Chess Stories 2
My second in a series of blogs about chess in fiction literature is the classic short novel “The Defense” by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov is most famous for the controversial novel “Lolita”, but this, his third novel, is compelling for fans of chess.
In his forward Nabokov confesses that his writing of this book is like the making of chess moves: “Thus toward the end of Chapter Four an unexpected move is made by me in a corner of the board.” He also tells us that, “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. In point of fact, Luzhin has been found lovable even by those who understand nothing about chess and/or detest all my other books.”
It is the story of a boy Luzhin, who seems lost in the world, until he discovers the one thing he is good at: chess. After discovering the game, it becomes the lens through which he views his own life and the world at large. Luzhin rises to the ranks of top players, but his physical and emotional strength become exhausted in the process. The Defense explores numerous themes including the connection between chess and mental illness. As the book reaches its climax and Luzhin sees life around him closing in like a well played chess attack, he must discover a defense. In the end he finds a defense for himself and we can empathize with his tragic position even if we ourselves might play different moves.
In 2000 this book has been made into a movie: “The Luzhin Defense” starring John Turturro and Emily Watson. The movie captures the spirit of the book although numerous details including the ending have been changed.