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The Defense Paperback – August 11, 1990

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mel Foster turns in a workmanlike performance in this uninspired audio version of Vladimir Nabokov's third novel. Luzhin is a sullen, lonely child who takes refuge in chess and eventually becomes a grandmaster until chess begins to control and alter his conception of reality. Mel Foster's narration is crisp and clear, but too stiff for Nabokov's limber, playful prose. And while Foster deftly creates voices for the various characters, listeners might wish he could have mustered a Russian accent. However Foster's performance has its highlights: his rendition of the adult Luzhin, with his high-pitched voice and abrupt, awkward manner is delightful. (Dec.)
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Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st edition (August 11, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679727221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679727224
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #81,096 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri. Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing ficticvbn ral books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Constant Weeder on November 1, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
V. Nabokov was a genius who wrote like an angel (but he was aware of both traits). I'm always impressed with his playful and total command of English, slang and all. This novel, about a chess genius, is one of his earliest. I'll happily turn to all the rest, having previously read only "Lolita" and "Pnin."

Luzhin, the hapless grandmaster born before World War I, has no inner life. He hides from people on all social occasions, dresses in rags, and lives a reclusive existence until an unnamed Russian expatriate in Paris takes pity on him and marries him over her parents' objections. The modern reader naturally thinks of Bobby Fischer with his antisocial behavior and tantrums, but Luzhin is more tortured, and actually has a psychotic break at the point of adjournment of his world championship match with an Italian challenger who favored hypermodern flank openings (perhaps modeled after Richard Reti, another player of the 1920s whose achievements were cut short by an early death).

Nabokov not only played chess, but composed "retrograde" problems of the most difficult kind, in which the solution requires proof of the move that must have preceded the position shown in the diagram. His description of Luzhin's hallucinations is harrowing, but his shimmering vocabulary and sentence structure puts him at the top of his craft as a writer. One of the most remarkable things about Nabokov was his brilliant, penetrating, power of observation. A few examples:

"That special snow of oblivion, abundant and soundless snow, covered his recollection with an opaque white mist."

"...and his wife's voice persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa."

"He became engrossed in the fantastical misbehavior of numbers and the wayward frolics of geometric lines....
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By "mgerald" on November 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
Vladimir Nabokov presumably chose the English title for this novel because it describes an elaborate chess strategy, one which midway through the book fails its creator in tournament play, and in the end in the game of self-preservation. But it might just as well have been chosen to describe the central character's use of chess itself as a strategic defense against life. Luzhin, from childhood on, is never able to make a connection between himself and the world. His relationship to his parents' life in pre-revolutionary Russia is as abstract as that of an austistic genius' attachment to the complex theory of a computer game. Leaving Russia, such an emotional and nostalgic experience for Nabokov himself, disrupts Luzhin's psyche not a whit, for he has never invested any concrete part of himself in its memory. Indeed, Luzhin is so remote that the reader will often wonder what a concrete part of himself might look like in the first place. Discovering chess is the central event of his life, and losing it his central tragedy. There are some astonishing characters here: Luzhin's wife, who cannot hold onto her elusive husband any more than she might catch an ocean wave in her outstretched arms; his wife's parents, who have made Russia into a caricature of itself, trapped in a bowl of beet soup and served up to the strains of balalaikas; the sinister Valentinov, the real grandmaster of Luzhin's psyche, who moves his pawn on an immense emotional chessboard, the distant reaches of which even the novel itself would not seem to contain. "The Defense" is an exciting tour de force. It will stretch any reader's imagination into utterly uncharted territory. Nabokov's language is, as always, crisp and clear as a blue December morning. His worlds, spinning through the literary cosmos, are like nothing glimpsed through any telescope before.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Tom Adair on June 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
It is unfair but perhaps inevitable that a writer's minor works should forever labour in the shadows of their more successful siblings. Had The Defense been Nabokov's only novel, I believe Nabokov would have been greatly respected, if not celebrated, for his achievement. As it is, we must now see this story as an imperfect expression of the astonishing vision that only found true realisation in Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin. In those works Nabokov perfected the art of seeing man as simultaneously comic and tragic - sublime and menacing. The Defense, which tells the story of a Russian Grand Master unable truly to understand anything other than the game of chess, provides an early inkling of this vision, but does not bring it wholly to life. Luzhin, our hero, whilst at times effectively comic and at others compellingly tragic, is too often a remote, incomprehensible figure - almost a freak - to sustain the reader's ongoing interest. Indeed there is something cold and controlled about the entire book; it recalls a classical tragedy in its remorseless, inevitable design. What is lacking is a sense of the unpredictable and the giddy - to name just two qualities that Nabokov, in his later American novels, became unrivalled at capturing. Nowadays, I suppose, only those with a genuine passion for Nabokov will find the book an ultimately satisfying read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 26, 2001
Format: Paperback
The Luzhin Defence is the story of a little boy who loses his first name, and becomes a great genius who ultimately loses everything. It is a biography, spanning A. Luzhin's early childhood recollections; his isolation from society and the love affair that breaks temporarily through that; and his development to a Grandmaster inexorably moving towards the most crucial confrontation of his career.
Nabokov skilfully portrays Luzhin's life becoming like a reflection trapped between two mirrors, finally coming to an inevitable vanishing point. The moments in his life begin to echo and re-echo previous moments, like some recurring melody in the violin music that is a motif in the novel. His actions are like moves in a chess game, particularly in the first half of the novel, where the moments Nabokov castles, then brings out his queen, can be pinpointed.
If this does not sound like a particularly gripping tale, fear not: Nabokov writes about his characters with such elusive, unsentimental humanity, that the reader is infused with warmth or compassion for them all.
And of course, the real reason for ever reading Nabokov is the exquisite rapture of his language. Another reviewer has said here that once known, Nabokov can become as essential as the fresh ocean air; he realises worlds so deeply and so richly through the fullness of his language that the 'real' world risks seeming like a drab faded photocopy in comparison.
Though completely different in style - completely - this book at times reminded me of Samuel Beckett's work, in that in flashes it circumscribes the outer reaches of existential loneliness.
I did not give this 5 stars because the novel seemed falter slightly in its purpose towards the end. Even though this is a staggeringly good novel, it just isn't as scintillatingly brilliant as Lolita.
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