Indefensible Luzhin

The Defense tells the story of a man bestowed with deeper vision than most who seems only to be able to look at one thing—the chess board. Nabokov writes Luzhin’s life much like a chess game, whose developments are informed by the limitations of the pieces in play and guided by movements in the direction of an unseen goal. Luzhin does not seem to know much of his capabilities, chess-related or otherwise. He simply obeys his drive to play chess, unquestioningly, to the best of his ability, which is phenomenally strong. Navigating his way through the chess games move by move in response to the forces that he sees at work on the board, Luzhin’s games are constricted to certain possible outcomes. In the same way, his life seems to unfold as an interplay of his chess abilities—an initial trajectory—and the people and events that he encounters—obstacles or aids in reaching the final goal. Luzhin’s aunt, for example, plays an important role by introducing him to the game when she did. His parents also play significant roles, affecting Luzhin in the way they relate to each other and in the way they handle him during his formative years. Valentinov plays one of the single most influential roles in the shaping of Luzhin’s chess-game life. At the beginning of Luzhin’s career with the game of chess, Valentinov appears and serves as an introduction and guide to the society where he will spend the greater part of his life. The lifestyle that is established for Luzhin is the one that will carry him all the way through to the breakdown that separates him from chess, and Valentinov’s emergence serves to interrupt the dull existence that ensues. Valentinov’s role in Luzhin’s life, then, is too big to be described by a single piece. Valentinov represents an entire strategy—that of the opposing player—to overcome Luzhin.

Valentinov is not introduced in the story until page seventy-five, thirty percent of the way into the book. “There appeared a certain Valentinov, a cross between tutor and manager.” He simply happens to appear, arising from the context of Luzhin’s story the way a sequence of moves would in the context of a game of chess. Valentinov is described primarily as being mysterious and gifted, a “jack-of-all-trades” (81). Through the eyes of Luzhin Senior, who reluctantly includes Valentinov in the novel based on his son’s situation, we learn that Valentinov went abroad during the war, “what he did…remained unknown” (id). Luzhin Senior refuses to accuse him of being a deserter, and in conjunction with the reference to Valentinov’s “important secret business affairs and money tucked away in all the banks of allied Europe,” it nearly seems that Valentinov could have been a spy during the war, earning the money and freedom to do as he pleases later in life (80). Whatever the case, Valentinov is a man who is free to follow his amusement, which wanders to film when he loses interest in Luzhin and chess. In spite of the fact that “Valentinov was only interested in him as a chess player,” and “he was interested in Luzhin only inasmuch as he remained a freak,” or rather in order to more fully exploit that fact, Valentinov plays the role of father while Luzhin Senior is left in Russia, wondering about his son (93, 92). In writing the fictional account of his son’s story, Luzhin Senior writes about a boy “who was taken from city to city by his father (foster father in the novella)” (75). Nabokov makes it clear that the confusion about the roles of Luzhin Senior and Valentinov is universal. Luzhin Senior becomes especially disturbed by the situation when he returns home alone, because Valentinov claims that “Russia now had no time for chess, while his son was kept alive solely by chess” (79). Luzhin Senior begins to “loathe Valentinov,” who “proposed…to assume all the costs of the boy’s maintenance himself” (id). Young Luzhin’s entire development out of childhood took place under the auspices of Valentinov, and his father is only able to manage brief glimpses. When Luzhin Senior must “extract—carefully and piece by piece—and admit whole to his book—Valentinov,” it is entirely clear that Luzhin Senior’s own role as father has been eliminated, and he has been replaced by Valentinov (81). The insult added to injury is that, “thanks to [Valentinov’s] presence any story acquired extraordinary liveliness, a smack of adventure” (82). It is no great loss when Luzhin Senior finally dies, as he had done nothing for a long time but take pride in a son who had been taken from him.

