Nabokov’s novel The Defence is a masterpiece. Newton once said: “I could see thus far, because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Marleen Gorris filmed Nabokov’s book and even managed to recreate it into an even greater, now cinematographic masterpiece: The Luzhin Defence.

Nabokov was a remarkable man. Outlawed from Russia, a minor aristocrat who must have identified with French noblemen who, after The Revolution, left their country and often withdrew from the world. The Emigrés.

In his ‘detective novel’ annex poem Pale Fire Nabokov sometimes makes contagious fun of authoritarian, yet also aristocratic regimes and their tendency to chase rebels constantly and aggressively. In The Defence this aristocratic background is already figuring, its milieu is not always shining.

Nabokov seems to be a good student of Socrates: Know Thyself. All his life he seems to have looked for a defence against his condition of unwilled exile – not only by withdrawing into his writing and into collecting butterflies, but also by playing chess and solving chess problems. In each of his rooms there was a chess board on stand-by.

The genius of Marleen Gorris and her co-scripter Berry resides not only in the choice of Turturro as their actor, but also in the brilliant manner in which a functioning mastermind is portrayed cinematographically. Its end is done masterly.



Gorris’ Luzhin

In that final scene Luzhin’s widow – the grand-master has by now maliciously come to his end – posthumously completes the adjourned game which will decide the world title. On the other side of the board sits an Italian who already fancied himself to be the new champ. However, he is generous enough to accept the tournament’s decision to end that match against an already dead opponent.

He will loose his title, thanks to the move placed en couvert plus the winning combination following it, which was discovered in Luzhin’s little notebook.

Whenever I see the film – and I have seen it x-times – my eyes fill with tears. Not only because of the beauty of this poignant conclusion, but especially due to that beautiful combination, played out on the board by a widow without the slightest inkling of chess, a little paper in her hand from which she copies the moves to be played on the board.

Today – the morning coffee at hand and sitting behind one of my own chess boards – I’m trying to solve a so-called ‘composition’. Suddenly I realize that this winning combination in Gorris’ movie must have been screened from such a ‘problem book’! The composition and its solution seem to be too elegant and too beautiful to have originated in a real match.

Let’s hope that I live long enough and that on one of my French mornings I may open such a book to suddenly recognize that final solution of Luzhin’s defence.

Sierksma La Roche 13.7/2016

P.S. That my reading of the film is not shared by some others becomes clear from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s remark that “nothing in The Luzhin Defence indicates that Gorris and Berry recognize what the novel’s virtues are; they only seem interested in combing the text for standard-issue romantic and sentimental material while discarding just about everything that makes the story unconventional.”

My reply: Someone expecting or even demanding that literature can be filmed as literature is an ox. But more serious here is that Rosenbaum in his ‘criticism’ does not mention the brilliant end of the film which gives Nabokov’s story a better finish that the one the writer himself came up with. Rosenbaum also disregards the fact that the movie’s end is in itself grand – cinematographically that is.

Making movies is playing chess with images. Rosenbaum’s intellectualized criticism suffers from misplaced purism – if not outright puritanism.

Haarlem, autumn 2016


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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