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The Defense
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified 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....He lingered long in those heavens where earthly lines go out of their mind."

"[Chess] combinations [are] like melodies. You know, I simply hear the moves."

"The urns that stood on the stone pedestals at the four corners of the terrace threatened one another across their diagonals."

"Maples were casting their lively shade."

"The typewriter, whose keys were all watching him with their pupils of reflected light..."

"A half-opened drawer from which, snake-like, a green red-spotted tie came crawling."

"The modern urge to set senseless records..."

"Not once did he attempt to support a collapsing conversation."

"He looked at the moon, which was tremblingly disengaging itself from some black foliage."

"A village girl was eating an apple and her black shadow on the fence was eating a slightly larger apple."

[Champagne bottle] "A bucket with a gold-knobbed glass Pawn sticking out of it."

"The tailor jabbed pins into him, which he took with astonishing deftness from his mouth, where they seemed to grow naturally."

"A burst of military music approached in orange waves."

"A bookcase crowned with a broad-shouldered, sharp-faced Dante in a bathing cap."

"A candle whose flame darted about, maddened at being carried out of the warm church into the unknown darkness, and finally died of a heart attack at the corner of the street where a gust of wind bore down from the Neva."

"Chairs moved with the sounds of throats being cleared.

"[As the cab moved] the soft shadow made by his nose circled slowly over his cheek and then his lip, and again it was dark until another light went by."

"In the entrance hall hung a condemned jacket."

"Attendants were accepting things and carrying them away like sleeping children."

"Someone closed the door so the music would not catch cold."

"The helpless mercury, under the influence of its surroundings, fell ever lower and lower."

"The bedroom was adorned by a bas-relief done in charcoal and a confidential conversation

between a cone and a pyramid."

"The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of the rapacious vacuum cleaner. It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing: the other things are jealous and do not allow a homeless object escaping pursuit, into a single cranny."

An amazing masterpiece.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
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
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2010
Format: Paperback
Rarely have been I so surprised by the emotional force of a novel as with Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense. It was not at all what I had expected based on descriptions I had heard through the years. I expected a novel about chess obsession leading to madness, replete with Nabokov's relentless intellectual games, many of them employing chess themes and imagery.

What I found instead was one of the more deeply moving and compassionate novels that I have ever read.

The central character of The Defense is Luzhin, whose first name is deliberately hidden from us by the author. Reading the novel with modern eyes, it is clear that Luzhin is somewhere on the autism spectrum. He cannot read other people's faces or understand their feelings. When his father learns of his mother's death, Luzhin sees the wet tears but cannot understand what his father is feeling; at first he thinks his father is making laughing sounds. Luzhin's social cognition issues also cause him terrible troubles at school, where he is bullied relentlessly.

Popular art is still struggling with how to depict characters on the autism spectrum. Rain Man was the first widely-viewed attempt, but Dustin Hoffman's character was a very extreme form of savant that the director never seemed to fully understand. A more recent film, Adam, presents Asperger's in a somewhat less extreme way, but still relies on a few unrealistic plot devices. Nabokov's novel, first penned in the 1920s, shows far more insights into the condition, almost miraculously so for the time of its composition.

I don't know enough about Nabokov's life to know whence this understanding originated. If Nabokov did know anyone on the autism spectrum, clearly he was somehow able to penetrate through with insight and compassion into his acquaintance's inner life, in a way far ahead of his time.

Any adult today who knows a child with spectrum issues is bound to be moved by the novel's account the loving but futile efforts of the father to somehow reach his son. Father writes sweet stories in which the boy is depicted as the main character. But everyone in this novel is trapped in a world in which these issues are little understood and therapies are essentially unavailable. And so Luzhin learns very little in the way of social cognition, and thus never truly understands his father's love, nor how to survive the terrors of the schoolyard.

Unable to master these social skills, Luzhin retreats to his internal world, and finds in chess an inexhaustible terrain of private mental exploration. One cannot help but think of Bobby Fischer, who clearly also suffered from similar social handicaps, and who was allowed to withdraw from school and to retreat into his own isolated chess world within his mother's Brooklyn apartment. Nabokov wrote this novel well before Fischer was born, but correctly predicted that individuals with these issues might well rise to the very top ranks of chess masters.

