The following annotations are meant to expand on Prof. Tadashi Wakashima’s Annotations to The Luzhin Defense. Prof. Wakashima’s notes avoid being too interpretation-laden (it should be added that he himself is a recognized International Master for solving Chess Problems), clarifying the unfamiliar expressions while noting the allusions, which makes it particularly useful to readers and re-readers. However, re-readers (like the present one) will also be looking for depth in that novel, which The Luzhin Defense amply offers. These additional notes are offered in this vein, noting allusions to other Nabokov works, or examining the ramifications of this or that “fatal pattern/object” introduced by Nabokov in Luzhin’s life (Foreword, The Luzhin Defense).

Although Nabokov explains in the Foreword of his original inspiration for Zashchita Luzhina arising in the “ulex- and ilex-clad hills” of Pyrénées Orientales, Brian Boyd traces the poem Shakhmatnyy kon’ (The Chess Knight, 1927), as a clear precursor of The Luzhin Defense and relates its plot as “an old chess master in a tavern who starts to see the world in chess terms, and registers a plank floor as light and dark squares and construes two people in the doorway as a black king and a pawn. Trying to escape, he leaps in knight moves across the squares. The laughter of his friends turns to an appalled hush, and away he is taken to an asylum, captured by the black king” (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 275-76, Princeton University Press, 1990). This poem itself was inspired by a record-setting world title match (lasting up to 34 games over a period of two months) in 1927, when Alexander Alekhine had challenged and defeated the long-reigning world champion, Jose Raoul Capablanca. 

For consistency, I have followed Prof. Wakashima’s example in the formatting and use the same edition of the book (G. P. Putnam's Sons, republished by Vintage in 1990). 


10.7-10: the solver being required to prove from a back-cast study of the diagram position that Black’s last move could not have been castling or must have been the capture of a white Pawn en passantProf. Wakashima annotates and explains the term of “retrograde analysis.” In this regard it seems pertinent to point out that V. Sirin’s first published chess problem in the journal Rul’ (April 1923, ed. Iosif Hessen) was of the same kind (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 205, Princeton University Press, 1990). In layman’s terms, this class of problems, instead of controlling and predicting the future moves of a player, is concerned with the past history of the chess board, where only the permissible and legal moves of a player are analyzed and subsequently intuited. See Raymond M. Smullyan’s classic The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (1979) for an accessible introduction to “retro-analysis” of chess-logic.

Ch 1

20.9-11: awaited the impact of a coin in order to come to life and revolve; but today their expectation was in vain: Compare this with Trance’s remark in Act II The Waltz Invention (Phaedra Publishers 1965; 44) “I'll put in a word, like a coin in a slot, and everything will start moving at once - you'll see!” Does the physical input of coin act as the final (mental) trigger behind little Luzhin’s decision to flee?

Ch 5

81.18: a death’s head ring: The symbol of the skull and crossbones is a Masonic emblem, as Prof. Wakashima points out in his annotations. As an example of Luzhin’s father’s wish-fulfillment, we have later on in the novel, during a talk with Oleg Smirnovski in Chapter 11 (175 ll. 8-11), Oleg discloses “to him with a gleam in his eye the secret machinations of the Masons and even promised to give him a remarkable pamphlet to read.” 

Ch 6

88.22: and the geography teacher—who also taught in a boys’ school…suffering—they said—from tuberculosis; and later on the same page,

88.30:  the geography teacher had remained in her memory: he would dash noisily into the classroom in his usual impulsive manner and then melt away and vanish:  Compare this with the description of Luzhin’s geography teacher in Chapter 3 (48, ll. 1-2): “the geography teacher, as was his habit, came dashing almost at a run into the room.” And a few pages later (50, ll. 13-16), “On the way he happened to run into the geography teacher, who with enormous strides, a briefcase under his arm, was rushing in the direction of school, blowing his nose and expectorating phlegm as he went.” The probability is high that both of them share the same Geography teacher, namely Valentin Ivanovich (among the few characters in the novel given a full name). This similarity has been remarked upon by other commentators, and the case presents itself as an example of Luzhin and his future wife’s common and shared past (see Alexandrov’s essay on The Defense in The Garland Companion to Nabokov, 85Taylor and Francis, 1995, and Toker’s chapter on The Defense: Secret Asymmetries in her Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures, 83, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

