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Structure of The Defense
by Bryan Register


Date: 1 Dec 98
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register


Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.

Vladimir Nabokov's third novel, The Defense, is structured as an inward spiral. Luzhin's life is a progression of events through which he plays mechanically and which lead to his inevitable demise; the structure is that of collapse through repetition. The philosophical logic underlying this structure can be made clear by a reflection on the theme of eternal recurrence as it appears in Nabokov's first novel, Mary, and in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being . The structure itself can be shown by attending to the succession of events and comparing them with earlier events in a systematic way. The theme is also demonstrated by some individual sentences in the novel.

Reflecting on three passages from Mary will show Nabokov's view of eternal recurrence and the nature of human talent. Early in the novel, Ganin considers his memories:

It seems that there's a law somewhere which says that nothing ever vanishes, that matter is indestructible; therefore the chips from my skittles and the spokes of my bicycle still exist somewhere to this day. The pity of it is that I'll never find them again - never. I once read about 'eternal return'. But what if this complicated game of patience never comes out a second time? (p.34)

Nabokov's Ganin is reflecting on Nietzsche's thought experiment of eternal recurrence. In the thought experiment, one is asked for her reaction to the possibility that she will relive her life again and again, exactly as one has lived it. When Ganin says that he will never find certain objects again, he is rejecting the literal eternal return; he will not return to those objects. When he thinks of eternal return as a game of patience that is, waiting for external forces, he implies that, in lieu of a return which may not happen, one must oneself make one's own life recur. One does this through memory. Ganin, rather than living mired in memories and the past, selectively reconstructs memory as a means of overcoming the past. At the conclusion of the novel, "he realized with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever. It has lasted no more than four days... But now he had exhausted his memories, was sated by them..." (p. 114) Ganin has built his own relationship with Mary out of his memories, which do not (one senses) accurately reflect his past. Ganin is master of his memory; he creates a relationship, returning to it but under his control. Thus the second relationship is a kind of return to the first, but with improvement, control, and purpose. Ganin is the creative artist who commands memory into novel form. Thus he is told by a poet, "There's something artful about you..." (p. 41) The reconstruction of memory into art is Nabokov's conception of creativity.

Luzhin compares poorly with Ganin. Luzhin is constantly treated as mechanical, as a non-creative figure. In the middle of the novel, when he is with his fiancée, Nabokov writes of her that "The head on her shoulder [Luzhin's] was large, heavy a precious apparatus with a complex, mysterious mechanism." (p. 131) Luzhin's brain is a machine, not a creative human mind. In the final pages of the book, when Luzhin has been nabbed by Valentinov, Valentinov gives him a chess problem to solve. "Mechanically [Luzhin] took the slip." (p. 248) Luzhin is not in control of his actions; he is not goal-directed. Rather, he follows irrevocable and idiotic laws of action. He does not take the problem to solve it, but because he is designed to take it. Very importantly, early in the book, we find that "...the notion of composing problems did not entice him. He felt dimly that they would be a pointless waste of the militant, charging, bright force he felt within him..." (p. 68) Luzhin cannot compose novel chess situations. He has no creative power, despite his brilliance. He is not in command of his talent; it is a force within him which he does not master. Luzhin's 'bright force' is the pleasure of playing chess and mechanically solving its problems, rather than the creative thrust which could have allowed him to compose chess problems. The novel redounds with other allusions to Luzhin's mechanical nature and his failure to be in command of the chess and plot situations, but they primarily occur in the context of the swirling return which is to him lethal.

Reflecting a bit on Ganin, Luzhin, and the eternal return will show the logic which generates the structure of The Defense . For Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the eternal recurrence gives weight to our otherwise unbearably light existence. In lieu of a religious immortality, eternal return gives us the immortality of repetition. Each decision of ours, then, is infinitely heavy because its consequences will be borne out an infinite number of times.

However, there is a certain absurdity to repetition. If one were in fact within an eternal cycle, however excellent one's existence, one might long for release and for novelty. Nabokov solves this problem with Ganin's artistic reconstruction of his past. In a sense, Ganin's past affair with Mary is repeated; in a sense, Ganin has moved on. Thus there is whatever weightiness repetition provides, but there is also the sense of development which makes for anticipation. The past is used as a means to the future. Ganin spirals outward, coming again to Mary but passing her the second time in a different way, transcending the past as he repeats it.

Luzhin is the development of the opposite theme. While Ganin is in command of memory and repetition, Luzhin is trapped within it. Ganin's talent allows him to develop outward and transcend his status; Luzhin's mechanical nature disallows him from doing the same. Luzhin's life has Ganin's repetitive structure, but instead of transcendending its past, it does not even qualify to equality with its past.

