“the real Luzhin, the elderly Luzhin, the writer of books”

Over in the comments to Emily’s post on The Luzhin Defense, she and Amateur Reader have an interesting discussion about Luzhin’s mental illness and his childhood lack of affection for his father, and what that father is like. And here, yesterday, AR made the claim that Mrs. Luzhin is linked to Luzhin’s father, not his mother, as I implied. So let’s have a look at Luzhin père.

AR is certainly right that Luzhin has a strange and unsympathetic relationship with his parents, from the very beginning of the novel. In fact, the first scene is all about this. The elder Luzhin must break the news to his son that he will have to begin school. The family hasn’t been able to tell him; they’re all afraid of how badly he’ll react. And while at first they think they’ve dodged a bullet, it turns out his reaction is even more extreme than they’d feared. His sullen, unloving, antisocial nature is already getting more sophisticated.

It is indirectly through his father that Luzhin first discovers chess. The family is having a musical evening at home, and a violinist is in Luzhin’s father’s study, admiring a new set of chessmen. The father has trouble tearing the violinist away from it, and Luzhin is immediately intrigued. As soon as he can, he persuades another connection of his father’s, the aunt he’s having an affair with, to teach him the game. He soon begins to play against a succession of older men, with whom he gets on much better than with his real father.

By the end of chapter four, Luzhin and his father are alone together, his mother having committed suicide. Chapter five continues the jogs in time Nabokov has been instigating. Just after his mother dies, Luzhin begins a chess-playing tour of Russia, his father in a black armband. Then we slide forward again, not quite sixteen years, but almost. The elder Luzhin, a writer when he’s not escorting a child prodigy around Europe, “planned to write a novella about precisely such a chess-playing small boy, who was taken from city to city by his father (foster father in the novella).” In the book, however, the child had “the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy, the result being both sickly and angelic—eyes strangely veiled, curly hair, and a transparent pallor.” And this chess-playing angel would “die young, his death will be logical and very moving.” This to avoid his growing up to become the unpleasant, unlovable man that really developed out of the chess.

Planning this novella, Luzhin senior is showing his softness. He is a dear, but foolish. He’s forgotten the day of the week and is sitting in a Berlin coffeehouse wondering where his émigré friends are when he dreams it up, letting his romantic love of music color the sad nature of his real son. In Nabokov’s foreword, he makes up a story (it must be made up) about an early English-language publisher who considered having the book translated if chess were replaced with music and Luzhin were “a demented violinist.” These are people who do not understand Luzhin (who did not, in fact, develop out of the chess), or his Defense.

So I think it is bleak. Though chess sours things between Luzhin and pretty much everybody, it’s never that sweet to begin with. The lack of sympathy between him and his parents is there from the beginning, and growing stronger with chess or without it. But I don’t vote for Ritalin, and I don’t think Nabokov does either. The doctors in the book can’t even diagnose Luzhin properly. Everyone blames chess, but the problem is him, his essence. Mrs. Luzhin can think up all the distractions she wants, but his need for order won’t disappear if he never plays another game, nor even if he does miraculously stop thinking about it. Bleakly, that’s just how it is, and Luzhin’s “sui-mate” was inevitable from his very first move, birth.

And what of the other question, Mrs. Luzhin’s connection to Mr. Luzhin, rather than the other Mrs. Luzhin? I certainly wouldn’t say she’s not connected with him. Her presence with Luzhin at the German resort is a very strong link. Mrs. Luzhin also notes her husband’s seeming lack of affection for his now-dead father, and encourages him throughout the novel to visit the man’s grave. There are no real specific connections I can see to his mother, on the other hand, except for their sex. So I agree, it is father and wife who are tied together.

5 comments to “the real Luzhin, the elderly Luzhin, the writer of books”

  • It’s an interesting set of familial relationships because, although Luzhin Jr.’s actions are opposed to his father in a (semi)conscious/direct way, from a modern perspective his eventual suicide may be related more closely to his mother, given that she kills herself too. I mean, if we’re wanting to apply modern theories about hereditary chemical brain imbalances and so on (Ritalin). More contemporary with this novel, I seem to recall that Freud also tended to blame OCD symptoms on faulty or overly “cold” mothering, but I agree that Luzhin Jr.’s symptoms seem intrinsic to his core being.

    I am still not totally convinced by this “Luzhin Sr. is a dear” argument but I need to revisit the actual text. Maybe secrecy, lies and marital infidelity are just a bigger deal to me than to Nabokov.

    Also, speaking of faux-parental figures, what about Valentinov? What an intriguing character. Foreshadowings of Clare Quilty, I thought, especially in the way Luzhin Sr. remembers him with dread.

  • Well if that’s what Freud blamed it on, then I’m sure it’s exactly not what VN blames it on. I’m kidding, of course!

    As to the dear issue, I’m speaking mostly about Luzhin Sr.’s relationship with his son. He keeps the secret of his affair from the boy, but he’s an extremely affectionate father. And the affection is genuine, even if it is more about Luzhin Sr. than about Luzhin Jr. I didn’t get the atmosphere I think you discussed on your blog of the child being sent away or brought forward at his parents’ convenience, just that they didn’t want him around to witness their arguments. Of course the whole thing doesn’t add up to a great family situation, but as divorcing parents tell their children, “Mommy and daddy still love you very much,” I think.

    And yes, Valentinov is a total Clare Quilty. Rather creepy.

  • It is indirectly through his father that Luzhin first discovers chess.

    I want to suggest another possibility. It is through Luzhin’s grandfather that he discovers chess. Starting on page 23 (is your pagination the same?) – “black side-whiskers, violin in hand” plus a “cracked chessboard,” continue to the dapper violinist on p. 43 (“Combinations like melodies”), and do not miss “They are awaiting you, Maestro,” which sends us diagonally, like a bishop, to p. 135.

    The aunt is connected to the father – but also to her father, the grandfather! Valentinov is specifically identified as a surrogate father (p. 93), but as one entirely unlike Luzhin Sr., “coldish, elusive,” and more like the “arid” grandfather, and I have seen his “black fur collar” (244) before.

    The Luzhin Sr. \ Mrs. Luzhin (she has no other name) team is struggling against the grandfather \ chess team.

    The same exercise helps with the name puzzle, the first sentence and the last two. Luzhin Sr. is Ivan – who is Aleksandr?

    Well if that’s what Freud blamed it on, then I’m sure it’s exactly not what VN blames it on. I’m kidding, of course!

    No reason to kid! Anything in Nabokov with a clear Freudian explanation is a deliberate trap for the Viennese delegation.

    I mentioned Ritalin not as a recommended treatment for a contemporary Luzhin, but as his likely fate.

    Emily – Luzhin Sr. remembers Valentinov with dread because V. stole L.’s beloved son from him. See p. 68. See that dang moth with “glowing eyes” that appears exactly at midnight on p. 66.

    I’m stumped by the mother’s suicide – I totally missed it. How do we know that?

    I need to revise that Nabokov roundup I did a couple months ago and promote The Defense to the “major” category. Who else had ever put a novel together like this?

  • AR—We don’t know, it’s totally an assumption, though one it’s very hard not to make.

    I meant to look back at your round-up to see how you had classified this one, but I assumed it was major. It certainly seems it.

  • I took this as our clue to the truth:

    “those sinking sensations in the chest, a feeling of suffocation, perhaps angina pectoris and perhaps, as her husband said, simply nerves.”

    So it’s another example of Luzhin Sr’s optimistic wrongheadedness.