Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense

Nabokov's "The Defense" was generously given to me recently to broaden my reading horizons. Some might say that I already have fairly large and eclectic tastes when it comes to books, but it is true that one of the areas that I am particularly short in is Russian classics. I don't know why this is- I don't steer clear of them as a general rule- but my best guess is that most people read this type of literature and either learn to love it or hate it in high school and college. I went to less traditional schools who filled my brain with more exotic soon-to-be classics like Cisneros, Lourde, Silko, etc. Basically, dead white men were out, anything else was in. The only "classic" I remember reading was "Lord of the Flies" and I hated that book so much that I will never revisit it.

Anyway, this was a classic worth revisiting, or visiting in my case. I've discussed my hesitancy to read in translation before, but this edition of "The Defense" was beautifully done. I think part of the reason it worked so well is that Nabokov himself was involved in the translation. The discussions of language in the book don't come across as stilted, and the book, which is so much about the writing (long, Faulkner-esque paragraphs), flows like a first language. The characters are poignantly drawn with minimal dialogue. Nabokov's style is almost too magical for me- back and forth and skipping around in a way that makes sense to the confused protagonist and to Nabokov himself, but can leave the reader feeling jerked about. However, it fits perfectly with the theme of chess: the main character, Luzhin, is a chess player (to put it mildly) and sees his whole life as a game of chess. Peripheral characters/pieces are introduced then fall to the side only to become relevant again as Luzhin charts his position and his ultimate defense against the world. The bits about complex chess games are (of course) over my head, but it doesn't really matter: Luzhin's complete and utter dependency on the game is the key to "The Defense."

I would not have picked this book for myself, but am glad that I read it. In fact, it was quite hard to put down. I will seek out "Lolita" next.