The Antigonish Review 121

Glen Downey

The Relentless Combination: Chess and the Patterns of Madness in Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense

 Rereading the novel today, replaying
 the moves of its plot, I feel rather
 like Anderssen fondly recalling his
 sacrifice ofboth Rooks to the unfortunate
 and noble Kieseritsky - who is doomed to
 accept it over and over again through an
 infinity of textbooks, with a question
 mark for monument. My story was difficult
 to compose, but I greatly enjoyed taking
 advantage of this or that image and scene
 to introduce a fatal pattern into Luzhin's
 life and to endow the description of a
 garden, a journey, a sequence of humdrum
 events, with the semblance of a game of
 skill, and, especially in the final
 chapters, with that of a regular chess
 attack demolishing the innermost elements
 of the poor fellow's sanity.

  -Nabokov, in his Forward to The Defense

Nabokov's preface to the English edition of Zashchita Luzhina emphasizes the extent to which chess serves as a controlling metaphor in his novel. Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the brooding Russian grandmaster of The Defense, is both the originator ofcomplex and elegant strategies, and a desperate plaything at the mercy of the relentless psychological combination that ultimately checkmates him. Luzhin becomes trapped within his struggle to break free ofthis combination because in his efforts to construct a defence, he fails to recognize the extent to which the relentlessly unfolding patterns of his life are a Product of his own disturbed psychology. He believes that by introducing randomness into his actions and by making unusual moves he can somehow subvert the fatal combination and divine its horrifying purpose, but the reader can see that Nabokov's morose grandmaster carefully constructs these patterns even as he tries frantically to unravel them.

This essay examines the origins of the relentless combination that drives Luzhin to suicide by investigating how the fatal patterns of the grandmaster's psychological undoing have their origin in his disturbed prechess childhood. Characterized by an acute isolation from those who see him as a curious enigma, Luzhin's childhood years are permeated with disturbing patterns, many ofwhich he himself creates in his attempts to deal with reality by clinging to the repetition of comfortable and familiar routines. As Brian Boyd argues in his article on the problems of pattern in The Defense, "Luzhin ... has a disposition to withdraw from life, to form silent strategies of defense, and to observe the idle combinations of things that would allow someone who could look in on other lives to register the boy's ideal readiness to abjure life for chess" (585). Chess might initially appear to be an appropriate means for Luzhin to sublimate his own inner conflict because by embodying the fundamental tension between the need for embracing familiar patterns and the equally important need for escaping unfamiliar patterns, the game serves as a perfect metaphor for his childhood experiences. However, because chess does not resolve its inherent tensions and allow the compulsive player to transcend or escape the game - but only to play it over and over again - Luzhin's desperate efforts to avoid constantly replaying the events of his life are ultimately doomed to end in self-mate.

Nabokov's gandmaster ultimately succumbs to the fatal combination played against him in part because of a psychological need to cling to familiar patterns, a need that ultimately has its genesis in his unhappy childhood. The reader immediately learns that Luzhin has a very difficult time dealing with change, whether it be in the form of a tantrum that he throws upon being introduced to his new French governess, or in his sullen resistance to the family's annual move from the country to the city. As the novel opens, Aleksandr is described as having a particular aversion to returning home because his impending enrolment in school threatens to undermine the carefully constructed pattern of his daily routine:

 Only today, on the day of their annual
 move from country to city, on a day
 which in itself was never sweet, when
 the house was full of drafts and you
 envied so much the gardener who was not
 going anywhere, on-ly today did he
 realize the full horror ofthe change
 that his father had spoken of Fortner
 autumn returns to the city now seemed
 happiness. His daily morning walks
 with the governess always along the
 same streets, along the Nevsky and
 back home, by way of the Embankment,
 would never be repeated. 
 Happy walks. (21)

The further description of luzhin's outings illustrates the peculiar strategic abilities that will eventually motivate his obsessive preoccupation with chess. Afraid of the cannon at the Peter and Paul fortress that threatens to overtake him ifhe changes the route ofhis daily walk, Luzhin contrives with grandmaster-like ability and "by means of imperceptible maneuvers" to be at the greatest mathematical distance from "the huge thunderlike percussion that made the windowpanes in the houses rattle and was capable of bursting one's eardrum" (21). Just as threatening to Luzhin is his impending enrolment in school, and to avoid this "new, unknown and therefore hideous ... impossible, unacceptable world" (22), he flees the train station on the day of the family's departure and returns to the sanctuary of the country manor in a vain effort to preserve the comfortable and familiar repetition of his habitual routine.

