Someone once said of Vladimir Nabokov, "He cannot imagine women characters
without a sneer or a sob." If you remember Lolita's mother (played unforgettably
by Shelley Winters in the Kubrick film) or Pnin's wife (a psychoanalyst
who was as stupid as she was cruel) you will recognize the truth in
this statement. It is difficult to imagine a Nabokov heroine serving
as a role model for today's women. So it came as a bit of a surprise
to learn that the Boston Women's International Film Festival was to
feature a film based on Zashcita Luzhina, a novel that Nabokov
wrote in Russian in 1929 when he was thirty. The idea came to him while
he was "hunting butterflies" in the Pyrenees and he finished it in Berlin,
where he was living at the time. The English translation, The Defense,
was first published in the New Yorker 35 years later.
I had never read the novel, but I knew its protagonist was a grandmaster
of chess who becomes insane. Chess was one of several fields in which
Nabokov excelled; he regularly contributed chess puzzles to émigré
magazines during the years he lived in Europe. The Defense's
mad chess master storyline made it seem an even more unlikely candidate
for a women's film festival. Then came the New York Times film
review by A. O. Scott. He gave The Luzhin Defence (the English
"c" in the film title is intentional) glowing praise and claimed that
Marleen Gorris, the director, had captured the "heartfelt romanticism"
of Nabokov's novel and its "dashing intellectual vigor."
Could it be that the master of parody and pathos, whose prose is reflexively
ironic, had written a book of "heartfelt romanticism"? I rushed to the
festival screening and then to the bookstore. I discovered that Marleen
Gorris and her writers have performed the cinematic equivalent of a
frontal lobotomy. Far from capturing the novel's intellectual vigor,
they have debrained it. The film serves up a sugarcoated confection
that will make anyone with a taste for Nabokov gag.
The central conceit of the novel—and there is one—is that
in the grandmaster's psychotic delusion he begins to experience reality
as a chess game. As Nabokov describes it, "my story was difficult to
compose, but I greatly enjoyed taking advantage of this or that image
and scene to introduce a fatal pattern into Luzhin's life and to endow
the description of a garden, a journey, a sequence of humdrum events,
with the semblance of a game of skill, and especially in the final chapters,
with that of a regular chess attack demolishing the innermost elements
of the poor fellow's sanity." Nabokov's antipathy to Freud and what
he calls the "psychoanalytic racket" is omnipresent in his writings.
But he was fascinated by psychiatry, and he seemed to relish creating
psychopathological case histories that defied Viennese augury—as
with Humbert Humbert in Lolita and here with Aleksander Ivanovich
Luzhin. (In the novel we do not learn Luzhin's patronymic until the
last sentences. The chess prodigy becomes human only in death.)
Chess has long been described as another form of Russian alcoholism—an
addiction. But Nabokov more accurately portrays it as obsession: an
endless cognitive mapping, which in his madness leads Luzhin to comprehend
the world as a chessboard and every humdrum event as a threatening move
in the ultimate game. This audacious conceit actually limits the novel
(Nabokov's third), though it does portend the creative literary power
of his mind. His fat and ungainly Luzhin squeezes out of the toilet
window in his fifth floor apartment to finish his life, the game and
the novel falling into an eternity of chess squares.
The morose grandmaster is, like many of Nabokov's heroes, a patheticfigure—he
once said that pity and beauty together make art. But Nabokov's beauty
is to be found in his stunningly original poetic prose. John Updike
says of Nabokov that he wrote ecstatically. That ecstasy of words is
not easily captured in translation to the medium of film. As if to compensate,
Marleen Gorris has substituted opulent surroundings and the scenic vistas
of the Italian lake country.
GORRIS CAME TO BOSTON three years ago on a publicity tour for her Mrs.
Dalloway. She had just written and directed her breakthrough film,
the marvelous, Oscar-winning Antonia's Line. That success, she
told me, had her phone ringing off the hook. She was prepared to give
up the lonely work of writing films and try her hand at directing—Mrs.
Dalloway was her first time directing a film she didn't write or
adapt herself. Even Hollywood was calling, but her next project was
to be based on a Nabokov novel about chess, which a group of writers
in England had been developing into a screenplay. Neither of us had
read the book at the time, but it sounded both intellectually ambitious
and intriguing. Gorris has no doubt read the novel many times by now,
and she must have wondered whether she made the right decision.
Her casting choices were superb. John Turturro is a truly gifted actor.
Because The Truce failed to get a commercially viable distributor,
almost no one has seen him in what may be his greatest performance—as
Primo Levi, in the film version of Levi's memoir about surviving Auschwitz.