90.7-9: And he remained in some strange manner beside the Russian officer who subsequently lost an arm in the Crimea during the civil war—a most shy and retiring boy with whom she used to play tennis in summer and ski in winter: Again, compare this with the description of Luzhin’s classmate, from Chapter 2 (31, ll. 2-5): “This same quiet boy, who six years later, in the beginning of World War One, received the St. George Cross for an extremely dangerous reconnaissance and later lost an arm in the Civil War." It is most likely that this refers to the same person. Since the Soviets abolished the St. George Cross decoration, it can be assumed that the quiet boy was fighting for the White Russian Army in 1920 (see also, Toker’s Chapter on The Defense: Secret Asymmetries in her Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures, pg. 83, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

87.15-19: she replied and added many similar words—the poor relations of real words—and how many there are of them, these little throw-away words that are spoken hurriedly and temporarily fill the void: A running motif throughout the novel. This concern will arise again in Chapter 8 (124, ll. 19-21) when Mrs. Luzhin imagines “in dismay about the kind of conversations they had—a poke here, a dab there, and disconnected words.” In Chapter 10 (164, ll. 1-2), Luzhin also has some difficulty in choosing the right words: “It was impossible to express his recollections in words—there simply were no grown-up words for his childish impressions—and if he ever related anything, then he did so jerkily and unwillingly.” A few pages later (Chapter 10, 168, ll. 1-7), Luzhin’s speech is said to be “full of shapeless, ridiculous words—but in it there sometimes quivered a mysterious intonation hinting at some other kind of words, which were living and charged with subtle meaning, but which he could not utter. Despite his ignorance, despite the meagerness of his vocabulary, Luzhin harbored within him a barely perceptible vibration, the shadow of sounds that he had once heard.” What this entails (the constant search for the appropriate words) can be nicely glossed over from a comparable passage in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, where V., the narrator, “longed to say something real, something with wings and a heart, but the birds I wanted settled on my shoulders and head only later when I was alone and not in need of words” (Chapter 3, 30, ll. 12-15).

Ch 7

117.2-7: But the moon emerged from behind the angular black twigs, a round, full-bodied moon—a vivid confirmation of victory—and when finally Luzhin left the balcony and stepped back into his room, there on the floor lay an enormous square of moonlight, and in that light—his own shadow: The subdued theme of lunacy (moon/moonlight) in the novel is significantly concentrated here. Other manifestations of this “sublunary” theme come from Chapter 8 (134, ll. 1-3), where it is mentioned that “everything apart from chess was only an enchanting dream, in which, like the golden haze of the moon, the image of a sweet, clear-eyed maiden with bare arms dissolved and melted.” And another from Chapter 12 (189, ll. 23-26), where Mrs. Luzhin goes to a phonograph to change records: “She would get up and change the record, holding the disc up to the light, and one sector of it would be a silky shimmer, like moonlight on the sea.” The last is particularly significant in the sense that before committing suicide (252, ll. 8-9), Luzhin would empty his pockets and put them all “upon the phonograph cabinet.” 

Ch 8

119.20-23: A chandelier with pale translucent pendants answered him with an oddly familiar vibration: The phrase “oddly familiar” is a typical Nabokovian marker. It suggests that this vibration is what Luzhin experienced (or, possibly, what he will experience), but he cannot remember where and when. It’s a sort of “fissure” in the serial sequence of time. In Chapter 3 (41, ll. 3-5), it is mentioned: “From time to time a faint glimmer sped over the ceiling in a mysterious arc and a gleaming dot showed…” Also in Chapter 10, after Luzhin recovers from his mental breakdown, he sees “Tiny yellow leaves gleamed in this blueness, throwing a speckled shadow on a white tree trunk, that was concealed lower down by the dark green paw of a fir tree; and immediately this vision filled with life, the leaves began to quiver, spots crept over the trunk and the green paw oscillated, and Luzhin, unable to support it, closed his eyes, but the bright oscillation remained beneath his lids” (159, ll. 10-15). And finally in Chapter 11 (178, ll. 21-23), during Luzhin’s wedding when he is recollecting the past, he remembers that as a child: “how difficult it always was to catch the moment when the smoothly swaying censer was aimed at you, precisely at you and not at your neighbor, and to bow so that the bow came exactly on the thurible’s swing.”

