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'sBreaking the Waves and then starred as the ill-fated cellist inHillary 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.