The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov
This particular book is an excellent one, and is evidence of the way that Nabokov manages to take characters who are highly sympathetic and then puts them through misery. There are some authors that like to make life immensely difficult on people who are decent, and Nabokov is certainly one of those people. One of the qualities of the author’s novels that has long alarmed me is the way that so many of his characters are Nathanish, something that was especially the case with Pnin but something that has continued throughout his other novels as well. In this novel the Nathanish character happens to be the somewhat obsessed chess player Luzhin, who is viewed quite harshly by some of the people and who is likely not going to be well-understood by those readers who aren’t fond of chess. Fortunately for us, the author is fond of chess and fond of the way that the skills one uses in chess can be useful for dealing with mental health, and for the reminder that many of those who are deeply intelligent in some areas may have corresponding weaknesses in other areas, as is definitely the case here.
The story itself is a fairly straightforward one, at least by this author’s standards. We look at the life of a young boy who becomes obsessed by chess and finds himself deeply unpopular to the point of being an outcast with his peers. In light of his status as a chess prodigy noted for his aggressive and skillful moves and his lack of social popularity and social skills (think of him like a Bobby Fischer or a Magnus Carlsen or someone of that kind), he finds himself popular in certain circles but ends up suffering from mental illness, and his fiance (and then wife) figures out that in order to preserve his life he has to stop playing chess after a mental breakdown. Unfortunately for her efforts (as his wife’s parents, especially the mother, are not as sympathetic to her), there are plenty of other people who want to put Luzhin in danger and Luzhin is unable to recover to any great degree or completely avoid an interest in chess and chess problems, to the point where he meets an inevitable but tragic end–which I will not reveal as it is worth reading for oneself. Suffice it to say that this book does diffuse warmth and that its protagonist is genuinely sympathetic.
It seems strange that a book that is about a generally aggressive chess player, and one who is clearly within the realms of the elite grandmasters, would be considered a defense. The question is, what is being defended. The protagonist seems somewhat unaware of his mental illness, to the point where he even comes off as a bit paranoid (although given the fact that he is a Russian, this is not too surprising). One wonders how much of the protagonist relates to the author and to his own concerns about various matters relating to politics. There is no question that Russians had a lot to be paranoid about given the politics and geopolitics of the 20th century, and this novel was one of the earlier novels written by the author before he moved to America and before he became famous. It is a bit unclear that a novel about an insane chess player would have been enough to make him famous, because it does not appear as if many people have connected this novel to the mental illness and the chess community, but it is certainly a connection that many people would be able to make in retrospect, now that this novel has been translated into English.