Book Review / Movie Review: The Luzhin Defense

Book/movie review © 2003 James Schroeder

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabakov. 1930. Translated from Russian by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the author. Copyright 1964.

I have read the novel and the movie is an atrocious disgrace that has only superficial resemblance to the story.

In short: Luzhin is a Russian who suffers from mental illness from early childhood. He learns to play chess and becomes a fanatic – NOT like Fischer. His father hires a trainer and at age 14 Luzhin “wins third prize in an International Tournament in Berlin”.

Eighteen years later Luzhin is in a candidates tournament in Berlin and is tied for first with his last round opponent. Before this game begins Luzhin has hallucinations. After 40 moves, in an equal position, he is told to write his sealed move. Luzhin suffers a nervous breakdown and, after he recovers, is told to not play chess. His wife has wealthy parents and Luzhin doesn’t need to work. Several years later a man decides to make a chess movie and use grandmasters. After being asked to appear in the movie Luzhin, who is paranoid, imagines the man wants to “trap” him and commits suicide.

(In the movie reviewed there is some mysterious man who tries to drive Luzhin crazy, but no such character is in the book.)

(In the movie, after the game is adjourned Luzhin is driven in a car to the countryside, but this does not happen in the book.)

(In the movie the mysterious man keeps appearing and tries to get Luzhin to resume the adjourned game. That doesn’t happen in the book.)

(On the day he is to be married Luzhin is offered a ride to the church by the mysterious man, but instead is driven somewhere else. Luzhin jumps out of the car and returns to his hotel room and commits suicide by jumping out a window. NOT in the book.)

In the beginning little Luzhin does not want anyone to touch him and does not want to be near other children. During recess he hides in the basement and when forced to go outside sits on a bench as far away as possible from everyone. He is anti-social and remains so all his life.

Quitting school at age 14 he hires a business manager named Valentin.

At age 32 Luzhin is stout (meaning FAT), sloppy, dirty, un-washed, with dirty fingernails and teeth stained yellow with cigarette smoke.

I PROTEST! I don’t know why Nabakov created such a grotesque character but I do not believe there was any international master in the 1920’s who was like that.

Why would anyone like this oaf? No one does.

(One of the few good things about the movie is that Luzhin is NOT like that. Most people already think chess masters are freaks – like Fischer.)

“Looking back over 18 and more years of chess Luzhin saw an accumulation of victories at the beginning and then a strange lull, bursts of victories here and there, but in general, irritation and hopeless draws, thanks to which he imperceptibly earned the reputation of a cautious, impenetrable, prosaic player. And this was strange. The bolder his imagination, the livelier his invention during the secret work between matches, the more oppressive became his feeling of helplessness when the contest began.”

While in Berlin preparing to play in a candidates tournament which will happen in two months Luzhin accidentally meets a Russian woman who is 23 years old and living with her parents in Berlin.

For some weird reason she becomes attracted to Luzhin, ignores his faults, and they become engaged.

In the tournament Luzhin plays “remarkably and brilliantly.” There is an Italian grandmaster named Turati who’s the favorite but: “Luzhin moves in step with Turati. Turati won and Luzhin won. Turati drew and Luzhin drew. Thus they proceeded as if mounting the sides of an isosceles triangle destined to meet at the apex.”

This is important to establish that Luzhin and Turati are equals.

(The morons who wrote the movie had Luzhin and Turati playing in two separate tournaments, for no intelligent reason, and WORSE – their scores were NOT the same!)

The winner of the tournament will play a match with the World Champion.

Luzhin prepares to meet Turati, who has white in their last round game, by studying the famous “Turati Attack”.

Luzhin feels great pressure and has delusions, beginning in his hotel room and continuing through his game with Turati.

Turati does not play his “Turati Attack” but: “an innocent, jejune opening.” Luzhin assumes Turati is afraid of him and both play well but carefully.

“A chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati’s forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin’s side also.”

