restricted access The Problem of Pattern: Nabokov's Defense
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The Problem of Pattern:
Nabokov's Defense

I

The defense,1 Nabokov's third novel and first masterpiece, is also the first in his career in which patterns pervade in every direction. Hypersensitive since childhood to pattern and to threats lurking in the world around him, Luzhin commits suicide to escape the mysterious combinations encroaching upon him and in so doing alerts even the unwariest reader to their presence.

The Defense can therefore become a test case for the patterns Nabokov weaves in time. Does he expect us merely to marvel at their intricate interlacement, as if they were so much Celtic knotwork? Does he tease us to strain nail and finger to unravel the inextricable, as readers such as Douglas Fowler suppose ("the private systems of correspondence . . . the 'wayside murmur of this or that hidden theme' . . . are annotated red herrings" [74])? Or does he overcomplicate the design inadvertently so that it can never be untied? Strother Purdy typifies many readers at first lured by the promise of significance in Nabokov's fictional patterns [End Page 575] but finally convinced that they are too entangled to be meaningful. He writes of The Defense's, chess patterns: "That the squares of the board appear everywhere is tantamount to their appearing nowhere" (384).

Purdy has been franker than most in expressing his frustration at a real experience in reading Nabokov. Patterns that seem intended to pose readers' problems whose solutions might lurk just over the page or back in what one has just read begin to interlock with other patterns to the point where solutions seem impossible, and readers conclude either that Nabokov has been toying with his readers or that the sheer pleasure of design has after all been his only objective.

But Nabokov, a one-time curator of lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, knew the convolutions of nature's designs and that they could with patience be slowly deciphered. He would have been delighted to hear a later prize specimen at the M.C.Z., Stephen Jay Gould, define science as "the interpretation of pattern."2 Nabokov tried to match the complexity of pattern he found in the natural world, and he meant his patterns to be interpreted.

Besides being a lepidopterist, Nabokov was also a composer of chess problems. In The Defense he learned not only to pile pattern upon pattern but to pose problems as exact as those he could set in a chess diagram. And like his chess problems, he expected them to be solved.

II

One problem Nabokov put before the readers of the original version of The Defense and drew attention to again in the Foreword to the English translation proves to be a key to the whole novel—and to the question of whether its patterns, too, are problems to be solved or pleasures to be passively accepted.

Once chess engulfs Luzhin's life in 1912, little changes for him until he meets the woman he marries. His unnatural boyhood rises logically and naturally toward chess, but the woman arrives without warning. As if to heighten the surprise, she is introduced in the most peculiar fashion. In the first chapters we steadily follow Luzhin to the point where at the age of thirteen he begins his first tournament at a German resort. Suddenly, still within the same chapter and even within the same paragraph, the novel leaps from 1912 to 1928. We now see Luzhin seated at a garden table in conversation with someone—presumably a woman, for a handbag lies on the table—to whom he points out the windows of the wing [End Page 576] of the hotel where in 1912 he took part in that first tournament. We remain within this 1928 scene for two pages, with the woman left merely implicit as Luzhin pays court to her in his own inept fashion, simply by informing her of the tournament to which his father unwittingly brought him here. The reference to his father prompts the narrative into resuming the account of summer 1912, when Luzhin Senior learns by cable that his wife has died; with that, Chapter Four closes. Chapter Five then bridges the gap...


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