He borrows from that role as Luzhin. Emily Watson, who became an overnight
success in Von Trier's Breaking the Waves and then starred as
the ill-fated cellist in Hillary and Jackie, is Nathalia—"a
dear girl in her own right," who notices something in Luzhin "that transcends
both the coarseness of his gray flesh and the sterility of his recondite
genius." If acting alone could save a film, Turturro and Watson are
the ones who could do it, but their performances cannot cut through
the screenplay's artificial sweeteners.
Since Nabokov's story plays out within the chess-tortured mind of Luzhin,
it is an almost dialogueless novel, thus a challenge to adapt for the
screen. And in Nabokov's antipsychoanalytic narrative, there is no obvious
or sympathetic psychological motivation for the characters. His Luzhin
is a shy and sullen child, terrified of his schoolmates, who finds chess
and escapes into that world. It is a world like that of a musician who
can hear the music in his head. Luzhin learns chess notation and can
play games endlessly in his head without need of a board or the pieces.
Eventually he will be able to play a room full of opponents while blindfolded
by keeping track of every opponent and every move in his mind. Chess
takes the place of all the other passions, and the people in his life,
including his parents, become shadowy, meaningless figures. Against
this stark depiction, Gorris and her crew cook up all sorts of traumatic
relationships in order to make Luzhin's madness and suicide comprehensible
to their audience.
In truth, many of today's psychiatrists would see Nabokov's account
of Luzhin's descent from obsession to delusion to suicide as far more
accurate than Gorris's pop-psychology version. Nabokov's biographers
tell us that he was well read in the European psychiatry that kept its
distance from Freud and to which America has now returned. European
clinicians described a psychosis they called oneirophrenia, which was
like dreaming while you were awake. When Luzhin snaps, Nabokov has him
believing that life is a dream interrupting the reality of an endless
illusory game of chess. Most child psychiatrists would now accept a
shy, isolated child who plays autistic games in his mind as someone
who might later develop madness—you do not need an awful parent
to cause it. The slide from obsession to delusion he portrays is how
many would describe the vicious circle of cognitive patterns that are
now well recognized, if not well understood. Nabokov's Luzhin
is a fiction that anticipates and approximates truth.
The Defense is mostly set in 1920s Berlin, among the Russian
émigré set to which Nabokov belonged. The existence of such
a community in the future Third Reich is unfamiliar to most Americans,
and would probably be confusing to most filmgoers. Nabokov's Russian
émigrés are clinging to the material possessions and social
positions of the czarist era. Nathalia's parents in particular are more
faithful to their White Russian ways than they ever were in their native
St. Petersburg. They are trapped in nostalgia, as Nabokov was in many
of his novels. To have attempted to recreate that émigré community
in film was apparently beyond Gorris's ambition. She turned instead
to what she and her audience know better, the English upper crust of
Masterpiece Theater. Anglicized aristocrats take the place of Nabokov's
more colorful Russians, whom he depicts in the unsparing style of his
much-admired predecessor Gogol. The film reduces their complex Russian
motivations to British class consciousness—and puts the English
"c" in the Luzhin Defence.
Thus, a social climbing mother with aristocratic pretensions—played
with nasty perfection by the English actress Geraldine James—tries
to sabotage her daughter's alliance with the socially and physically
repulsive chess master. Nabokov's Nathalia has a sentimental Russian
mother who is prepared to make Luzhin take a bath and to understand
and forgive her daughter for everything if only her daughter loved Luzhin.
And in the novel she is quite correct—Nathalia is not in love
with Luzhin, in fact she has no idea who he is or what is happening
in his mind. Nabokov's ironically florid prose has Nathalia captivated
by her own ability "to feel constantly an intolerable tender pity for
the creature whose life is helpless and unhappy; to feel across hundreds
of miles that somewhere in Sicily a thin-legged little donkey with a
shaggy belly is being brutally beaten." Such is the solipsistic quality
of her feeling for the pitiable Luzhin. As for Luzhin, Nathalia vaguely
reminds him of a whore he once saw standing in a hallway in some city
he cannot remember. Only she is disappointingly less pretty. This is
what Gorris made into a "heartfelt romance."
