This is the young Russian Nabokov’s second or third novel, depending when you start counting. It’s about an aloof child clamoring for the attention of a father (a famous writer) who turns to chess on a whim at school and discovers that he is a grand master in the making. Now consumed with the life of a leading chess master, Luzhin finds himself unable to process the chaotic and unpredictable world outside the game and begins to inscribe the rules and structures of chess onto his external life, with mixed results.
There is an early scene in this novel where the father bestows upon his son, the name of “Luzhin” a symbolic gesture that has with it deep roots in Russian culture. No longer himself alone, Luzhin is forever tied with the name of his father and the status of the family household. It’s a moment not at all dissimilar to games of chess and the ways in which chess is a representation of royal lineage. Games are not single bouts, but series of bouts in which one king dies, a new king is setup, and the process moves forward. There’s the continuity of the royal line in this way–“The King is dead; long live the King” and all that. As Foucault would have it, the body of the king, and so the sacrificial pawn in a game of chess becomes, to further borrow from Foucault, the double of the body of the king. So in this way, we see the young Luzhin clamoring for a sense of individual identity while also wholly thriving in a world in which he is completely without that same individuality.
The book is very good, though not as clever as later Nabokov in full play mode, but of the earliest novels, it’s one of my favorites.