The fatal pattern that drives Luzhin to suicide is also in part a product of his inability to achieve real intimacy with others, and indeed even in childhood, he only manages relationships by reducing them to a series of precise rituals. For example, every recess at school, Luzhin avoids contact with his classmates by devising a clever strategy of false compliance, like a grandmaster proffering a sacrifice of material in order to give his opponent the illusion of relinquishing the advantage:

 Sometimes the teacher would suddenly
 appear around a comer. "Why are you
 always sitting in aheap, Luzhin? You
 shouldr un about a bit with the other
 boys." Luzhin would get up from the
 wood pile, trying to find a point
 equidistant from those three of his
 classmates who were especially fierce
 at this hour, shy away from the ball
 propelled by someone's resounding kick
 and, having reassured himself that the
 teacher was far off, would return to
 the woodpile. (29)

With an unerring geometrical accuracy, Luzhin avoids any chance of prolonged social intimacy, a pattern which we see him repeating several years later when he feigns interest in politics and other matters in order to convince his unsuspecting wife that he has given up studying chess. Luzhin also uses a similar routine in negotiating his emotionless relationship with his parents; each day he methodically repeats the same after-school ritual during which he both intimidates his fatherwith his impenetrable sullenness and systematically ignores questions about his studies. In her article, "Language Deficiency as Luzhin's Defense and Vladimir Nabokov's Metaphor for Exile", Daniele Roth-Souton notes that "[t]his stubborn silence is not a mark of deliberate hostility. Obviously traceable to pathology, it is the sign of an unconscious defensive maneuver on the part ofthe child, ignorant ofwhat urges him on, or rather out - out of the verbal communication heavy with authoritative power when it is parental " (151). Not surprisingly, attempts by Luzhin's mother to disrupt this pattern by eliciting information from her son about school are met with uncontrolled outbursts.

Luzhin's inability to interact normally with his parents and classmates has its origins in his fimdamental distrust of those who represent a threat to the familiar patterns of his routine. For instance, the manner in which Luzhin's parents endeavour to tell their son about sending him to school is described in the narrative as an agonizingly slow process of constriction:

 the whole summer they had debated
 the question of when and how to tell
 him, and they had kept putting it off
 so that it dragged on until the end of
 August. They had moves around him in
 apprehensively narrowing circles, but
 he had only to raise his head-and his
 father would already be rapping with
 feigned interest on the barometer dial,
 where the hand always stood at storm,
 while his mother would sail away
 somewhere into the depths of the
 house. (16)

The reader soon recognizes that this kind of psychological game-playing can not go undetected by someone as sensitive to pattern as Aleksandr. Luzhin Sr. is afraid of telling his son about school for fear that the child will throw a tantrum, but by moving around the boy in apprehensively narrowing circles, he exacerbates the tension that characterizes their relationship and further encourages his son's predilection to withdraw. Not surprisingly, in the wake ofthis constrictive maneuver, Luzhin reacts to the news of what is to happen not by explosively crying, but by throwing himself supine on his pillow, opening his mouth, and rolling his head-that is, by imploding. Luzhin's parents unwittingly reinforce in their son the precariousness of his familiar routine by exposing him to a "world where there would be five lessons from nine to three and a crowd of boys still more frightening than those who just recently, on a July day, here in the country, right on the bridge, had surrounded him, aimed tin pistols at him and fired at him sticklike projectiles whose rubber suction cups had perfidiously been pulled off '(22). This image of Luzhin as the object of aggression suggests that he will ultimately bemore comfortable with the symbolic representations of human beings on the chessboard than with human beings themselves because the latter are inherently "perfidious."

Luzhin's deficient interpersonal skills and distrust ofothers combined with his attraction to familiar patterns and habitual routines make him an ideal candidate for the maddening lure of chess, a game in which not only a memorization of basic principles is important, but also an ability to conceptualize the interrelationship between chessmen as a series of meaningful patterns. Indeed, embracing the concept of pattern is important in all phases of play, from an understanding of various opening systems to are cognition of familiar middle game positions and finally, to an appreciation of the endgame. Furthermore, understanding how such patterns repeat is crucial in mastering the game, even though critics have challenged the importance of repetition in chess. In "Text and Pretext in Nabokov's The Defense or'Play it Again, Sasha"', D. Barton Johnson argues that although chess "is central to the novel - its guiding metaphor ... repetition, the central mechanism of the novel's structure, is not a significant factor in either chess play or problem solving" (282). However, repetition is a significant factor in chess, and a part of the game that most certainly contributes to Luzhin's obsessive passion for it. First repeating successful opening strategies is crucial in chess because it ensures the player the chance of a playable game. Second, knowing when to force a repetition of moves during the middlegame can mean the difference between losing and drawing. This actually plays itself out during an important game in young Luzhin's chess career against his aunt's old gentleman friend: "Luzhin perceived something, something was set free within him, something cleared up, and the mental myopia that had been painfully beclouding his chess vision disappeared. 'Well, well, it's a draw' said the old man. He moved his Queen back and forth a few times the way you move the lever of a broken machine and repeated: 'A draw. Perpetual check"' (56)1 Last, understanding how to repeat moves while subtly transposing the position of the chessmen is an important part of the endgame play.

