Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Book Review: Nabokov's Luzhin Defense

 

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It took me 9 months to finish this book but that's not terribly unusual. Anything written by a master like Nabokov can be taken up like a special chocolate your traveling cousin brought you from overseas, kept in the freezer and partaken once in a while for an instant of exceptional flavor. I would only read 5 pages at a sitting and I had other books and magazines vying for attention. Nabokov's writing style will never disappoint a careful reader, unless perhaps the translation is weak (and you're not likely to come across that problem if you live in an English, German, or Russian-speaking land, for he lived in many countries and translated his own work). The story revolves around a boy who takes up chess and becomes obsessed by the game, easily chosen over a community of peers who have little to offer and mostly pick on him for his appearance and demeanor. There is an obvious antagonist in Valentinov who takes Luzhin around to coffeehouses in great cities around the world, setting up matches, promoting him widely and checking him into hotels and pulling him by the collar without any heart for how he may feel about his insular life as a budding chess master. Valentinov reminded me of Elvis infamous 'doctor' always in recess with his bag full of 'medication'. Luzhin naturally decompensates under the rigors of traveling and the hyper focused spotlight of competition, performance, and obsession with the game. You could call his nervous breakdown the Luzhin 'Defense' as it ultimately acts as a defense mechanism to protect his ego from being swallowed whole in this world. The remainder of the novel is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (another book I am reading very slowly lol) as both protagonists are half-baked moving about with watchful eyes of worried loved ones. Line by line I certainly wasn't feeling drawn into the 'suspense'. This was a character driven book. Clearly not one of Nabokov's most popular. It is a touching study of what it must feel like to exist inside the mind and heart of a man who was fated to play the part of a pawn on the chess board of life.

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