Nabakov is astute and original in comparing chess to music and NOT mathematics. I wonder if the sound of music while playing came from his own experience. When told he must write his sealed move Luzhin collapses.

(In the movie Luzhin seals his move and then discovers he has a forced win. NOT what happened in the book.)

This takes 140 pages and the book continues to page 256.

Although Nabakov considered the second part of the book to be very important I skipped most of it. He wanted to say something about mental illness, its treatment, etc.

Luzhin recovers, gets married, and is living happily when Valentin comes to him and says he wants Luzhin to be in a movie about chess.

No one ever tries to harm Luzhin and many try to help him, but because of mental illness Luzhin commits suicide.

Was it worth reading? NO! A bunch of pretentious crap, not helped by the depressing ending.

Always “Luzhin”. Only in the last sentence to we see “Aleksandr Ivanovich”. What is the point?

You MUST read the “forward” by Nabakov to understand what he is trying to achieve in his novel.

Zashchita Luzhin means ‘The Luzhin Defense’ and refers to a chess defense invented by my creation, Grandmaster Luzhin. In the late thirties an American publisher showed interest, but he suggested I replace chess with music and make Luzhin a demented violinist.” Not a bad idea. How about a demented violinist who plays chess?

This is very poorly written, especially the first 80 pages. They are insufferable. Trust me, because I won’t irritate you with examples.

Nabakov writes well when describing Luzhin’s thoughts, which are often irrational. We can understand why his actions are crazy – Luzhin’s crazy.

Nabakov’s knowledge of chess is excellent and I think he makes only one mistake: When Luzhin finishes an adjourned game he immediately starts another game. That never happens. Adjourned games were completed on “free” days.

What is the point of this book? NONE! It was written to make money.

2 comments for “Book Review / Movie Review: The Luzhin Defense

  1. February 2, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    With all due respect to Master Schroeder, I find it disingenious to “review” a novel while admitting to having skipped most of its second half. Can one review a movie having seen only the first half? I did read Nabokov’s “The Defense”, cover-to-cover, several years ago; I will not attempt a review, but I wish to add a couple of impressions regarding this work.
    Of course, the film version of this work is hardly the first movie to diverge widely from the novel upon which it is based. Contrast, for example, Melville’s “Moby Dick” with the Gregory Peck film version. Film makers have long taken incredible liberties with the plots, structures, and characters of literary works. One may react to the results of such treatment as one may, but it is of little consequence to vent spleen over the fact that it is done.
    Nabokov’s “The Defense” struck me as one of his weaker novelistic efforts. His attempt to draw a characterization of the development of insanity from childhood maladaptation to adult psychosis and suicide struck me as painfully superficial. Nabokov’s longstanding (and poorly argued) disavowal of psychoanalysis perhaps blinded him to the depth-psychology perspective that would be needed to make such a character as Luzhin credible. For this reason, the descriptive flow of the story is a dramatic one, rather than a psychological one.
    Nonetheless, as a piece of fiction by a major 20th century writer whose main topic is top-level chess, the book is largely successful and entertaining. I do not share Master Schroeder’s assessment of it as “pretentious crap.”

  2. The Butcher
    February 4, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    I find it disingenious to “review” a novel while admitting to having skipped most of its second half. Can one review a movie having seen only the first half?

    Yes. I thiink half-way through is a good point for anyone – reviewer or not – to cut one’s losses. And I thank the reviewer for warning me so that I do not take any losses at all.

    Of course, the film version of this work is hardly the first movie to diverge widely from the novel upon which it is based. Contrast, for example, Melville’s “Moby Dick” with the Gregory Peck film version. Film makers have long taken incredible liberties with the plots, structures, and characters of literary works. One may react to the results of such treatment as one may, but it is of little consequence to vent spleen over the fact that it is done.

    It irks me when a movie does not respect the book. But I did not think that was the case with “Moby Dick”.

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