by Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin (1893-1953); for more on Sirin's involvement with the film and its influence on the genesis of Zashchita Luzhina, v. infra, or rather, since this is a footnote, supra.

2. Compare Russian shakh, Zemblan skakk. Even the most erudite Shakespeare scholars seem to willfully overlook the etymology of their man's name: in Zemblan, a chessplayer is a skakspiller. De Vere's nom de plume has nothing to do with spears or the shaking thereof.

3. All Russian citations are from Zashchita Luzhina in Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh (Moskva: Izd-vo Pravda, 1990), t. 2. All English citations from The Defenestration (New York: Putnam, c1964, reprinted 1980). In both instances, page and chapter numbers follow the citations.

4. Note that this is a restatement, by his creator, of the problem Luzhin poses for himself at the end of chapter 12: "...i postepenno emu stalo kazat'sia, chto kombinatsiia eshche slozhnee, chem on dumal sperva .. chto nuzhno iskat' glubzhe, vernut'sia nazad, pereigrat' vse khody zhizni ot bolezni do bala" (p. 118, 12).

5. The proper name Valentin Ivanovich is excised from the English version, perhaps, as one commentator has speculated, because it created an undesirable resonance with the name Valentinov, Luzhin's opportunistic 'agent.'

6. Abedananda, Swami. Kak sdelatsia iugom, tr. from the English (Berlin: Izd-vo O. Diakova, 19--?). The title, rendered literally into English, would be How Yoga Is Done. (Not many people know that yoga, generally attributed to the emaciated but uniformly cheerful fakirs of the Indian subcontinent, actually owes several of its trickier moves to a variety of Zemblan calisthenics known colloquially as frickenbender.)

7. Such narrative movements forward and backward in time, inexplicable and clumsily handled in ZL, will later become a hallmark of the Master's mature style.

8. The model for Turati, Luzhin's formidable Italian opponent at the time of his first mental collapse, has proven equally difficult to identify. Some have seen an echo in his name of the Neo-Romantic master Richard Reti (1889-1929) who has the distinction, if that's the right word, of having died in 1929, the year ZL was composed. My guess is that Nabokov borrowed the name from Emilio Turati, whose article "Faunula Valderiensis nell'alta Valle del Gesso (Alpi Marittime)" appeared in the Bullettino delle Società Entomologica Italiana a few years prior to ZL's appearance. Nabokov was in the Pyrenees to hunt butterflies and certainly knew the entomologist Turati's article on the fauna of the Maritime Alps--one of his, VN's, favorite hunting grounds for those bugs.

9. I have made it my custom, or perhaps I haven't yet but should have, of pointing out particularly fine passages in each book discussed. Zashchita Luzhina has many gems, but the sentence I find most lovely is near the end of Chapter Eight, "Proplyl blednyi ogon' i rassypalsia s pechal'nym shelestom," a line I find inexplicably moving.

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