Getting on to Nabokov’s third novel

When does a master become a master? I don’t consider this the question behind my single-author-projects, not by a long shot, but of course it’s something you’re watching, noticing, waiting for. It makes me think of Salieri—is genius like this written on the face, and if so, from when? I mean, written on the page. Of the first novel. Or whatever.

With Melville, I put it differently. Amateur Reader did a wonderful examination, and the question seems clearly to be, “When did Melville become Melville?” But for Nabokov, well, he wasn’t very modest, and neither are his blurbs.

A lot of what we’ll come to think of as solid Nabokovian elements are there from the beginning, as I’ve noted in posts on his first two novels. Mary is all about memory and nostalgia; butterflies have already made an appearance; there is certainly plenty of (pre-revolutionary) Russia; and already with the sentences, the sentences (does it count in translation? somehow I think for VN it does). Ganin is, of course, not exactly like any of Nabokov’s other characters, but he won’t be unfamiliar. Neither will Franz. And now add in The Luzhin Defense, Nabokov’s third novel. Between the three we have, along with the aforementioned: the grotesque, disgust, obsessive-compulsive disorder, (semi-)incest, kitsch, the bourgeois, chess, Central European resort communities, alliteration gone mad, and this sort of Nabokovian surrealism that I don’t really know what to call (the landlord in KQK, for example). This probably sounds like a bizarre laundry list, but trust me.

But it doesn’t quite add up yet, not to what it will later on. I think mostly this is because they do seem on some level “influence-purging exercises.” You know it’s a warm-up. Another thing that detracts from them, for me, is their setting. The Berlin of the Dreyers is not as claustrophobic as that of the Russian emigrés, but it’s no roadtrip across America either. I believe this is partly related to the first problem; Berlin is simply too close to St. Petersburg. We need to get away.

But! Amateur Reader is right—The Luzhin Defense begins to feel like a turning point. Luzhin is the first really grand character, from morose child to sullen young man, obsessed, mad, and maladjusted. The chess theme is excellently handled, and Luzhin descends until

Tortuous and transparent chess images roamed about in the air, wherever you looked—and Luzhin, realizing that he had got stuck, that he had lost his way in one of the combinations he had so recently pondered, made a desperate attempt to free himself, to break out somewhere—even into nonexistence. “Let’s go, let’s go,” cried someone and disappeared with a bang. He remained alone. His vision became darker and darker and in relation to every vague object in the hall he stood in check.

Even these early works I feel like I have to really wrestle with, so I can hardly imagine how tough this project will become by the time I get to, say, The Gift. But I’ll give myself the rest of the week with The Luzhin Defense. Emily has read it too, after enjoying King, Queen, Knave so much.

3 comments to Getting on to Nabokov’s third novel

  • I remember your discussion of claustrophobia in Mary, and Luzhin struck me much more that way than KQN – all those corridors and dead-end attics, and seemingly doorless rooms. The way Luzhin’s own head became a doorless room. I love the vagueness of his perception in the “‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ cried someone” line; that whole mental trajectory was very convincing.

    Looking forward to the rest of your posts on Luzhin, Nicole!

  • Some of the feel of the voice may well be the result of the translation, since the mature Nabokov assisted in the translation, and frankly recast, parts of these novels. He said he did not spruce up Mary – don’t know if that’s true or not.

    I actually have a book titled Nabokov’s Berlin, in German but full of photographs. I should get it out. By the time we get to The Gift, at least, VN’s Berlin has become pretty substantial.

  • Emily—I really loved that line too. And thinking of his mind as a doorless room. I always think of him as muffling the outside somehow—like, maybe in a doorless room with padded walls. Ouch.

    AR—Yes, that whole fact makes it tough to think progressively about this project. I wonder if that means there will be a jump at all between The Gift and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (or, better, The Enchanter).