Nabokov’s first masterpiece

Nicholas Kang, MBBS (Hons.), FRACS
Green Lane Cardiothoracic Unit, Auckland, New Zealand

 

Gradually the lights disappeared, the phantoms grew sparser, and a wave of oppressive blackness washed over him.

Nabokov writing
Nabokov famously composed his novels on index cards.
I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol
cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils
capped with erasers.’

The Defense, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, describes the mental breakdown and ultimate suicide of its fictional protagonist Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin. It is a remarkable literary rendering of what might be termed the process of psychosis.

The Defense was first published in Russian in 1930 and later translated by the author into English. Nabokov also translated some of his better-known English language novels into Russian, notably his most famous work Lolita (1955).

In The Defense, the reclusive young Luzhin withdraws into the solitary world of chess, in which he excels, becoming a grandmaster. His obsession with the game, however, becomes all-consuming at the cost of his own sanity. Nabokov’s extraordinary prose hints at the first glimpses of his hero’s loss of contact with reality.

Luzhin gloomily shrugged his shoulders looking at the floor, where a slight movement was taking place perceptible to him alone, an evil differentiation of shadows.

Dream and consciousness soon become indistinguishable, hallucinations more vivid and terrifying. The novel’s structure bears some parallels with Luzhin’s chaotic mind. Single paragraphs flow for pages at a time in a flight of ideas. Scenes sometimes move out of sequence, and at one point sixteen years elapse in the course of one paragraph.

The unraveling of Luzhin’s mind reaches its climax in the final round of a crucial tournament. Luzhin prepares an elaborate defense against his opponent which quickly becomes unstuck. The game is adjourned, but the strain proves overwhelming and the psychosis unstoppable. Luzhin loses his way home, literally and figuratively – the mental collapse complete.

He stretched out his 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.

Luzhin is found in a catatonic state, mistaken for a sleeping drunk by two strangers in a wondrously crafted scene. He enters a sanatorium where the diagnosis is one of “nervous breakdown” and at first the prognosis appears hopeful. His psychiatrist declares:

 “This is a temporary clouding of the senses, which is now gradually passing. As far as we can judge, a complete recovery is under way”.

Luzhin’s psychotic split, however, never fully heals. “Defense” becomes a metaphor for the struggle against a greater adversary – the real world all around him. A chance meeting with a childhood acquaintance renews the process of eroding his fragile grip on reality.

”But now dear Luzhin’s all right” whispered his wife and kissed his soft hand…But this was not quite so. Something remained – a riddle, a splinter.

Luzhin’s speech and behavior become increasingly erratic and his thoughts more disordered. In this gathering fog, however, he retains insight into his advancing downfall.

His lips trembled. He felt as if he were about to burst into tears, everything had become so terrifying now. … He grew confused and frightened by the inevitable and unthinkable catastrophe bearing down on him with merciless precision.

The suffering of Luzhin’s devoted wife, curiously never named in the entire novel, is poignantly expressed in one of novel’s most exquisite and moving passages:

And now, looking at Luzhin’s large, pale face, she so brimmed with aching tender pity that it seemed as if without this pity inside her there would be no life either.

Luzhin arrives at the dreadful conclusion that the only course of action left to him is to take his own life. In the final harrowing scene, he locks himself in the bathroom of his fifth floor apartment, climbs awkwardly to a high window and prepares to end his mental torment.

Clutching with one hand at something overhead, he got through the window sideways. Now both legs were hanging outside and he had only to let go of what he was holding on to – and he would be saved.

The novel ends with Luzhin’s horrifying act of defenestration:

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.

The door burst in. “Aleksandr Ivanovich, Aleksandr Ivanovich,” roared several voices.

But there was no Aleksandr Ivanovich.

Nabokov’s hero perplexes us; somehow this abstruse, unearthly, and pitiful creation evokes great tenderness and compassion. Nabokov said, “Of all my Russian books, The Defense contains and diffuses the greatest warmth.” Regarded as one of the twentieth century’s master prose stylists, Nabokov crafts in The Defense his first true masterpiece. The ravishing lyrical quality and astonishing beauty of his writing have an enduring appeal.

 


NICHOLAS KANG, MBBS (Hons.), FRACS, was awarded the Bernard Riley Prize in English before studying medicine at the University of Sydney, Australia. He trained in cardiothoracic surgery in Sydney, Perth, and London but sometimes muses on the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy: ‘Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.’