I haven't seen the film based on the novel, and I am reluctant to, based on accounts of how it deviates from the book. The book itself would make terrific cinema if faithfully followed. Many of the scenes in the novel read like what one would expect from 21st century movies, with their visual layouts, pacing, and emotional content.

This is particularly true of the novel's scenes depicting the relationship between Luzhin and the woman who loves him. She understands his limited ability to return that love, but also knows that somewhere in there is a brilliant, sensitive mind, even though he is dismissed as a lunatic by her family, and especially by her mother. I especially love the scene where Luzhin and his bride sit down to plan their honeymoon; Nabokov brilliantly conveys how all of the maps and catalogues appear to the mind of a man for whom sensory awareness is so keen, and always trumps social understanding.

But honestly - there is no need to create a faithful film adaptation of the book; the book itself leaves so many moving and haunting impressions on the mind and heart.

Of course, Nabokov didn't write this novel to be a treatise on Asperger's. He wrote it to create a unique character, an intellectually engaging work of art, and a compelling story. But the poignancy and tragedy of Luzhin's life feel so real that he is not readily forgotten.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2008
Format: Paperback
A lesser-known work of Vladimir Nabokov, this novel deals with the spiraling descent into madness, and ultimate self-destruction, of a gifted chess player. Originally written in Russian (and translated into English by Nabokov himself), its original title is "Luzhin's Defense." This refers both to a hypothetical chess opening invented by the protagonist, as well as to his "defense" against an irrational world. Throughout the novel, the protagonist is given but the single name "Luzhin" -- which translates roughly to "mud puddle" --or colloquially, to "drip." (Nabokov was fond of giving his characters Bunyanesque names.)

As a child Luzhin is neglected by his parents. Taught the rules of chess by an "auntie", the game becomes his all-consuming passion. The first part of the novel presents Luzhin as a charming, if somewhat "nerdy," young man. The latter part of the book describes his bid for the world championship, and his catastrophic disintegration.

G. K. Chesterton speculated that:
"Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity."

Was this Nabokov's message as well? Were the seeds of Luzhin's destruction sown by parental neglect, or were they caused by the "Chesterton factor" ? Was there a genetic predisposition, or were the pressures of the match too much? Perhaps Nabokov intended all be true; but read the novel and formulate your own opinion.

It is almost certain that Nabokov patterned Luzhin after a specific chess player. (A reader brough to my attention that the prototype for Luzhin was apparently Curt von Bardeleben. A fine chessplayer ... but maybe excessively fond of the King's gambit ... or maybe he even enjoyed playing the white pieces in the Fool's Mate.) There have been of course numerous eccentric chess playes. With the recent untimely death of former world champion Bobby Fisher, the great demands of professional chess take on additional relevance.
Incidentally, the novel has been turned into a movie.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
As with other Nabokov novels, 'The Defence' is primarily about Nabokov himself; certainly not in terms of biographical detail, but as a vehicle for his own obsessive translation of the world into prose. His literary skill is quite overwhelming, in both a positive and negative sense, and one wonders whether he, the medium of this skill, was as thrilled and burdened by it as his 'creature' Luzhin was by a comparable skill in chess.

*

While in some books the characters are memorable, or a turn in the plot is key, or an entire fictional world is born, here the book itself, as an object, as a construction of words, dominates proceedings. Words swarm over every detail recounted in the book, at once transforming the mundane into something precious and, at times, obscuring the distinction bewteen what is important and what trivial - the same skill is devoted to describing a bearskin as to describing a marriage; it is probably no accident that John Updike provides an afterword to some editions, since his work is blessed with the same heavy burden.

*

The character of Luzhin is largely viewed from the exterior. His interior world, when approached, is still seen from one remove - we do not so much share Luzhin's mind's eye as peer over his shoulder. What we do know of his interior is minimal, not through lack of access but in virtue of lack of content - he is largely bereft of normal human emotion. His fear of the world is very much an amorphous angst. His aspirations are free-standing and without worldly motivation. He is, in many ways, not a character at all. The same could be said of the girl whom he courts, and who, in a virtuouso display, remains anonymous for the entire novel, starting off as a semi-circular black silk handbag (with a faulty Freudian clasp), developing into a personal pronoun, then a fiancee and so on. These may as well be pieces upon a chessboard.