Let me show a few instances of the theme of collapsing repetition before I move on to show how the entire plot functions in this way. In Luzhin's childhood,

...there were two books, both given him by his aunt, with which he had fallen in love for his whole life, holding them in his memory as if under a magnifying glass, and experiencing them so intensely that twenty years later, when he read them over again, he saw only a dryish paraphrase, an abridged edition, as if they had been outdistanced by the unrepeatable, immortal image that he had retained. (p. 33-34)

He rereads the books (Around the World in 80 Days and the Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) again after his breakdown "...in two days, and when he had read them he said they were not what he wanted this was an incomplete edition." (p. 167) The novels are a rich experience the first time around, but the second time they are poorer. For many people, a second reading is a deeper experience, but for Luzhin the repetition diminishes the books. In his much later novel Pnin, Nabokov shows an alternate view of rereading when one character says "You know, I am reading Anna Karenin for the seventh time and I derive as much rapture as I did, not forty, but sixty years ago, when I was a lad of seven. And, every time, one discovers new things..." (Pnin, 122) This illustrates by comparison the poverty of Luzhin's aesthetic experience in its second repetition. While his memory has a certain value, Luzhin cannot build from his memory into a richer aesthetic experience. Worse still, Luzhin had enjoyed the books the first time round for a predictable reason: "...it was that exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern..." (p. 34) For Luzhin, the books were mechanical. Not ensouled, they had a relentless pattern from which they could not deviate. Luzhin's books were not alive.

Luzhin's chess career played a similar pattern. As he prepared for the Berlin tournament, Luzhin "...Look[ed] back over eighteen and more years of chess [and] saw an accumulation of victories at the beginning and then a strange lull, bursts of victories here and there but in general irritating and hopeless draws, thanks to which he earned the reputation of a cautious, impenetrable, prosaic player." (p. 97) Luzhin's career is generally downward from an auspicious beginning. Not for him is the path of experience leading to greatness; rather, he seems to lose his edge.

Luzhin's experience as a chess player introduces us to other images of repetition and circling. For Luzhin, chess has a highly abstract, bodiless feel. He enjoys playing blind chess because he "did not have to deal with visible, audible, palpable pieces whose quaint shape and wooden materiality always disturbed him and always seemed to him but the crude, mortal shell of exquisite, invisible chess forces. When playing blind he was able to sense these diverse forces in their original purity." (p. 91) Exhaustion from too much play is "retribution for the stress and rapture involved in the game itself, which he conducted in a celestial dimension, where his tools were incorporeal quantities." (p. 92) Luzhin is not only mechanical, he is rationalistic, not in the physical world. When Valentinov leaves, Luzhin "experienced a feeling of emptiness, a lack of support, and then he acknowledged the inevitability of what had happened, turned around and was again lost in thought over the chessboard." (p. 94, emphasis added) Luzhin is lost in thought; he has escaped to the celestial realm of pure chess forces. But key here is that he turns around to achieve the escape. Luzhin's rationalism is tied up with his circular motion: he "turns around" and then is "lost in thought". Luzhin does not transcend his need for Valentinov, but rather escapes into chess and evades the material world. Moreover, since what had happened was inevitable to Luzhin, he does not experience himself as possessing power in relation to Valentinov. There is a tie between Luzhin's mechanical approach to life, his evasive retreat to the Platonic Heaven of chess forces, and the circular motion which defines his life.

Let me now show those events which most obviously demonstrate the collapsing repetition of Luzhin's life. As the novel opens, Luzhin is told that he will henceforth be referred to by his father's name. Rather than tell him outright, his family "had moved around him in apprehensively narrowing circles..." (p. 1), an early announcement of the theme of shrinking repetition. He runs away before the family boards the train to St. Petersburg, and when he is found he is carried back by "a black-bearded peasant from the water mill, future inhabitant of future nightmares." (p. 24) After several months, Luzhin discovers chess:

Only in April, during the Easter holidays, did that inevitable day come for Luzhin when the whole world suddenly went dark, as if someone had thrown a switch, and in the darkness only one thing remained brilliantly lit, a newborn wonder, a dazzling islet on which his whole life was destined to be concentrated... (p. 39)

These events are the main ones which are repeated in Luzhin's final days. Luzhin realizes, after his breakdown, that "...he returned to life from a direction other than the one he left it..." (p. 161) Having passed a certain point, he now returns to it having circled about.

As Luzhin lies in his coma, Nabokov writes of him that "The formless fog thirsted for contours, for embodiments, and once something, a mirror-like glint, appeared in the darkness, and in this dim ray Luzhin perceived a face with a black, curly beard, a familiar image, an inhabitant of childish nightmares." (pp. 158-159) We see the bearded figure more clearly a moment later, when "Luzhin turned his head: on a chair to the right sat a man in white, with a black beard, looking at him attentively with smiling eyes." (p. 160) This man is Luzhin's doctor. When Luzhin had been in his coma, he had come up long enough to see the man and the shock of seeing the peasant from his youth had sent him back under. Again, a black-bearded man has come to bring Luzhin from his hiding place; then the attic, now a self-enforced coma.

