May 9, 2011

Luzhin Defence

1st Edition (Russian)
I have just finished reading the book "The Luzhin Defence" by Vladimir Nabokov...a chilling story of obsession and madness. As a young boy, Luzhin was unattractive, distracted, withdrawn, grumpy - an enigma to his parents and an object of ridicule to his classmates. He takes up chess as a refuge from the anxiety of his everyday life. His talent is prodigious and he rises to the rank of grandmaster but at a cost:  in Luzhin's obsessive mind, the game of chess gradually replaces the world of reality. His own world falls apart during a crucial championship match, when the intricate defense he has devised pales  under his opponent's unexpected and unpredictable lines of assault.

The book was adapted to film in 2000, directed by Marleen Gorris.

The Luzhin Defense is set in Como, a gorgeous northern Italian lakeside town located at the foot of the Alps. The year is 1929, and Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is a talented Russian chess player travelling to Como by train for the World Chess Championship. Also on his train is Natalia (Emily Watson), who is journeying to Como to meet her mother Vera (Geraldine James) at their posh lakeside hotel. Vera wants Natalia to settle down with the right - meaning rich - man, and duly tries to set her up with Jean (Christopher Thompson), a French count. However, Natalia instead sets her sights on Luzhin, who returns her affections, and the two embark on an unusual and unpredictable love affair.

"There is a pattern emerging!" cries the eccentric chess genius Alexander Luzhin. "I must keep track - every second!" To which the woman he loves can only reply, "It sounds like such a lonely battle." It is the 1920s in Italy, and they've met at a chess tournament, where Luzhin has the ability to become world champion, if his demons do not drive him mad. As anyone who has played chess knows, the game is utterly absorbing, driving out thoughts of anything else. The better you play, the deeper it becomes, until finally, among the very strongest players, it becomes an abyss. Some fall in. Where is Bobby Fischer?" - wonders Roger Ebert.

In response to this common misconception, I will only say: "The Luzhin Defence" is less about chess than it is about the existence of a person obsessively devoted to a single pursuit! Anything in excess is excessive, no matter the profession, hobby or interest that one might have. Besides, Luzhin was already a bit "challenged" since his early years.

The part which I can't argue with is that chess can develop unexpected passions, so strong and beautiful that people can't help themselves but play even more...and then we have a problem. Like the one underneath, depicted from the movie:)

One of the most intense moments came when Luzhin faced Dottore Turati, an Italian Grandmaster played by Fabio Sartor. Both had won their respective groups and would face off in the grand finalé… the winner would be the World Champion. 

Can you help Luzhin win with Black?

As Luzhin calculated the position, variations flashed about the board. He seemed to be searching for something more than a move… perhaps answers to his life. In the film Luzhin's final moves were made by his fiancee - the tournament had been paused after Luzhin had a nervous breakdown.

I suppose that one cannot help but to feel empathy for the main character...even if the book is not my favourite one, I would say that it's worth reading. Nabokov succeeded to capture in a few scenes, describing with a great accuracy, the disruptive thoughts which a Grandmaster might face at least once during his career.

You can read a detailed review, written by none other than GM Nigel Short, which appeared in THE SPECTATOR on 2nd September 2000. 

