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.