Literature, Nabokov, Rhetoric

Luzhin, exceptional and familiar

Affirming our opposition to bad art and banal thought is satisfying and often necessary. In the few days after I’d immersed myself back into the sludgy consistency of Rand’s novel, with all its bald and unchallenged commonplaces, I felt a real need to vent distaste, even just as cathartic resistance. Schadenfreude is fun, but it can get close to bad conscience if that’s all we’re doing – often something of an online speciality. Spending our whole time decrying the bad doesn’t cut it – something that Rand herself would have done well to mark: for all her pleas of positive virtue created by individuals, the majority of The Fountainhead is spent sneering at the trivially dismissable.

A primary purpose of this blog is to take something positive out of this reading. One of the ways I’m committed to doing this is to give Rand credit where it’s due. Because my expectations were so low going in, I was surprised to find scattered passages and themes which are passable, or maybe even good. To follow on with my initial theme, however, this post will take the central treatment of Roark, Rand’s genius. As is probably clear from the previous two posts, I found the Roark passages – both in construction of his character and the application of the writing – to be the weakest theme in the book – and as such it isn’t a good candidate for this treatment.

Instead I’d like to look at a couple of other ways we might gain insight from bad writing. Firstly, we might try a charitable reading of Rand’s work. Even if we agree that the application or framework is flawed, is there some way we could make similar ideas compelling? Secondly, I think bad art can be a great tool to throw into relief what we find powerful in the opposite: as a test case for good art. Reading TF has got me back into reading what I consider to be a far better treatment, even of similar themes.

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novel, The Luzhin Defence – impeccably translated into English my Michael Scammell in 1964 – provides a good comparison point for both of these activities. I found myself re-reading this, for the first time in years, in between chugs of The Fountainhead. Both novels centre around the depiction of a protagonist with exceptional talents, a misunderstood genius, that can only be poorly apprehended by the majority of their fellows. It was only after I began to piece to together the previous posts that I realised how fertile, quite serendipitously, a comparison might be.

It’s fairly hard to discuss this in any depth without giving away “spoilers”. I’m not sure that the depth of Nabokov’s work – or the delight in the execution – is reduced too much by simply knowing what happens. Nevertheless, if you’d like to keep it a surprise, then I’d absolutely urge you to give the novel a read through. It’s a little gem, only around 200 pages (so about a fifth of Rand’s work) and is one of the best Nabokov’s Russian works.

A precis

The Luzhin Defence is a humane and tender depiction of the fragile, ungainly Luzhin – we know him only as Luzhin, right until the final words of the novel – who nonetheless possesses an uncanny, singular, talent – a gift which gives him a cheerfully sublime command of chess. In the first section of the novel, we are presented with Luzhin’s early, pre-chess childhood. Withdrawn, timid, sometimes dreamy, but also prone to fits of temper that frighten his parents, Luzhin’s childhood is filled with his fear and discomfort with the outside world. His doting and sympathetic parents worry for him, and surround him with an idyllically rich environment and love – and it upsets them to find this only increases his awkwardness. In one of the first of a pattern of perspectives suddenly withdrawn over the timeframe of the novel, an older Luzhin himself will look back to this time – “an amazingly bright safe spot”.

During a concert in memory of his recently deceased grandfather – a virtuoso violinist and composer – Luzhin eavesdrops on the lead musician making a private telephone call and playing with a mysterious box on his father’s desk, which Luzhin has never seen inside. When he is discovered, the violinist shows him they are chessmen – “What a game, what a game … Combinations like melodies. You know, I can simply hear the moves”. Like nothing before, Luzhin is galvanised by this description of harmonic beauty. He gets his distant aunt – who is also having an affair with his father – to teach him the game. When she is banished from the house, he bunks off school to go to her apartment and play chess with her and her suitors. He spends his summer rifling through old magazines to find solitary chess sections – while his father worries that he is haggardly searching for pictures of naked women. When his father, returning from an unusual visit to his Aunt, slyly invites him to a game of chess, he can easily beat him. His father is wrenched – his son’s sudden exhibition of genius fulfils a long standing dream of something exceptional, and artistic, revealed to him; but the clarity his son sees chess is impenetrable to him, and there is a tragic barrier in the father ever sharing Luzhin’s delight.

