The Luzhin Defense is one of Nabokov’s earliest works. It follows a gifted but troubled chess master struggling to cope with the effects brought about by his passion. I wrote about Lolita (often considered Nabokov’s best) earlier this year, and I praised Nabokov’s affinity for playing with the English language and exploring the intricacies of forbidden attraction. While The Luzhin Defense deals with very different subject matter, his style and commonly employed tropes are easily recognizable. Despite this, I wasn’t quite as impressed with The Luzhin Defense as I was with Lolita. Don’t think that my criticism means I didn’t enjoy my time with the book; it’s difficult to go wrong with Nabokov. The Luzhin Defense is certainly an exemplary novel, but its luster is dulled when compared to his magnum opus.
Like Lolita, The Luzhin Defense demonstrates that Nabokov is a master at employing metaphor, beautiful and cerebral descriptions, and other stylistic prose techniques in order to explore complex ideas. As a fan of chess, it was enjoyable to explore the copious chess-based imagery employed in the text. There is a particularly fascinating parallel drawn between the game and Luzhin’s life on the very last page, and I found that it did a great job of continuing the comparison between life and chess while also providing a sense of closure on the story’s events. Nabokov is a verbose writer. This certainly isn’t a criticism: his superfluous language is often used to great effect. It’s an integral part of his style, and a novel wouldn’t feel like it was written by Nabokov if it didn’t have this characteristic. However, while reading Lolita I felt that the flamboyant language was both employed more comfortably and fit better within the narrative. First of all, the narrator of Lolita is himself a literary scholar, so the language feels like it fits within the context of the novel. However, I don’t believe that this is enough to justify preferring Lolita. It may contribute to the text’s believably, but I find this to be relatively unimportant compared to other facets of a text. The real issue is that the stylized storytelling within Lolita simply feels more beautiful, better crafted, and more impactful. It’s difficult to pin down the minute details that contribute to this, but it is certainly apparent when I directly compare the language. I feel more immersed and captivated more completely when diving into Humbert’s journal. That said, the language in The Luzhin Defense is certainly not weak. It is still beautiful and captivating, just less so than Lolita.
While the language might not be as effectively employed, I did feel that the text’s thematic elements were just as fascinating as those in Lolita. The Luzhin Defense is a story of obsession, control, and suffering. Paramount among these ideas are the consequences of pursuing a passion single-mindedly and the notion that such obsessions cannot be escaped, even when others attempt to intervene. If you enjoyed the ideas present in Lolita, you won’t be disappointed here. Once again, don’t think of my judgement as too harsh. I loved the book and recommend you read it, but I wouldn’t say that it stands alongside Nabokov’s best.