(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Defense, Nabokov’s third novel, established him as the leading new writer of the Russian emigration. As the novel opens, Luzhin, a gloomy, friendless lad, learns that he must start public school in St. Petersburg. The boy soon begins cutting school to visit the home of his vivacious aunt, where he learns to play chess. When his father learns of his secretive son’s gift, he launches the boy’s career as a chess prodigy. Under the strain, Luzhin eventually falls ill and is taken to a German spa to recuperate. As it happens, a major international chess tournament is in progress there, and the boy becomes an international star.

Sixteen years pass before the reader again meets an unkempt, thirty-year-old Luzhin, who finds himself once again at this same resort. A homeless international wanderer who can barely cope with life’s ordinary demands, Luzhin has returned to the resort to prepare for a major chess tournament in Berlin. At the resort the boorish, inarticulate Luzhin meets a young woman who is not put off by his eccentricities. After a bizarre courtship, Luzhin leaves for Berlin. For the first time in many years, he plays brilliantly, moving toward a play-off with his nemesis Turati, who has previously defeated him. Luzhin has even prepared a special defense against his opponent. At length, the final game begins, but Turati does not make the expected opening attack. When the game is adjourned for the night, the exhausted Luzhin...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Defense is the story of Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, a brilliant Russian chess master, who is locked in a losing chess game with madness and death. Having lost one match which ended in madness, he devises a special defense which proves ineffectual in his fatal rematch.

As the novel begins, Luzhin is a morose, solitary boy of ten, spending the last days of summer at the family’s country house near St. Petersburg. His father has just given him the unpleasant news that he is to start school upon their return to town. The boy loathes school. The only person for whom he feels any affection is his pretty young aunt, who proves to be his father’s mistress. She introduces little Luzhin to chess on the very day that his mother learns of the affair. The boy begins skipping school to visit his aunt’s apartment, where he plays chess against one of her admirers. The following summer, Luzhin, Sr., learns of his secretive son’s talent, and the prodigy makes his public debut. Dropping out of school, he devotes himself exclusively to chess until he falls ill. During his prolonged recuperation, he is taken to a German health resort where, by chance, a major international chess tournament is being held. Luzhin’s career is launched.

Sixteen years elapse in the course of a paragraph, and Luzhin is still at the same health resort, talking to a young woman who will become his wife. Socially, Luzhin at thirty has progressed little beyond the morose, taciturn boy of his childhood. During the intervening years, his youthful career has been managed by a Svengali-like chess promoter, Valentinov, who long since dropped his aging prodigy. Luzhin now faces a major tournament and has come to the resort to prepare himself. His bride-to-be is not put off by his eccentric, boorish behavior. After a bizarre courtship, he sets off for his tournament in Berlin, which is also the home of his fiancee’s dismayed parents.

Luzhin plays brilliantly, progressing toward a final match with an opponent named Turati, against...

(The entire section is 832 words.)