Luzhin is married early in winter. When he moves into his fiancé's building, "...he had exactly the same feeling as in childhood when he had moved form country to town." (p. 171) It is the move from country to town which opens the novel and which sets Luzhin on his path to discovering chess. Nabokov notes for us that "The winter that year was a white, St. Petersburg one." (p. 192) He is returning to the winter in which he discovered chess.

Luzhin himself has a sense of what is going on. He thought that "...it was necessary to look deeper, to return and replay all the moves of his life from the illness to the ball." (p. 201) Luzhin has not fully grasped the nature of his danger. Just as he had prepared for a flanking maneuver from Turati which did not come, now he plans to repeat his own moves in order to save himself from the assault of repetition. Gradually he catches on. Later on, "...Luzhin would go over all the moves already made against him, but as soon as he began to guess at what forms the coming repetition of the scheme of his past would take, he grew confused..." (p. 235) Eventually, he designs a strategem which might work as a successful defense: "The device consisted in voluntarily committing some absurd unexpected act that would be outside the systematic order of life, thus confusing the sequence of moves planned by his opponent." (p. 242)

But as Luzhin sets off on a fictitious errand, he finds himself repeating his trip to his aunt's house to have a go at chess. The decision to commit an unexpected act is, itself, expected, a part of the earlier sequence: "...while still lying in bed, he made an unprecedented decision ." (p. 50, emphasis added) This decision provided the precedent for the later decision. He took a taxi part way to school but then got out. He repeats the action later: "After the very first turn he stopped the taxi, paid, and set off home at a leisurely pace." (p. 243) On the way to his aunt's house, he tried to carefully avoid the area of the school, with its prying eyes to notice his truancy. Nevertheless, he passed his geography teacher, making the manevuer pointless. Likewise, he now tries to avoid falling into another repetitive trap but finds himself repeating himself nonetheless. Earlier, to avoid being seen by the geography teacher, he whirled and faced into a hairdresser's window. Now, he enters a hairdresser's shop. Trying again, desperately, to do something not in the sequence, he offers to pay for a bust. But the woman from whom he tries to buy the bust has the same waxen face and pink nostrils of the women he had seen before in the hairdresser of his childhood. Luzhin cannot break out, and Valentinov arrives to take control.

Finally, Luzhin decides to drop out of the game. He opts for leaping out the bathroom window. "The first thing Luzhin did after locking the door was to turn on the light. Gleaming whitely, an enameled bathtub came into view by the left wall... In the upper part [of the window], a black rectangle of night was sheened mirror-like" (p. 253) Luzhin is not getting out of the game, he is losing it. Recall that his discovery of chess is described as "that inevitable day... when the whole world suddenly went dark, as if someone had thrown a switch, and in the darkness only one thing remained brilliantly lit, a newborn wonder, a dazzling islet on which his whole life was destined to be concentrated..." (p. 39) Here, Luzhin literally flips a switch, everything goes white rather than dark, a single patch of black rather than light remains, and that patch of black, the window, is indeed the focus of Luzhin's last moments. (Why white now rather than black? Turati played white.) But note the lower level of the repetition. The first time a switch was turned for Luzhin, he discovered the game which he would play with brilliant success. The second time, he flips on the bathroom light. Not any other room, but rather the bathroom; the most sordid and embarrassing room in the house. Truly the return does not match the original. This scene is frankly and obviously pathetic. Luzhin is trapped within a life which he cannot control which he falsely believes he can escape by suicide. Not only is he hopelessly confused, but he has chosen a particularly undignified means of ending himself and undignified place from which to end himself.

As he hangs himself out the window, the street below him "was seen to divide into dark and pale squares, and at the instant when Luzhin unclenched his hand... he saw exactly what kind of eternity was obligingly and inexorably spread out before him." (p. 256) Only too late does Luzhin realize that, just as he discovered chess once before, so he must discover it again.

One final detail remains. When Luzhin had been recovering from his breakdown, his psychiatrist and fiancée remind him of his childhood and "another period, a long chess period that [they] called 'lost years'... All right, we agree, that will do lost years away with them they are forgotten crossed out of life." (p. 166) Luzhin's chess life is crossed out of life; just as his suicide, his fall into the world of chess, is a crossing out of his life. The psychiatrist and fiancée believe that they are going to pull Luzhin away from the rationalism and neurosis of his earlier life, but in fact they are only worsening the status of his memory. Luzhin has never been in control of his memory, but he can't even contemplate memories which he has forgotten. Luzhin's chess-memories are the only pleasure of his whole life; to steal them from him is monstrous and crippling. If Luzhin is hurtling toward disaster through the entire novel, then to take away the pleasurable part of the motion is to steal from him whatever value there had been in his life.

When Luzhin jumps out the window, he has come full circle, but this time, the circle collapses to a point. Not in control of his past, Luzhin has been condemned to repeat it, perhaps eternally.


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