Luzhin’s chess effects

It sounds perverse, but Nabokov’s introductions to the English translations of his Russian works have been almost more interesting than the books themselves. VN on VN is quite amusing. In the foreword to The Luzhin Defense, he explains that

[T]he chess effects I planted are distinguishable not only in these separate scenes; their concatenation can be found in the basic structure of this attractive novel. Thus toward the end of Chapter Four an unexpected move is made by me in a corner of the board, sixteen years elapse in the course of one paragraph, and Luzhin, suddenly promoted to seedy manhood and transferred to a German resort…

To call this a “chess effect” seems somewhat fanciful. Sure, it’s a move in the corner of the board; it’s also a simple unexpected jump in setting. But wait, it does do something more than that… First, the scene before Nabokov makes his move:

Luzhin, a sullen, strange child, learns to play chess, keeping it a secret from his parents and skipping school to play. He’s found out, and that summer at the family’s dacha Luzhin’s father plays chess with him for the first time. It’s clear the boy is a genius, and he begins to become a serious player, his picture appearing in a magazine, playing at club tournaments. In an argument with his parents over school, he runs away to his aunt’s house (where he first learned the game), only to fall ill and spend some significant period of time as an invalid. Upon his recovery, his father takes him to a German resort where they hope to avoid chess for a while.

And now, the jump. Luzhin is around 30, though he seems older. He has returned to the German resort (why?), and is sitting at a table speaking with what appears to be a woman, whose words we cannot read. The first time he was at the resort, he went from recovering from chess-induced illness to truly entering the international chess world for the first time. Now, he’s at the height of his fame, and just a few chapters away from a much more serious chess-related breakdown, which will again land him in hospital.

This time, instead of his parents keeping him away from the wicked game, it will be his fiancée and later wife—the woman he’s talking to after Nabokov surprises us with that move. She’s just falling for him, especially for that “wry smile—wry in the precise sense: his right cheek and the corner of his mouth went up slightly, exposing bad, tobacco-stained teeth; he had no other smile.” He looks older than his years, makes “old-mannish gesture[s],” and is stout, although “nothing in the little Luzhin had foreshadowed this lazy, unhealthy fleshiness.” Despite these problems, and his socially inept conversation, this young woman is quite smitten. Luzhin describes to her his first stay at the resort, when his mother left early, “insanely homesick for the Russian countryside.” Just as we’re seeing the adult Luzhin charm a woman who will now do all the mothering he needs and more, Nabokov’s move lets the narrator tell us about the conditions leading to his real mother’s suicide:

It was already some time since she had begun to experience a strange feeling of estrangement from her son, as if he had drifted away somewhere, and the one she loved was not this grown-up boy, not the chess prodigy that the newspapers were writing about, but that little warm, insupportable child who at the slightest provocation would throw himself flat on the floor, screaming and drumming his feet.

Luzhin’s wife does love the chess prodigy, especially the famous chess prodigy. But she must be allowed to mother, and that means he must be prevented from chess. And that means he’ll be screaming and drumming his feet, flat out on the floor—or the adult version thereof.

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