Top critical review
on 13 December 2015
Nabokov’s prose is like an elegant, highly polished veneer. A sumptuous glaze that radiates quality and substance. I particularly enjoy his body of short stories - shimmering gems of multi-faceted detail. Here though, I have to confess, I rather slid off the slippery surface of melting words.
Luzhin is a big lump. Tormented at school, neglected at home, turning out a sullen, unmannerly sort. An unattractive subject, let’s face it. He lacks charm, vigour, purpose. He just stumbles into chess and becomes good at it.
Chess is difficult. And chess is difficult to write about. Because, ultimately, however imaginative and creative the experience of playing chess is, it is fundamentally a technical game and its beauty remains in the head or on the board. Words really can’t do it justice. Not even Nabokov’s. I think perhaps Nabokov himself realised it. So the chess just remains vague and faintly romanticised.
Then Nabokov, unavoidably I suppose, senses the grand metaphor - the complicated ‘combinations’ of life v the complicated combinations of chess. The defence mechanisms we dream up in life v the famous defence systems in chess. It’s really just child’s play. (I don’t think Nabokov’s self-indulgent Foreward particularly helps: admiring his own clunky efforts to assimilate the two worlds of life and chess; picking out his subtle, magnificent descriptive analogies, in case you miss them.)
I was disappointed and bored by ’The Luzhin Defense’, and completely mystified by the unconditional adoration of Luzhin's young wife, by the way. (A silly male fantasy of Nabokov’s.) It’s a story that reminds me of amateur chess games where familiar moves are played mechanically without careful analysis - they just seem, superficially, right. Yet invariably result in defeat.