NABOKV-L post 0019468, Sun, 21 Feb 2010 15:05:45 -0300

[NABOKOV-L] [SIGHTING] Delayed 42 years: Georg Steiner in TNY
Dear List,

[SIGHTING] While investigating links about Nabokov and chess, in the media, I found a reference ( I don't know it it has been brought up before since it's older than most of you participants...) to an article by Georg Steiner, in the "Books" section of The New Yorker, sep 07, 1968. The title is " A death of Kings."
The query lies at the end. The intervening paragraphs are a rough précis of Steiner's text.

[ Rough abstract and comments]
Steiner dwells on the issue of chess as a "monomania" and describes how this game affects all true chess-players, who find in it a "reality" more convincing and fulfilling than "external reality" (or "internal reality," I must add).
He compares the precocious and mysterious "spacial" ability of young mathematicians, musicians and chess-players. He dwells on Nabokov's KQK and various other novels of his that would have been structured by a chess-player's ability to foresee invisible moves, which are already a given once the play has begun. He observes that Amis' article about VN's novels and chess didn't make any reference to "The Luzhin Defense.
Interestingly, he describes how the player gets divided in two, like a "schizophrenic," because he mentally plays on both sides at the same time, delving into the "harmonious and melodic, logical and necessary argument which derives from a initial tonal relation or the preliminary fragments of a theme"** although he returns to his own, always keeping the intent to win, ie, to survive*. Georg Steiner's title seems to be inspired by a poem written by Yeats (Deirdre) and the "kingly death" which ignores physical extermination to dwell in the eternal dimension achieved thru chess. A player feels "a shiver in the spine," he addsm as soon as he spots a chess-set, he experiences "an autistic uplifting"** as pure as one of "Bach's inverted canons or Euler's polyhedron formula." For him, chess, pure math and music are "resplendently useless," as if their practitioners "were building against the world." engendering the "paradox of a triviality that is wholy important."
I liked the conclusion proffered by Steiner about "building against the world," once external reality ceases to be the arbiter.
There's in it so much Nabokov in his explicit comments during some of his interviews, his word-play with "mir/mirage." aso.
And yet, until now, I had only considered Nabokov's "alternate worlds", "parallel realities" without considering this aggressive defiance related to the world as it is. If I remember it right, Nabokov never included chess among his greatest ecstasies ( I remember mostly his description of standing in a field with a net in his hand and being surrounded by butterflies).

[QUERY] When Steiner wrote that there are constant allegoric associations bt chess and death, he mentions medieval wood-cuts, Rennaissance frescoes, Cocteau and Bergman movies. He adds that "Death wins the game although, while playing it must submit, even if only momentarily, to rules that are totally outside its control."** These lines reminded me of something Kinbote wrote, attributing them to Shade's variants and Alexander Pope: were these lines really written by Pope ("victim falters, victor fails.")? Can anyone help me to locate them?***

* Cf. Nabokov's later writings (ADA)on the differences bt. Terra and Antiterra: "there were those who retorted that the dissimilarities only confirmed the live organic reality pertaining to the other world; that a perfect likeness would rather suggest a specular, and hence speculatory, phenomenon; and that two chess games with identical openings and identical end moves might ramify in an infinite number of variations, on one board and in two brains, at any middle stage of their irrevocably converging development."

** I could not get an enlarged copy from the digital TNY to copy quotes from the original. I bring a re-translation obtained in another language, one which was readable asfter being printed out.

*** - "Lines 895-899: The more I weigh... [ ] Instead of these facile and revolting lines, the draft gives:
895 I have a certain liking, I admit,/ For Parody, that last resort of wit:/ "In nature's strife when fortitude prevails/ The victim falters and the victor fails./ 899 Yes, reader, Pope."

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