V. Nabokov was a genius who wrote like an angel (but he was aware of both traits). I'm always impressed with his playful and total command of English, slang and all. This novel, about a chess genius, is one of his earliest. I'll happily turn to all the rest, having previously read only "Lolita" and "Pnin."
Luzhin, the hapless grandmaster born before World War I, has no inner life. He hides from people on all social occasions, dresses in rags, and lives a reclusive existence until an unnamed Russian expatriate in Paris takes pity on him and marries him over her parents' objections. The modern reader naturally thinks of Bobby Fischer with his antisocial behavior and tantrums, but Luzhin is more tortured, and actually has a psychotic break at the point of adjournment of his world championship match with an Italian challenger who favored hypermodern flank openings (perhaps modeled after Richard Reti, another player of the 1920s whose achievements were cut short by an early death).
Nabokov not only played chess, but composed "retrograde" problems of the most difficult kind, in which the solution requires proof of the move that must have preceded the position shown in the diagram. His description of Luzhin's hallucinations is harrowing, but his shimmering vocabulary and sentence structure puts him at the top of his craft as a writer. One of the most remarkable things about Nabokov was his brilliant, penetrating, power of observation. A few examples:
"That special snow of oblivion, abundant and soundless snow, covered his recollection with an opaque white mist."
"...and his wife's voice persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa."
"He became engrossed in the fantastical misbehavior of numbers and the wayward frolics of geometric lines....He lingered long in those heavens where earthly lines go out of their mind."
"[Chess] combinations [are] like melodies. You know, I simply hear the moves."
"The urns that stood on the stone pedestals at the four corners of the terrace threatened one another across their diagonals."
"Maples were casting their lively shade."
"The typewriter, whose keys were all watching him with their pupils of reflected light..."
"A half-opened drawer from which, snake-like, a green red-spotted tie came crawling."
"The modern urge to set senseless records..."
"Not once did he attempt to support a collapsing conversation."
"He looked at the moon, which was tremblingly disengaging itself from some black foliage."
"A village girl was eating an apple and her black shadow on the fence was eating a slightly larger apple."
[Champagne bottle] "A bucket with a gold-knobbed glass Pawn sticking out of it."
"The tailor jabbed pins into him, which he took with astonishing deftness from his mouth, where they seemed to grow naturally."
"A burst of military music approached in orange waves."
"A bookcase crowned with a broad-shouldered, sharp-faced Dante in a bathing cap."
"A candle whose flame darted about, maddened at being carried out of the warm church into the unknown darkness, and finally died of a heart attack at the corner of the street where a gust of wind bore down from the Neva."
"Chairs moved with the sounds of throats being cleared.
"[As the cab moved] the soft shadow made by his nose circled slowly over his cheek and then his lip, and again it was dark until another light went by."
"In the entrance hall hung a condemned jacket."
"Attendants were accepting things and carrying them away like sleeping children."
"Someone closed the door so the music would not catch cold."
"The helpless mercury, under the influence of its surroundings, fell ever lower and lower."
"The bedroom was adorned by a bas-relief done in charcoal and a confidential conversation
between a cone and a pyramid."
"The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of the rapacious vacuum cleaner. It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing: the other things are jealous and do not allow a homeless object escaping pursuit, into a single cranny."
An amazing masterpiece.