When Valentinov took Luzhin under his wing, he not only assumed responsibility for his safety and well-being, but he also took responsibility for his development as a person. Unfortunately, he did not see it that way. “During the whole time that he lived with Luzhin he unremittingly encouraged and developed his gift, not bothering for a second about Luzhin as a person,” Nabokov points out, adding that Luzhin had been overlooked by “not only Valentinov but life itself” (92). Where Luzhin the child might have had some range or multitude of qualities and attributes that could have been cultivated and nurtured, the Luzhin who emerges is left with nothing but his abilities as a player of chess. If his life had been a game of chess, he would have been stripped by mid-game of many of his powerful pieces, and he would be left to play the endgame with just one piece. Valentinov sees a logic in this approach:

“he had a peculiar theory that the development of Luzhin’s gift for chess was connected with the development of the sexual urge…fearing lest Luzhin should squander his precious power in releasing by natural means the beneficial inner tension, he kept him at a distance from women and rejoiced over his chaste moroseness.” (94)

Valentinov does not simply fail in caring for Luzhin’s personal development; he actively chooses to neglect and stifle that development. He promotes Luzhin’s lopsided development in order to strengthen his abilities with chess, but Luzhin’s failure to function effectively in any other area ultimately contributes to his downfall. Valentinov’s example served to be all Luzhin had from which to understand the concept of parent, friend, and lover. Preparing to abandon his protégé, Valentinov “made a gift to Luzhin of some money, the way one does to a mistress one has tired of,” then “dropped out of Luzhin’s world, which for Luzhin was a relief, that odd kind of relief you get in resolving an unhappy love affair” (93). The young man “later regarded him the way a son might a frivolous, coldish, elusive father to whom one could never say how much one loved him” (id). With these models for understanding how he was to relate to the people in his life, Luzhin is left alone to float off into a life of unremarkable chess play.

Nabokov manages to fill a very large role in Valentinov with surprisingly few pages and words. Luzhin meets Valentinov on page seventy-five and is on his own before we reach one hundred, and it mirrors the fact that Valentinov’s role in his development is both brief and profound. His return, however, proves to wield much more influence. In the last twenty pages of the novel, Valentinov reemerges mysteriously. Luzhin’s wife is able to find no other explanation for who Valentinov is than that he was Luzhin’s “chess father.” She is unsettled by the appearance of this man because she believes that having chess brought back to the forefront of Luzhin’s consciousness will be detrimental to his health. Something about Valentinov himself seems to trouble Luzhin’s wife, as well, though she seems not quite able to identify what it is. The mysteriousness of Valentinov’s return is accentuated by the fact that Luzhin had already been backsliding by his own sort of complacence, “simply for lack of something to do” (242). Luzhin makes numerous references to an opponent who he expects will soon resume an onslaught against him, “by an implacable repetition of moves it was leading once more to that same passion which would destroy the dr
eam of life” (246). The return to playing chess would be unbearable for Luzhin, who would have no choice but to continue engaging in the grueling calculations and tiring strategies. The fear of that return has driven Luzhin into another sort of madness—an irrational suspicion that some grand plot in its final stages is attempting to swallow him up, and the defense that he hopes to concoct is one that will prevent him from being taken. He is therefore quite suspicious of Valentinov, who claims to be putting together a movie in which a heroic young lad who mistakenly ends up condemned becomes a professional chess player. “Turati has already agreed,” Valentinov tells Luzhin, and: “so has Moser. Now we need Grandmaster Luzhin…” (248). Luzhin is not convinced by Valentinov’s story and believes it part of the plot to condemn him to servitude on the chess board, and ultimately takes his own life in an effort to escape.

Valentinov’s actual role then, is not entirely clear at the end of the novel. In Luzhin’s state of madness, not everything is what it really seems to be, and it is difficult to trust his suspicions. On the other hand, if fate or Nabokov himself could fill the role of the opponent Luzhin speaks of, the opponent who hopes to inflict upon him an endless succession of chess problems and unrest, then perhaps Valentinov fits into the puzzle not as an informed agent of Luzhin’s destruction, but rather as an unwitting accomplice in his undoing. Where many of the events that take place in Luzhin’s life could be represented on the chess board by pieces or even arrangements of pieces, Valentinov’s role is more complicated. His strong influence on the shape that Luzhin’s role in the chess community would take and his appearance at precisely the right, or wrong, moment to help push Luzhin over the edge, so to speak, could only be represented by principles that play themselves out on the chess board, the underlying forces from which individual pieces gain their strength. Valentinov is not to blame for Luzhin’s demise, because he himself was a pawn forced by the hand of fate, the pen of Nabokov.

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