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Nabokov's Luzhin and his prototypes. Disclosing the mystery

by Boris Schipkov

Reading the novel "The Luzhin Defence" ("Zashchita Luzhina", "Luzhin's Defense" or "The Defense") of Vladimir Nabokov with attention, is possible to notice, that the surnames of the characters are similar to hieroglyphs, these surnames already mean much for connoisseurs.
For example, the surname of the grandmaster Turati is made up of the combination of two words - the folk name of a chess piece (rook) - tura and the surname of the real chess player of hypermodernist Richard Reti. The Tura - Reti - has turned out as Turati. Nabokov writes: "This player, a representative of the latest fashions in chess, opened the game by moving up on the flanks, leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the center from the sides" (translated by Michael Scammell in collaboration with Vladimir Nabokov). After that it becomes completely clear, that the prototype of Turati is Reti, and "the complex opening of the Italian Turati" is the Reti Opening.

We encounter more difficulty with the main character of the book. The surnames Luzhin and Alekhine have 4 identical letters, besides both bookish Luzhin and the world champion Alekhine had an aristocratic origin as well as Nabokov. But, certainly, Luzhin is a very narrow-minded man. He has not finished a grammar school, has read few books, he was interested almost in nothing except chess. The phrases of Luzhin are strange. Alexander Alekhine has received an excellent versatile education and he, himself, wrote excellent chess articles and books.

Luzhin is a collective image. In 1924 the Berlin master Curt von Bardeleben has parted with life like Luzhin, having thrown himself out of a window. So Curt von Bardeleben was probably one of the prototypes of Luzhin. However von Bardeleben was already sixty two as against the thirty-year-old Luzhin.

But all the same, there is another chess player who is perhaps the basic prototype of Luzhin. In the novel there is a direct hint at him. The bride of the main character has told the mother that she has made friends with the famous chess player Luzhin. Her mother answered: 'No doubt a pseudonym,' said her mother, burrowing in her toilet case. 'His real name is Rubinstein or Abramson.' So in reality Akiba Rubinstein has not received good education, he was afraid of making grammar mistakes, therefore he made almost no comments on the games and did not write articles even about tournaments. He had few contacts with people, spending all his time on chess. In 1932 Rubinstein has played in his last tourmnament in Rotterdam after which doctors forbidden him to play chess and participate in competitions. In Nabokov's book the doctor, psychiatrist said: " soon as it was possible to have a sensible conversation with Luzhin, one would have to impress upon him that a blind passion for chess was fatal for him and that for a long time he would have to renounce his profession and lead an absolutely normal mode of life".
In the interview for the weekly TV show "Apostrophes" ("Apostrophes: Bernard Pivot rencontre Vladimir Nabokov") in France in 1975 Vladimir Nabokov recalled grandmaster Rubinstein.

It is necessary to notice, that Nabokov finished his novel in 1929, therefore concerning Rubinstein it looks like a prediction. In the famous game Rotlevi - Rubinstein, Lodz 1907 Rubinstein beautifully sacrificed a queen and a rook, and in the final position his contender could also take a bishop. The description of a similar combination is in the book of Nabokov: "He had won one after sacrificing in succession his Queen, a Rook and a Knight".
So the basic prototype of Luzhin probably was Akiba Rubinstein, and Nabokov has borrowed from other chess players only certain personal or characteristic features.

Bibliography: Vladimir Nabokov. The Defense. Translated by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the author. Vintage Books, 1990.
Vladimir Nabokov, 1929. "Zashchita Luzhina". Publishing house Slovo (Berlin, 1930).

Vladimir Nabokov. "Zashchita Luzhina". Sovremennik, 1989.
Nabokov: "Etot igrok, predstavitel' noveyshego techeniya v shahmatah, otkryval partiyu flangovymi vystupleniyami, ne zanimaya peshkami serediny doski, no opasneyshim obrazom vliyaya na tsentr s bokov".

Nabokov: "Navernoe, psevdonim, - skazala mat', kopayas' v nesessere, - kakoy nibud' Rubinshtein ili Abramson".

Nabokov: "...kak tol'ko s Luzhinym mozhno budet stolkovat'sya, pridetsya emu vnushit', chto slepaya strast' k shahmatam dlya nego gibel'na, i chto na dolgoe vremya emu nuzhno ot svoey professii otkazat'sya i vesti sovershenno normal'nyi obraz zhizni".

Nabokov: "Odnu on vyigral, pozhertvovav posledovatel'no ferzyom, lad'yoy, konyom".


© 2000-2014 Boris Schipkov