The Defense, by Nabokov
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1st English edition cover
|Original title||Защита Лужина (Zashchita Luzhina)|
|Translator||Vladimir Nabokov and Michael Scammell|
|Publisher||G. P. Putnam's Sons|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
 Plot summary
The plot concerns the title character, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin. As a boy, he is considered unattractive, withdrawn, and an object of ridicule by his classmates. One day, when a guest comes to his father's party, he is asked whether he knows how to play chess. Embarrassed, he says no, but this encounter serves as his motivation to pick up chess. He skips school and visits his aunt's house to learn the basics. He quickly becomes a great player, enrolling in local competitions and rising in rank as a chess player. His talent is prodigious and he attains the level of a Grandmaster in less than ten years. As his obsession with chess grows, he becomes socially detached and physically unhealthy. At a resort, he meets a young girl (his "Queen" as it were), never named in the novel, whose interest he captures. They become romantically involved, and Luzhin eventually proposes to her.
Things turn for the worst when he is pitted against Turati, a grandmaster from Italy, in a competition to determine who would face the current world champion. Before and during the game, Luzhin has a mental breakdown, which climaxes when his carefully planned defense against Turati fails in the first moves, and the resulting game fails to produce a winner. When the game is suspended Luzhin wanders into the city in a state of complete detachment from reality.
He is returned home and brought to a rest home, where he eventually recovers. His doctor manages to convince him that chess was the reason for his downfall, and Luzhin, aided by his fiancée, decides to abandon all thoughts of chess.
Slowly however, chess begins to find its way back into his thoughts (aided by incidental occurrences, such as an old pocket chessboard found in a pocket, or an impossible chess game in a movie). Luzhin begins to see his life in vague chess terms, seeing continuing repetitions of 'moves' leading to his slide back in to a life of chess obsession. He desperately tries to find the move that will allow him to avert this scenario, but feels it growing closer and closer.
Eventually, after an encounter with his old chess mentor, Valentinov, Luzhin realizes that he must "abandon the game," as he puts it to his wife (who is desperately trying to communicate with him). He locks himself in the bathroom (his wife and several dinner guests banging on the door). He climbs out a window, letting himself fall to his death. The last line of the (translated) novel reads: "The door was burst in. 'Aleksandr Ivanovich, Aleksandr Ivanovich,' roared several voices. But there was no Aleksandr Ivanovich."
 Major characters
Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin: The protagonist of the novel. As a child, he is misunderstood by his parents and mistreated by his peers, and is generally sullen in complexion and demeanor. He has no friends. As an adult, he is corpulent, socially inept, and absent-minded. He has a nervous breakdown during his match with the Italian grandmaster Turati.
Luzhin's wife: She marries Luzhin after much protest from her mother and father. She is initially drawn to the air of mystery that surrounds the chess master and feels compassion for his social ineptitude. She takes on a motherly role in her marriage with Luzhin, and makes it her occupation to amuse him and keep his mind off of his unhealthy obsession with chess. She remains nameless in the novel. In the 2001 movie adaptation, she is named Natalia Katkova.
Leo Valentinov: A decent chess player and confidence man who manages Luzhin's career for more than a decade. He uses the young Luzhin as he sees fit, without much regard for Luzhin's personal development, and abandons him when he ceases to be a child prodigy. At the end, he tracks Luzhin to his apartment in Berlin, hoping to break Luzhin's concentration in favor of the Italian champion Turati.
Turati: The flamboyant Italian grandmaster of chess. Luzhin has a nervous breakdown midway through the game with Turati.
Oleg Sergeyevich Smirnovski: Theosophist and proprietor of a liquor factory, he plays a minor role in Luzhin's affairs.
The character of Luzhin is based on Curt von Bardeleben, a chess master Nabokov knew personally. Bardeleben ended his life by jumping out of a window. Nabokov said of this novel: "Of all my Russian books, The Defense contains and diffuses the greatest "warmth" – which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract chess is supposed to be." He later described this novel as the "story of a chess player who was crushed by his genius"
 Movie adaption
 External links