With more opponents, we see Luzhin quickly consolidating his skills, and becoming a highly-rated new player and winner of tournaments. When his mother dies – following a long, depressive convalescence – the little family collapses, and he is taken away to play in tournaments around Europe by a mercenary impressario called Valentinov. Alone – even at the emigre writer’s meeting he arranges, he is the only participant – his father dreams of completing a novel romanticising his son’s early life. When his father dies, Luzhin does not attend the funeral. His punishing chess regime begins to overwhelm him – and while recuperating at a German hotel, he is surprised to have the attentions of a charming woman, who sees something beyond his heavy flesh: “An artist, a great artist, she frequently thought, contemplating his heavy profile, his corpulent hunched body, the dark lock of hair clinging to his always moist forehead.”

Luzhin – and his now fiance – travel back to Berlin, where Luzhin will compete in a tournament – and finally against his long-time rival, the suave Italian grandmaster Turati – for the chance to become the world champion. Turati has developed an innovative, unstoppable opening – and Luzhin commits himself night and day to finding an unbeatable defence against it. Finally, on the day itself, the mental strain overcomes him – Luzhin has a breakdown, wonders blindly into a night populated with chess figures, and is unconscious for days. When he awakes, his wife and a well-intentioned doctor convince him that chess is responsible for his collapse, and that he must try to force it out of his mind.

This sets the stage for the final, tragic and inevitable chapter in Luzhin’s life. His life opens up, and he is able again to appreciate the outside world, his wife, and his distant childhood. He doesn’t think of chess – but something in his defensive nature tells him – that something is coming for him, insidious and unstoppable, and will destroy him this time. He slowly begins to see the forces that might lead him again to destruction – and when he discovers a hidden chessboard in his coat lining, realises that these forces are forming an attack on chess terms, repeating the combinations of his real life to draw him into a trap. Again, he becomes convinced that he must formulate an impenetrable defence. And so begins Luzhin’s fugue – a conflict between the forces of the warm, rich life represented by his wife; and the cold, virtuoso art of his chess, embodied by Velentinov. As he becomes convinced that the events of his life are recurring – and that the end of this inevitable pattern is an mental eternity of chess – the unexpected arrival of Valentinov, who wants him to play in a movie he is producing, convinces him that all is lost. Seeing no escape, and with a few heartbreaking words to his wife, he locks himself in the bathroom and cumbersomely clambers out the window:

“Some kind of hasty preparations were under way there: the window reflections gathered together and levelled themselves out, the whole chasm was seen to divide into dark and pale squares, and at the instant when Luzhin unclenched his hand, at the instant when icy air gushed into his mouth, he saw exactly what kind of eternity was obligingly and inexorably spread out before him.”

From the sublime…

“I write—and read—for the sake of the story…. My basic test for any story is: ‘Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake?” – Rand
“I have read The Fountainhead many times since 1949, when I first found it. I read it mostly for the sheer pleasure of living in the “substitute” world Ayn Rand creates.” – Leonard Peikoff

Reading my skimpy precis, it’s probably pretty clear why I prefer Nabokov’s art to Rand’s. With a million typewriters, years, or monkeys, it’s very difficult to imagine Rand coming up with something half as awe-tinged, shiver-inducing, upsetting and precise as that last sentence describing Luzhin’s fate. Scammell’s remarkable translation does the text great justice and turns this early work into something as effortlessly expressive as Nabokov’s later English prose; Rand’s work often sounds like it was put through Google translate, even though it was written in English. Like all of Nabokov’s characters, Luzhin’s character is both instantly recognisable and one of a kind – Rand’s characters feel simultaneously both utterly non-human, and trivially easily solved as ciphers. Roark is a particularly egregious example here.

I was therefore very surprised to find those two attestations in the foreword and afterword of The Fountainhead – by Rand and her biggest disciple (and heir), Peikoff. Both seem to affirm that the central pleasure they get from the novel is from inhabiting the fictional world and meeting the characters involved – and given how she describes him, surely this primarily means Roark. In the absence of a ideological reason to image Roark as the superman, I find it fascinating that someone would genuinely want to spend time in his presence – in the scenes when him and his friend (of sorts), Mike, go for a drink he may as well be stuffed:

“How about a glass of beer, Red?” he invited, when Roark came out. “Sure,” said Roark, “thanks.”
They sat together at a table in the corner of a basement speak-easy, and they drank beer, and Mike related his favorite tale of how he had fallen five stories … and Roark spoke of his days in the building trades. Mike did have a real name, which was Sean Xavier Donnigan [long description of Mike’s down-to-earthness and how “people meant very little to him”]. He loved buildings. He despised, however, all architects.
“There was one, Red,” he said earnestly, over his fifth beer, “one only and you’d be too young to know about him, but that was the only man that knew building. I worked for him when I was your age.”
“Who was that?”
“Henry Cameron was his name. He’s dead, I guess, these many years.”
Roark looked at him for a long time, then said: “He’s not dead, Mike,” and added: “I’ve worked for him.”
“You did?”
“For almost three years.”
They looked at each other silently, and that was the final seal on their friendship.