However, although chess allows Luzhin a solipsistic indulgence in his addictions to pattern and repetition, the game carries with it a dangerous threat in that it encourages such indulgence without any inherent safeguards for the compulsive player. Chess games consist of the players' attempts to avoid repeating inferior lines of play from previous games, but regardless of whether or not players are able to discover new winning lines


(I) Perpetual check occurs when a player demonstrates a forced sequence of checks which do not lead to maie but which his or her opponent can not avoid. Once the same position is repeated for the third time, the player can claim a draw by threefold repetition.


in the process, this does not allow them to somehow alter the fundamental nature of the game: the winning line solves a finite game but chess itself remains infinite. Therefore, because Luzhin constructs reality as an unfolding chess attack (or at the very least, allows his conflicting worlds to become hopelessly interwoven), his search for an escape from the relentless combination he perceives being played against him is doomed to fail. He sees his life as a game that perpetually repeats itself, and thus any move that he makes - whether it be a checkmate, a humble resignation, or an angry sweeping of the pieces from the board - only allows these pieces to be set up on their original squares and begin their inevitable movement all over again. Luzhin's efforts to go back in time to his prechess childhood are also doomed to fail, because as Johnson notes, the events of "his new, post chess life are all combinatorial repetitions of his pre-chess existence" (281), and his diabolical addiction to pattern and repetition takes root long before his introduction to the game.2

Because Luzhin mentally reduces his reality into the two-dimensional chess board of unfolding and repeating patterns, his own disturbed psychology threatens to reduce him to a chess piece during the nervous breakdown he suffers in the wake of his adjourned game with Turati: "He knew the manor was somewhere here, close by, but he was approaching it from an unfamiliar angle and how difficult everything was ... His legs from hips to heels were tightly filled with lead, the way the base of a chessman is weighted ... He stretched out a hand to the fence but at this point triumphant pain began to overwhelm him, pressing down from above on his skull, and it was as if he were becoming flatter and flatter, and then he soundlessly dissipated" (143). As this passage emphasizes, Luzhin finds himself doubly trapped within the game, both as a player threatened by the relentless combination which he can not overcome, and as a piece trapped within the structured squares of the threatening chessboard that his madness projects on reality. Like the characters of Beckett's Endgame, Luzhin sees himself forced to perpetually reenact the moves of his life, but


(I) In effect, Luzhin wants to take back all the moves of the game, but he has no more success than characters in other chess fictions who make similar attempts. For instance, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Alice makes several comments about "going back," but the fact that she is a pawn in a game in a dream prevents her from returning to squares that she has previously crossed over. Similarly, the characters of Samuel Beckett's Endgame are prevented from escaping their chess-like existence at the close of the play, fated instead to shift aimlessly back and forth like chessmen trapped in a neverending game.

whereas Hamm and Clov have no choice but to resign themselves to their unending game of repeated maneuvers, Nabokov's grandmaster is willing to commit suicide in an effort to escape. Even in his moment of self-mate, however, Luzhin's mind can not help but create the very patterns from which his madness has driven him to find some means of respite:

 Before letting go he looked down. 
 Some kind of hasty preparations were
 under way there: the window reflections
 gathered together and leveled themselves
 out, the whole chasm was seen to divide
 into dark and pale squares, and at the
 instant when Luzhin unclenched his hand,
 at the instant when icy air gushed into
 his mouth, he saw exactly what kind of
 eternity was obligingly and inexorably
 spread out before him. (256)

In his review of The Defense, John Updike plaintively wonders why Luzhin, "equipped with a willing if not enthusiastic female caretaker and furthermore a wealthy father-in-law ... is hopelessly blocked from pursuing, this side of madness, his vocation. He is lovable, this child within a monster, this 'chess moron,' and we want him to go on, to finish his classic chess game with Turati, and, win or lose, to play other games, to warm and dazzle the exquisite twilit world of his preoccupation with the limpidity and lightness'ofhis thought" (qtd. in Page 158). However, Luzhin's pathological obsession with pattern and repetition - fostered during his pre-chess childhood - allows his exquisite twilit world of chess to become hopelessly confused with reality. Once this happens - once the relentless combination overwhelms Luzhin and renders everything else an extension of the game - there are no other chess matches for him to win or lose. As Beckett's Clov might remark, there is only "Zero."


Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. 1958. New York:" Grove, 1978.

Boyd, Brian. "The Problem of Pattern: Nabokov's Defense." Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 575-604.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. Oxford: OUP, 1982.

Johnson, D. Barton. "Text and Pre-Text in Nabokov's The Defense or 'Play it Again, Sasha."' Modern Fiction Studies 30 (1984): 278-87

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Defense. 1964. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Page, Norman. Nabokov: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1982.

Roth-Souton, Daniele. "Language Deficiency as Luzhin's Defense and Vladimir Nabokov's Metaphor for Exile. "Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines 15 (1990): 149-60.


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