While reading “The Luzhin’s Defense”, I often found myself hesitant to formulate a definite moral judgement towards Mrs. Luzhin. Although I was aware Nabokov did not necessarily want to create relatable or likable characters, I
realized that I was harboring contrasting feelings when reading about her.
On one side, I tried to empathize with her situation, acknowledging her as the only character in the book eager to help Luzhin out of a sense of genuine compassion/pity rather than out of self-interest. However, the more I read, the more she appeared to me flat and redundant. And this made me think that she represents for Luzhin the two-dimensional world he wants to escape, with her marriage, her parents and her travel plans.
Going back to the scene where Luzhin and his future wife meet for the first time, there are two things that captured my attention: firstly, this quote:”And suddenly there appeared from no one knew where a person who was so unexpected and so familiar, and who spoke with a voice that seemed to have been sounding mutely all his life and now had
suddenly burst through the usual murk.[…] He noticed with surprise that he was actually talking to her” (99). I am quite sure this is one of the first times Luzhin engages in conversation with someone, and I think that the beginning of his relation with Mrs. Luzhin represents a paramount shift in the novel’s narrative. Before that, Luzhin had isolated himself from the alienating real world, and this had prevented him from losing focus on his ideal world of chess. However, Mrs. Luzhin brings him back to the real oppressive world by talking to him, then deciding to marry him, and then by restricting him from playing chess.
Secondly, this quote:”Trying to unravel in his mind this impression of something very familiar he recalled quite irrelevantly but with stunning clarity the face of a bare-shouldered, black-stockinged young prostitute, standing in a lighted doorway in a dark side street in a nameless town” (99). This is a comparison with Phryne, whose reproduction in the Luzhin’s house was “particularly vivid as a result of the intensified light” (40). The fact that the first impression Luzhin has of her future wife is thus a 2-D painting, which I found rather interesting? Was this Nabokov’s way to flatten Mrs.Luzhin, making her a two-dimension “less pretty” copy of a “Turkish beauty” in Luzhin’s mind?
Valentine’s Day reminder:Luzhin and Luzhina’s love story is not one to be emulated.
I tried to watch this adaptation starring John Turturro. I really did. It was just bad. Really bad. I wonder what Nabokov would have thought of it. I really would have liked to see a way more abstract movie that involved trippy portrayals of Luzhin’s mind, but this just felt like a period drama romance that made all the wrong moves.
Having discussed a bit the nature of life as a Russian émigré in class, I thought it would be interesting to delve a little deeper into how the characters in The Luzhin Defense conceive of Berlin.
Upon arriving in his (at this point in the novel, future) in-laws Berlin apartment, the future Luzhina’s father greets Luzhin with “Well, here you are in our good old Berlin” (121). The phrase “our good old Berlin” is odd on a couple of levels. First, the use of the possessive “our” sticks out simply by virtue of the fact that they’re from Russia. Second, “good old” would seem to fly in the face of the fact that they’ve decorated their apartment in a most poshlust manner to reflect their Russian-ness; perhaps the linguistic terming of the city as “our good old Berlin” is an attempt to overcome feelings of alienation inherent in émigré life.
When the lady from Russia comes to visit the (now married) Luzhins, one of the first things she says is: “So this is your Berlin…” (210). Here we have, similar to the scene quoted above, a Russian, who, unlike the scene above, is not an emigre, and who ascribes ownership of Berlin to the Luzhins.
Between the passages there exists a sharp dichotomy between emigres who now claim Berlin as their home, and those who never left the mother country–for even Luzhin’s in-laws have replaced Russia with mere kitschy images of it, and now own, in a manner of speaking Berlin.
So, to whom does Berlin belong, and what are the implications of that ownership?
Luzhin is a character who, outside of chess, has very little agency in his life. He seems to be like a chess piece himself, shoved around by his parents, Valentinov, his wife, and of course the grandmaster Nabokov, alternately moving in lines and circles. I think part of why the Turati game tips Luzhin over the edge and into his downward spiral is because it diminishes his power in the only realm in which he’s truly been able to exercise it. This made me wonder why Nabokov decided to call the novel “The Luzhin Defense” when “the defense Luzhin had worked out had proved an utter waste” (136). If this defense ended up falling flat, is there a different defense in the novel that could explain the title? Or is the point to highlight that Luzhin is ultimately defenseless, and the only way he is able to retaliate against the powers that constrain him is by jumping out of the window at the end?
The dichotomy between life and description of Russia and life as an émigré is a striking comparison that I feel has not been discussed yet in class. I move our attention to pages 104, 105 in chapter six: Nabokov writes about Luzhina parent’s apartment being a “daubed, artificial Russia” in attempt to replicating ” strict Russian style” (104) in contrast to their “quiet St. Petersburg house, where the furniture and other things had their own soul,”(105). This contrast is not only present here but earlier in the chapter where Luzhina’s winter holiday’s in Finland being ” something more Russia than Russia”(89). It is very interesting that even though Nabokov strives for us to tread his text not as a commentary on real life but as an artificial world ready for consumption, he still gives such pointed commentary of émigré life. It’s possible that such is a blatant show of nationalism and a jab at German poshlust’, or that he used Russia and authentic Russian-ness as a metafictional device, especially when most of the narrative and the conflict happening outside of Russia.
Useful if you’re looking for particular passages or words.
Now also posted as an .rtf file on Sakai.
Hi everyone, here are the photos of the timeline we made last week. Sorry for the delay in posting!
We talked a bit on Thursday about Luzhin as a character who is born, borne, and reborn. In light of this, I want to draw your attention to the beginning of Chapter 11, where Luzhin is being “renovated,” i.e., being fitted with a new suit. We will do some close reading of this passage in class, so linger on it a bit before coming in, please!