Rand wants to give the impression that Roark is being affable here – after all, Mike is a goodie and a kindred spirit, he is depicted getting drunk with clumsy affection, and Rand gives us lots of detail that might endear him to us here (not to mention a laugh-out-loud real name) – but is content with just telling us that “Roark spoke of his days in the building trades” (top banter) and some terse lines of exposition.

I want to put aside the underlying psychological reasons why someone might be content spending time with Roark as a character. As well as Rand and her disciples, there seem to be fans of the book that aren’t too bothered about the Objectivist message – and really just enjoy it as a Victor Hugo-esque romantic tale. For one thing, unlike Rand I’m open to psychological pluralism – and even though I think this represents threadbare art, I differ from her in thinking that our characters are monolithic: we can like bad art while still being virtuous in other ways. It’s also possible that these harmless fans – and yes, even Rand herself – just hadn’t been exposed to a higher calibre of writing, and aware of just quite what it can do.

The defence

Having said that, I think we can do better. So – reading charitably – can we extract out something compelling and viable from the Roark character? And if we find Nabokov’s treatment of this – sometimes similar – theme vastly superior, then what are the differences that give its appeal?

I think we already have a fairly thorough breakdown of Roark’s character, as an automaton embodiment of Objectivist values, in the previous post. Putting those aside, what are the central tenets of the character? We might image a similar hero who

  • Shows great natural talent – a genius of sorts (talent)
  • That this talent is interpretable as some wider virtue – even though it is expressed in a narrow field (virtue)
  • The talent is highly unique and individualistic to the hero (individualism)
  • And is also deeply embedded into the hero’s character (authenticity)
  • The hero is fixated on his talent, sometimes to the exclusion of the outside world (solipsism)
  • The talent is poorly understood by his fellows (aloneness)

As I’ve mentioned in the philosopher sections – it’s not that Rand’s ideas are inherently wrong – in fact, many of them (individualism, creativity) are very compelling. Rather, it’s that her expression of them is unsophisticated, and there are far better (and earlier) expressions elsewhere. We can apply a similar process to her formulation of the Roark character. It is quite reasonable to present inherent talents in our heroes – after all, we all know people who are intrinsically skilful at particular things. I’m very sympathetic to the idea that you can derive some types of virtue from this: we might, for example, attribute the quality of intelligence to a character and treat that exactly as a virtue. Individualism is so prevalent in our culture that the opposite seems perverse. Likwise, authenticity has to be one of the most highly valued virtue in western society – nobody want to be a fake – so making the talent a deep, authentic part of the heroes character isn’t going to rub anyone up the wrong way. The last two seem like great ways of introducing drama – or something deeper, as we’ll see with Luzhin. We all know the temptations of cutting yourself off from the outside world – and we all know there’s a price to pay for that. Likewise, there’s plenty of scope for interest in – good or bad intentioned – other characters not understanding the hero’s gift.

We can see there is still something missing. If we constructed a character to fulfil all the criteria above – but no more – they would be inoffensive, palatable – and a little short of human. There are a couple of other, more general properties that we might like to impose on our basic construction.

  1. Tension. Is there any such thing as an unalloyed good? Maybe we believe that some virtues are so primary we should never try to balance them. A more popular – not to mention satisfying and psychologically plausible – view of human nature is one where we have many, sometimes oppositional impulses, which shift in their valuation. Add to this parts of our nature we are less happy about, or can’t control – and it seems that to create a recognisable representation of a human we need some – even purely internal – tension.
  2. Suffering – and perhaps redemption. It is inevitable that this internal tension will lead to – some degree – of suffering. Even if our lives are extravagantly comfortable, this is surely so familiar to us that to depict a character as beyond suffering and expect them to be recognisably human immediately strikes us as incorrect. To find ways to conquer suffering; or to transmute it to something valuable – is therefore a fundamental human activity (see, for example, this post).

As we can see, there is lots of ground here to make comparisons with Nabokov’s Luzhin. In looking at each of these properties we can see two places where Rand drops the ball, and creates an unconvincing manikin when compared to Nabokov’s warm Luzhin. The first is the force-feeding of objectivist values. But the second is more revealing in a literary sense – and shows us some of the problems with Rand’s skill as a writer.

The next post will discuss some of these weaknesses – giving us a chance for a closer comparison of Rand and Nabokov’s writing.



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