Former posting: In November 1924, Nabokov published “Three Chess Sonnets” in Rul’.In moving the rook – an iambic meter,// in moving the bishop – an anapest.[   ] Here, Phillidor contended, and Ducer. (translated by Erik Vande Stouwe.

Present Posting:  In Speak, Memory VN writes that “inspiration of quase-musical, quasi-poetical, or to be quite exact, poetico-mathematical type, attends the process of thinking up a chess composition” (288). In Strong Opinions, he notes that although he has “no ear for music,” he finds “a queer substitute for music in chess – more exactly, in the composing of chess problems” (35). Cf. also the 1964 Playboy Interview by Alvin Toffler - . where VN not only states that his “desires are modest. [   ] No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters,” but also makes explicit the kind of torture he endures when he attends a musical execution:  he endeavors to “gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians”.

In this same interview he will add an information that should be registered close to his observation that “the motions of the musicians… bore him beyond measure.” For VN, a “very bothersome feature that Russian presents is the dearth, vagueness and clumsiness of technical terms. [  ] On the other hand, there are words rendering certain nuances of motion and gesture and emotion in which Russian excels [   ] English is, syntactically, an extremely flexible medium, but Russian can be given even more subtle twists and turns.”  Russian syntax facilitates subtle twists and turns that VN doesn’t encounter in English and it also has words that express motion, gesture, emotion. And isn’t his particular attention to “mechanical” gestuality and movement, when it predominates over the sounds he is hearing, what makes him become bored beyond measure?  

Bringing together again the quotes from Lectures on Russian Literature: “What interests us here is not what Lyovin thought (as he watched a bug creep up a blade of grass) ... but that little bug that expresses so neatly the turn, the switch, the gesture of thought.'' [   ] ''The faceless saloon-walker ... is again seen a minute later coming down from Chichikov's room and spelling out the name on a slip of paper as he walks down the steps. 'Pa-vel I-va-no-vich Chi-chikov'; and these syllables have a taxonomic value for the identification of that particular staircase.''* Taxonomic value… added to kinesthesia, to words and the natural world, to physical gesturing, chess and language: this apprehension seems to suggest a more sophisticated aim than that of tracing parallels between science and art when a scrupulous scientist renders the world he observes in an artistic, magic, way: if art, for him, is not intended to serve a social or didactic purpose, it may still serve the ideals of a scientific classificatory notation of humans beings.


And yet, I may be wrong – considering his express statement about how to establish “a good formula to test the quality of a novel” as being, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science” (LL,GR&GW)…the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science” ( Interview-02, 1962, BBC Television ). Or not ! For he also compares fiction, i.e., an author’s deceitfulness, to what can be observed in nature: “ Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead,” since  “ above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems. (Good Readers and Good Writers).

It’s interesting to note, too, that in his chess sonnets VN mentions Philidor, a chess player and a musician: “ François-André Danican Philidor (September 7, 1726 – August 31, 1795), often referred to as André Danican Philidor during his lifetime, was a French composer and chess player. He contributed to the early development of the opéra comique. He was also regarded as the best chess player of his age; his book Analyse du jeu des Échecs was considered a standard chess manual for at least a century, and a well-known chess opening and a checkmate method are both named after him.” (from Wikipedia).**



* Stairs play an important role in VN’s writing as, for eg.:
1. Occasionally, in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence, without turning her head (Spring in Fialta)
2. Presently, as Marina had promised, the two children went upstairs. ‘Why do stairs creak so desperately, when two children go upstairs,’ she thought, looking up at the balustrade along which two left hands progressed with strikingly similar flips and glides like siblings taking their first dancing lesson. ‘After all, we were twin sisters; everybody knows that.’ The same slow heave, she in front, he behind, took them over the last two steps, and the staircase was silent again. ‘Old-fashioned qualms,’ said Marina. (ADA.I,5) …  “With a quick gesture he centrifuged them to waiting-room chairs, and despite his pretty cousin’s protests (‘It’s a twenty minute’s  walk; don’t accompany me’) campophoned for his car. Then he clattered, in Lucette’s wake, down the cataract of the narrow staircase, katrakatra (quatre à quatre). Please, children not katrakatra (Marina).”  (ADA II,5) 
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. (Lolita)

** Cf. also -  The Promise: Who is in Charge of Time and Space? By Leonard Shengold, p.65/76 Chapter 8: “Vladimir Nabokov: murderous impulses displaced onto Freud and literary rivals – and sublimated in relation to butterflies and chess.” -and The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, Ch The Defense” Vladimir E. Alexandrow.


Google Search
the archive
the Editors
NOJ Zembla Nabokv-L
Subscription options AdaOnline NSJ Ada Annotations L-Soft Search the archive VN Bibliography Blog

All private editorial communications are read by both co-editors.