"Chess can seriously damage your health"
by Nigel Short
                                        THE LUZHIN DEFENSE
                                         By Vladimir Nabokov
            "A Russian novel about a mad chess-player? It does not sound very promising. One can sympathise with the initial reluctance of publishers to touch a work which would eventually take a full 35 years to find its way into the English language. By then the fame or notoriety of Lolita had guaranteed a ready market for anything penned by the author. Likewise, profit rather than literary appreciation is likely to have been the motivation for this Penguin reprint, which coincides with the release of an Anglo-Italian film of the book.
            Perhaps I am not the best person to review poor Luzhin. It is not that I am prejudiced against the author – on the contrary, I find Nabokov an extraordinarily gifted writer. However, the subject matter is, for one who has spent his life immersed in studying the intricacies of chess sometimes to the detriment of normal existence, deeply unsettling. The novel is also uncannily prescient.
            A while ago I was dining with colleagues at a tournament when Lembit Oll, an Estonian grandmaster of an age and a psychiatric history not dissimilar to Luzhin’s, offered an opinion about the leading Ukrainian GM “Ivanchuk”, he said, “will never become a great player”. “Why do you think that?” someone asked. “Because he doesn’t understand anything about life”, came the emphatic reply.
            We burst out laughing, a little cruelly perhaps – not that we disagreed with his view, but at the irony of the remark coming from one so deeply disturbed himself. Lembit looked bewildered. Within the year, Oll would fling himself to his death from his fourth-floor apartment. Luzhin did it from the third. By 1929, when Nobokov began writing the book, there were already ample examples of mentally ill chessplayers from whom to draw inspiration. Today one could produce encyclopedias of case-histories.
            Characterisation and description are the strengths of this novel which lacks much of a plot. The unsociable and academically unsuccessful boy discovers chess more or less by accident. This is a godsend as it enables him to escape into a realm of fantasy. He makes rapid progress at the game and later we find him touring Europe, living the peripatetic existence of a master. Critically, he collapses at a tournament during a game against his brilliant Italian rival, Turati. This breakdown marks the end of his active career. On recovery, he is advised to avoid chess.
            It is all too real to be enjoyable for this particular reviewer and, in my advanced age, pleasure and not enlightenment is what I seek. The intermittently institutionalized Mexican champion Carlos Torre once described the strains of top-level chess as “maddening”. The ten times British champion, Dr. Jonathan Penrose (who is, fortunately, far from being batty), collapsed during an Olympiad. And only a fortnight ago Vladimir Bagirov dropped dead, practically at the board. This ostensibly tranquil game imposes hidden pressures of which Nabokov, as an enthusiastic amateur, would have been well aware, which was perhaps why he himself preferred the less stressful but more arcane discipline of chess-problem-solving.
            So awkward, clumsy, poorly dressed and inarticulate is our dear Luzhin that it is a wonder that any woman should find him attractive, and yet a romance of sorts, and even a marriage, eventually occur. His wife, a plain-looking Russian émigré of good family, can only have wed him of spite for her irritating mother. Or perhaps she simply took pity on him, so hopeless is he in all matters practical. Again, I cannot help being reminded, wicked though that may be, of one or two of my colleagues, who against all odds somehow enter into matrimony. Literally being unable to knot a tie or tie a shoelace is apparently no impediment to conjoining with the fairer sex.
            Back to the book, which, it should be admitted, drifts a bit listlessly towards the end with the largely irrelevant description of émigré parties: a renewed acquaintance with Valentinov, Luzhin’s former manager, apparently tips his mind, which anyway has been veering irresistibly towards chess (throughout his enforced abstinence Luzhin has kept a pocket set hidden in the lining of his jacket). The flood of emotions leads him home where he makes the final move from an upper window to the courtyard below.
            It is no surprise that in 1964 the New Yorker should have allowed this story great space in two successive issues. It has an irregular chronology, darting forwards and backwards, but as with so many of Nabokov’s literary experiments it works surprisingly well. Indeed, as a bleak portrayal of an unhinged chess player one cannot find better, but then again, perhaps the subject is not everyone’s taste."


  1. Beautiful review. I would like to read it as it reminds me of Stefan Zweig's Chess Novel (Schachnovelle in German). Please read this book and then let me know how it compares.

  2. Thanks for your suggestion, I will surely read it!

  3. Nuvela lui Zweig a aparut relativ recent in traducere in romana,Obsedatul,intr-o carte Șahul in literatura....Iar Apararea Lujin-film-a fost difuzat odata la TV,acum un an sau doi.....
    Ambele sunt exceptionale!

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