*

And indeed they are. In his foreword, Nabokov is excited by the structure of the novel, in particular its relation to a chess game. While for mine the analogy is strained, he at least declares the lie of the novel's appeal.

*

Finally, if you approach the novel through the hope of finding an actual discussion of the game of chess, you will leave disappointed save for imagistic accounts and metaphors, often musical, with few or no moves given. There is a film version but, sadly, the director makes the unfortunate mistake of thinking this to be a work of social realism, and the result is cinematic effluent.

*

Treated less as a novel and more as a testament of Nabokov's linguistic prowess, 'The Defence' succeeds, and affords pleasure in a way analagous to that afforded by a spectacular game by Kasparov, or Tal, or Alekhine, or any of a number of other Russians.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Out of print? Out of print??? I assume that Vintage are waiting for the movie tie-in edition, or something. It's in print in my country, anyway, under its proper title "The Luzhin Defence".
This is, as Brian Boyd says in his excellent Nabokov biography, its author's first masterpiece. I am an execrable chess player, but I know just about enough about the game (and am obsessive enough about various other things) to find its shambling, mumbling hero one of my favourite characters in the Nabokov oeuvre. I've always liked Nabokov's less clubbable heroes - although I recognise that "The Gift" is a greater novel, I can get a bit tired of Fyodor's limitless resourcefulness and poise. (I got impatient with "Ada" for much the same reason.) The unsocial and inarticulate Luzhin is more my kind of character. Surely John Turturro was born to play this character, even if the movie isn't that great.
John Updike, in his afterword, gets a bit sniffy about the meticulous patterning of the book, but I think he fails to appreciate the scope and grip of Luzhin's insanity. This is one of the saddest books Nabokov ever wrote, but also one of the most openly compassionate. Later on, there were more intricate and more skilful games being played with our need to (dodgy word coming) "empathise" with a central character, but "The Luzhin Defence" is still the first book Nabokov wrote that has the mark of the master.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Nabakov can craft a sentence like nobody's business. And he sprinkles details of chess throughout the book liberally and accurately. Luzhin is a believable chess player. I do not, however, find him a believeable grandmaster.

"Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy." -- Siegbert Tarrasch

The book doesn't go deeply enough into the charms and siren lures of chess. Luzhin skips from learning the moves to beating everyone locally to international competition to competing for the world title in just a few short scenes. During this time, however, he must have learned a great deal of chess, from the mundane to the arcane. The surface of chess covers a hidden world, miles deep. What did Luzhin find there? How did he feel about it?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 7, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In THE LUZHIN DEFENSE, Nabokov examines the effects of mental exhaustion in an esteemed but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess. In doing so, Nabokov creates Luzhin, a thirty-something man whose arrested emotional development overlaps with an inward madness and who has a breakdown during the championship match of an arduous chess tournament. Thereafter, Luzhin is institutionalized briefly and then marries a woman whose purpose in life is to divert the famous but childish Luzhin and keep him from returning to chess, which she believes will kill him. The title of this novel refers to the strategy the desperate and unstable Luzhin ultimately employs to maintain control.

Brilliant but damaged men and madness are certainly major presences in the Nab's oeuvre. But among the Nab's brilliant but damaged protagonists, I'd say that Luzhin may be the most extreme, since he is completely dependent on others to both exercise his gifts and organize his life. Meanwhile, Luzhin's madness is not unlike that of Adam Krug of BEND SINISTER or Hugh Person in TRANSPARENT THINGS, whose madness leads to their demises. The difference, I suppose, is that Luzhin's madness is expressed through the mental structure of an obsessive chess player.

Chess is not my game. But in writing about chess, Nabokov forces me to recognize that I'm missing a game with great dazzle, elegance, and power. Here, for example, is some of his lead-up to the championship match between Luzhin and Turati, which initiates Luzhin's breakdown. "... and there were those who said that the limpidity and lightness of Luzhin's thought would prevail over the Italian's tumultuous fantasy, and there were those who forecast that the fiery, swift-swooping Turati would defeat the far-sighted Russian player." Chapter 8 contains their match and it's as exciting as "the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant..."

Highly recommended.
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