130.25-26: What a thing to do, putting your chair in the middle of the room and sitting there: The comparison to an idol (in Mrs. Luzhin’s mind) in the above lines is apt, but Luzhin has an innate disposition to be placed at the centre. In chess terms, it equates to the King in the middle of the chessboard accepting the sacrificing pieces. Cf. from Chapter 6 (110, ll. 16-19), the future Mrs. Luzhin imagines: “And in the middle of this bleak disorder sat the most unfathomable of men, a man who occupied himself with a spectral art, and she tried to stop, to grasp at all his failings and peculiarities, to tell herself once for all that this man was not the right one for her” and later on in Chapter 14 (236, ll. 5-10) from one of Luzhin’s nightmares, “in sleep, there was no rest at all, for sleep consisted of sixty-four squares, a gigantic board in the middle of which, trembling and stark-naked, Luzhin stood, the size of a pawn, and peered at the dim positions of huge pieces, megacephalous, with crowns or manes.” Controlling the centre of the board is a fundamental chess strategy; and it is said that Luzhin’s greatest opponent, Turati, is a type of player who as “a representative of the latest fashions in chess, opened the game by moving up on the flanks, leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the center from the sides” (Chapter 6, 96, ll. 24-27). Ultimately, their adjourned game would be left leaning towards the centre, “with a black pawn (Luzhin) on f4 and white (Turati) at d3” (Chapter 9, 154 ll. 3-6).

Ch 10

162.9-10: counting pebbles on a deserted ocean shore: This is a recurrent metaphor in scientific writings, from Archimedes to Newton and even Darwin. Newton’s famous statement, “I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” I commented on this in regard to Nabokov’s "Lance" and Transparent Things in the last issue of The Nabokovian (No. 76). One of its examples in literature is from The Hound of Baskervilles, where Dr. James Mortimer introduces himself as “A dabbler in science, Mr. Holmes, a picker-up of shells on the shores of the great unknown ocean” (Chapter 1).

Ch 11

174.8-12: a woodcut in the wall space between the windows showed a child prodigy in a nightgown that reached to his heels playing on an enormous piano, while his father, wearing a gray dressing gown and carrying a candle, stood stock-still, with the door ajar: In Chapter 2, Luzhin’s father dreams of (25, ll. 18-20) “a Wunderkind, dressed in a white nightshirt that came down to his heels, would be playing on an enormous, black piano.” Prof. Wakashima’s note traces this to a popular lithograph of Mozart. That the reverie will impinge upon reality later on in the novel can either be regarded, as Toker puts it, as “the workings of agent X” (the term is of Nabokov’s; from his lecture on Madame Bovary in Lectures on Literature), or the continuing influence of Luzhin’s father.

179.11-13: a virgin-smooth pyramid of paschal cottage cheese that you want: An echo of the Easter lunch Chapter 3 (44, ll. 3-5): “For lunch there was the remains of the paschal cream cheese (now a squat little cone with a grayish shading on its round summit) and a still untouched Easter cake.” Brian Boyd in his essay (The Problem of Pattern: Nabokov’s Defense, MFS, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1987) remarks on this as another example of the continuing presence of Luzhin’s father, post mortem.

Ch 12

186.2: he had loved as a child—the Baltic Sea, like a kneeling woman, the jackboot of Italy, the drop of Ceylon falling from India’s nose and later on the same page

186.10-11: and looking at the relative positions of the two Americas he found something acrobatic in their association: Nabokov reworks this exact description in his 1951 short story "Lance" (section 4): “the painted oceans, and the praying woman of the Baltic, and a still of the elegant Americas caught in their trapeze act, and Australia like a baby Africa lying on its side.”

Ch 13

208.9: a skull on a telephone directory: It seems like a memento mori motif from various paintings; a literary example would be Ivan Ilyich’s inscription of “respice finem” on his watch-chain (Chapter 2, The Death of Ivan Ilyich).

Ch 14

233.19-20: he looked at the black match tip, writhing in pain after having just gone out in his fingers: A continuation of the incident from Chapter 8 (139, ll. 13-15), during his match with Turati: “and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette.”

247.5-7: a white-faced man with lifeless features and big American glasses, hanging by his hands from the ledge of a skyscraper: Prof. Wakashima recognizes this as from Harold Lloyd’s famous Clock Tower scene in Safety Last! (1923). Alfred Appel Jr. had first noted this in his interview with Nabokov in 1970. It is interesting to compare with one of Luzhin’s own drawings: “a train on a bridge spanning an abyss” (Chapter 13, 208, ll. 7-8).


--Shakeeb Arzoo, Kolkata, India  

I thank Prof. Meyer for her help in editing the article. Prof. Wakashima suggested and rectified some of the ideas here, which was not only helpful but also a source of much encouragement.