The Luzhin Defense

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“The Luzhin Defense” by Vladimir Nabokov
(First publication: 1930 / This edition: Vintage International 1990
Taken during a quick coffee stop at The Coffee Club before a meeting

“[…] and she would think there were probably greater joys than compassion, but that these were no concern of hers.” (pg. 190)

I love Nabokov. I love Nabokov to the point where visiting his house was at the top of my itinerary on the first day I got to St. Petersburg last September. He has this special spot in my heart because of “Lolita”—that will always be one of my toppest favoritest books.

But now… I’m contemplating whether I can call him “one of my favorite authors” when… I actually dislike (to say it in the softest way) all the other works I’ve read of his? When people mention “Nabokov”, I immediately, automatically, start gushing about how much I lovelovelove Nabokov because I lovelovelove “Lolita”.

But if you ask me about his other works that I’ve “read”—”Ada or Ardor”, “Pnin”, or this one… oh dear. I barely made it through the first 1/5 of “Ada or Ardor”, I must’ve gone through half of “Pnin” before I put it down (forever), and I read “The Luzhin Defense” thinking half the time about whether I should just drop it.

I was trying so hard to pump myself up for it—but I found myself trying to do that throughout the entire book… which is just not right, and downright exhausting.

The story follows this man, Luzhin, who’s probably one of the world’s greatest chess players. He’s so passionate and so obsessed about chess—it was pretty much the only thing that brought any joy or “life” to him. He was desperately unpopular in school and just continued to have an awkward, outcast character throughout his adulthood. A woman, who kind of lives a lavish lifestyle, somehow fell in love with his awkwardness and his “genius” mind, and they ended up getting married. Luzhin goes into a mental breakdown during a high-intensity chess tournament and goes completely bonkers, so his wife does everything she can to prevent him from playing again or from even thinking about chess. So, naturally, inevitably, he starts thinking about chess in secret—and goes into a worse mental breakdown.

…. just really not my cup of tea.

I felt the story was so laggy and it felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. I really didn’t like Luzhin because I didn’t see anything about him that grasped my attention. He’s a person I would probably avoid in real life—just because he doesn’t seem to have any charm or character or charisma or ever says anything interesting. He doesn’t seem to care about anything else in life except for chess. He doesn’t take care of himself and doesn’t seem to care about anyone else either. And the wife—she just seems so “motherly” towards Luzhin, it got very annoying and disturbing. It’s also difficult to believe that she “fell in love” with him when he doesn’t seem to have anything good to offer her, and she spends so much time and energy trying to keep him sane.

It was just an exhausting, tedious, desert-dry experience. I was so proud of myself for making it almost all the way through—towards the last 10 or so pages, I realized it was really not getting anywhere and that I’d just be wasting even more time by trying to thoroughly go through every line; so I just skimmed through the last pages, felt like I wasn’t missing out on anything, and closed the book with a sigh of relief that I can put it away.

Also, I’m not a fan of chess. Don’t know how to play it and not that eager to learn.

I think chess players will probably enjoy this book though. Maybe that was just the missing link between this book and me.

The only thing I enjoyed about this book was that it’s set in St. Petersburg—and I really do love that city. I miss it and it brings me back.

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