Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Avanti Book Review

Due to the persistent obsolescence of this platform, I am hereby unveiling a renovation project. Starting now I shall attempt to write a review of approximately 500 words on each book I read and to post it here. The intention is to foster conversation, practice industry-standard reviewing technique, and help myself remember what on earth I've been reading lately.

The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov

English translation, 1964, 272 pp.

For a novel about a chess grandmaster, written by a notorious composer of chess problems, with a title derived from chess terminology, it is startling how little actual chess takes place in this book. Chess is the thematic anchor and supplies Nabokov with all manner of compelling imagery, but rather than a conventional story punctuated by dramatic, plot-furthering chess matches, the game functions as a mental preoccupation rather than a tangible activity. The titular Luzhin defense never even materializes, and we get the sense that it is not chess which drives Luzhin mad, but instead the emptiness of the parts of life without chess.

By far the most effective sections of the book are those which concern Luzhin's sad and lonely childhood. Nabokov is of course a consummate prose artist, and even in translation his skills are ostentatiously on display here: observe the economy with which he fills the background with a destructive extramarital affair, the tiny intimate details of interminable school recesses spent alone. When on the first page Nabokov describes "a swift country summer consisting in the main of three smells: lilac, new-mown hay, and dry leaves" the reader immediately recalls why he selected this slender volume off the shelves rather than a doorstopper by some cliche-ridden hack. I often find Nabokov's structural organization a bit loose and messy (and here is no exception), but he seems to have been utterly incapable of writing a boring sentence.

Most accounts of the book (including the dust-jacket blurb, and Nabokov's own introduction) bill the novel as an account of a gifted man driven mad by his genius, based a bit loosely on the German grandmaster Curt von Bardeleben, who Nabokov knew personally. It reads much more like an account of a man suffering from Asperger Syndrome, who takes refuge from an unhappy childhood in chess. Luzhin is not a normal boy before he discovers chess, nor is there any indication he would have lived a normal life without his chess obsession. It does not seem that it is chess which makes him unbalanced, but rather his psychological limitations which made him a chess genius.

If indeed the book is reducible to an idea, it seems to be about the inability of Luzhin (a quiet, sensitive person) to deal with the coarse realities of the world. His schoolmates are malicious thugs, his parents remote and self-absorbed, and once he envelops himself in a chess career, he faces financial ruin, unscrupulous management, and finally a well-meaning woman who thinks she knows what is best for him. Chess manages to see him through all but the last, when finally the world (interesting, the well-meaning but non-comprehending manifestation of it) overcomes his defenses. Without the protection of chess (the one thing which was genuinely his, and the one thing which defined him) he is destroyed. This is a variation on the genius-vs.-society theme which Nabokov has used elsewhere, though with the distance generated by Luzhin's obvious mental defects and objectivity of third-person narration. This last is an important point: rather than letting the unbalanced and misunderstood genius speak in his own (demented) voice as in Lolita, Luzhin is held up as an object for our consideration rather than making us identify with and become complicit in his cracked worldview. The Defense is, like any Nabokov novel, a beautiful work of art, but compared to his later output, it is a distinctly limited, mildly misdirected, vaguely unfocused production.

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