The sexual chemistry between Turturro and Watson on the screen is quite
wonderful. Neither is a matinee idol, and together they make love seem
like a magical, even real, possibility. Watson, who in previous roles
was called on to go over the emotional top, is here expected to show
restraint and understatement as a shy and bookish spinster. The part
invented for her bears little resemblance to Nabokov's character, and
she apparently improvised much of it in response to Turturro. His performance
is certainly based on a reading of the novel. Unfortunately the script
undercuts his superb acting as it attempts to depict in crude plot devices
Nabokov's subtle demolition of "the poor fellow's sanity."
The love affair and sexual chemistry is nowhere to be seen in the novel.
Nabokov's Luzhin is almost a eunuch, incapable of sex. He falls asleep
on his wedding night before his bride, Nathalia, enters the bedroom
and finds her groom snoring away oblivious to the possibilities of consummation.
Having made up her mind that this "was one sphere in which it was not
her place to lead," she spends a lonely and unhappy night. Gorris's
Nathalia, in contrast, mounts her awkward and wakeful lover and in repeated
episodes they rotate positions finding mutual fulfillment that invigorates
Luzhin's manhood and his chess confidence.
Periodically throughout the film Turturro's eyes glaze over and we
see flashbacks of the traumatic childhood Gorris has constructed for
him. As in the novel, his father is carrying on an affair with his mother's
sister. In the film, though, the mother apparently commits suicide and
Luzhin discovers her body. As if that were not traumatic enough, his
narcissistic father then goes off with the mother's sister, intentionally
abandoning his son to his chess manager and tutor Valentinov. Valentinov,
a minor figure in the novel, becomes the evil serpent, the plot device
of the film. He uses Luzhin as his chess-performing meal ticket until
he decides the prodigy will never become a genius. He, too, traumatically
abandons the young man. The victimized and helpless Luzhin has no relatives,
no friends, and no practical knowledge. Evicted from a horse-drawn carriage
by the cruel Valentinov of the film he pathetically cries out, "What
city is this?" Somehow he survives, and the film centers on his try
for the world championship of chess and the hand of Nathalia, all of
this taking place in what looks like Lake Como between the wars.
It seems the eccentric genius may achieve both love and the world championship
when Valentinov, played by English actor Stuart Wilson, returns to bet
heavily on his opponent Turati. He will stop at nothing as he attempts
to disrupt Luzhin's concentration. Gorris's Luzhin cracks under Valentinov's
manipulations and Gorris has him look at his opponent and flash back
to his father, mother, and aunt, who traumatized him as a child. In
the novel (one is tempted to say in reality), when Luzhin snaps
he thinks of no human being. Rather, he wanders through the streets
of Berlin trying to find the landmarks of his childhood home in Russia.
Geometry and space are more real than people to this mad chess player;
Valentinov is more self-important than evil. He shows up after Luzhin
has gone mad. Nabokov was prescient in his description of this character
as well. He has become a successful filmmaker and, oblivious to Luzhin's
condition, he insists that the "grandmaster" make a cameo appearance
in his new film. There is no movie, it is a trap, Luzhin decides, and
all is lost.
THERE IS A PSYCHIATRIST in the novel and the film who has a small but
important part to play. When Luzhin has his chess psychosis, the psychiatrist
proposes as his therapy that he must give up chess forever. This is
one of those cures that is worse than the disease. Take chess away from
Luzhin and there is nothing left but the shell of a man who can only
"drop out of the game." In Gorris's film, he leaps from the hotel resort
window dressed in tails while Nathalia waits in her wedding gown for
the ceremony. In the novel he falls from the toilet window while she
beats on the locked door.
The most stunning transformation made in bringing the novel to the
screen is what made The Luzhin Defence a film to be shown at
the International Women's Film Festival. Gorris's Luzhin kills himself
in the middle of the world championship match. The pieces remained in
place in a game that no one thought Luzhin could win. In the film, Luzhin
has in fact solved the impossible puzzle, noting the winning solution
on a piece of paper that Nathalia finds in the dead man's pocket. Luzhin's
opponent Turati graciously agrees to finish the game. He and Nathalia
sit in the great hall at the chessboard and, following her husband's
notations, she wins the game and proves that Luzhin was in fact a world
champion. So she redeems the genius of her dead husband, her decision
to marry him, and her ownintegrity—all of which Nabokov left in
doubt "at the instant when Luzhin unclenched his hand, at the instant
when icy air gushed into his mouth."
Over the past decade ambitious directors have brought a whole spate
of twentieth-century novels to the screen. I can think of none that
is more disrespectful to the spirit of its author than The Luzhin
Defence. Gorris, who started her career as a fiercely independent
feminist, has made a cinematographically beautiful film empty of Nabokov's
ecstatic genius, his prescient psychology, and her own original talent.
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