Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin
Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin (ee-VAH-noh-vihch LEW-zhihn), a world-class chess player. Growing up in an aristocratic Russian household, the solitary Luzhin develops into a brilliant chess prodigy. Estranged from his parents, who do not understand his unique talent, he travels extensively to compete in chess tournaments in Europe. After several years, he becomes so immersed in a cerebral world of chess strategies that he loses contact with everyday reality and suffers a mental breakdown during the final match of a major tournament in Berlin. Although he recovers from this breakdown with the assistance of his fiancée, who tries to keep him away from any reminders of chess, he gradually falls prey to a new obsession: He believes that the events of his life are manipulated by an invisible chess opponent. Trying desperately to foil the relentless control of this unknown opponent, Luzhin increasingly acts in irrational and unpredictable ways. Frustrated by his inability to escape the snares of his opponent, Luzhin commits suicide by jumping from his bathroom window. His last vision is of a vast chessboard, which he takes to be a sign of his future existence.
Mrs. Luzhin, a young woman with an independent mind and a compassionate spirit. She meets Aleksandr at a German resort and finds him so unusual that she decides to accept his abrupt and unmannered marriage proposal. She nurses him carefully after his breakdown, but because he never shares his inner fears with her, she remains unable to help him resist his suicidal anxiety.
Ivan Luzhin, Aleksandr’s father, a writer of children’s books. Although concerned for his son’s well-being, Ivan does not know how to communicate with him. He had hoped that his son would turn out to be a musical prodigy, and he finds his son’s chess genius unsettling. The senior Luzhin also has a difficult relationship with his wife, and he causes her pain when he enters into an adulterous affair. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Ivan lives alone as an émigré in Berlin. He plans to write a novel based on his son’s life, but he dies with his plans unfulfilled.
Valentinov (vah-lehn-TIH-nov), Aleksandr’s manager during the youth’s rise to international fame. A shameless promoter, Valentinov exploits Aleksandr’s talent when he is still young, then returns at the end of the novel, causing Aleksandr to take his paranoid suicide leap.
Aleksandr’s aunt, a coquettish young woman who enters into an adulterous relationship with Ivan and introduces Aleksandr to the mysteries of chess.
Turati (tew-RAH-tih), Aleksandr’s opponent in the climactic championship match that triggers Aleksandr’s mental breakdown.
Mrs. Luzhin’s parents
Mrs. Luzhin’s parents, Russian émigrés living in Berlin. Mrs. Luzhin’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s marriage to the eccentric chess player, but her husband provides financial resources to support the couple after their marriage.
A lady from the Soviet Union
A lady from the Soviet Union, a garrulous visitor who visits the Luzhin household in Berlin during the period of Aleksandr’s recuperation from his mental breakdown. Her comments about Aleksandr’s aunt crystallize his anxiety about being attacked by an invisible opponent, and her presence prevents Mrs. Luzhin from paying full attention to her distraught husband.
Vladimir Nabokov once referred to his characters as “galley slaves,” thus denying them the human credibility that realistic literary figures supposedly display. On the surface, Luzhin would seem to be an exception. Nabokov himself describes his lumpish, overweight, inarticulate hero as “uncouth, unwashed, uncomely—but...[with] something in him that...
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transcends both the coarseness of his gray flesh and the sterility of his recondite genius.” This contrast between the master of the beautifully elegant, abstract world of chess and the inept, doomed human being stirs the reader’s compassion. Nevertheless, Nabokov remains remote in the treatment of his protagonist. Luzhin acquires a first name and patronymic (the usual Russian form of address) only at the moment of his death. All the actions that give Luzhin’s character the illusion of humanity prove to be part of a developing novelistic chess pattern, not life. They are “moves” orchestrated from above.
Luzhin’s nameless wife, the novel’s only other sympathetic character, is his only link with human reality. Her love for the strange chess master is rooted in compassion rather than passion, but it is, nevertheless, real. For Luzhin, sex is obscurely linked with chess, perhaps because of his aunt’s sensuality and his wife’s quiet acquiescence in their asexual marriage. His wife tries only to protect Luzhin from his past, by building a normal, “chess-free” existence for him. Her valiant attempt is at first marginally successful—until her vigilance is distracted by the Russian guest, leaving Luzhin to his fatal obsession with chess.
Luzhin’s parents are little more than novelistic props to establish the stages in the boy’s life that will later be fatally repeated: country, town, school, aunt, and chess. It is the revelation of the father-aunt affair, coinciding with the boy’s introduction to chess, that underlies the sublimation of his sexuality (and entire existence) into chess. The parents are also a target of Nabokovian social satire. Luzhin’s father, a writer of saccharine children’s books, and his hypochondriacal mother present a mordant picture of Russian bourgeois high culture. This is contrasted with Luzhin’s true artistry as a chess player, which the father is completely unable to comprehend, as it does not fit the stereotypical image of the child prodigy. Strangely, it is the boy’s free-spirited aunt who senses his hidden talent and cultivates it with appropriate presents. The hero’s reluctant in-laws, a wealthy emigrant business family, are the chief objects of derision; their Berlin apartment is filled with nostalgic fake Russian gimcracks.
Valentinov, the entrepreneur who takes over the young Luzhin’s career, is a typically Nabokovian character type. He is the unscrupulous minor artist figure. A gifted man of many talents and a shrewd organizer, he coldly manipulates the lives of all whom he meets. Having launched Luzhin’s career as an international chess prodigy, he drops him. Valentinov returns only to deliver the coup de grace, inveigling Luzhin back into the world of chess as a bit player in a film he is producing. It is in his studio office that Luzhin finds the film magazine photo that gives him the idea for his suicide leap.
Cockburn, Alexander. “Paths of Exile: Nabokov’s Grand Master,” in Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, 1974.
Johnson, D. Barton. “Text and Pre-text in The Defense,” in Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, 1985.
Moody, Fred. “Nabokov’s Gambit,” in Russian Literature Triquarterly. XIV (1976), pp. 67-70.
Purdy, Strother B. “Solus Rex: Nabokov and the Chess Novel,” in Modern Fiction Studies. XIV (Winter, 1968-1969), pp. 379-395.
Updike, John. “Grandmaster Nabokov,” in Assorted Prose, 1965.