Nabokov’s Mysterious Chess Problem

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Speak, Memory.

Reading now: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

One short note before leaving Nabokov for a while: there’s a baffling passage at the end of chapter 14 concerning a chess problem, which Nabokov imbues with strange import.  Anyone who’s read him knows to be on their guard for this sort of thing — he’s a trickster — so I went to MLA Bibliography and tried to look it up, but came up more or less empty.

And then I saw this.

Now, this is an anonymous piece, the original URL for which has been redirected to a list of porny sites, and which has been rescued and remounted by a plucky enthusiast.  But it’s a mind-blower, and it strikes me as fairly convincing, solving a lot of the mysteries I felt surrounding the riddle when I first read it: why the pawn is turned into a knight instead of a queen, the bizarre hints about censorship, the allusions to Alice in Wonderland that pop up here and there in the book.  (The fact that Nabokov translated that book into Russian may be one of the bits of evidence against this interpretation, but then again, the intensive engagement with the text that translation entails may have led Nabokov to his response via chess problem.)

I plan to delve into some biographies to see if this has already been covered, and the anonymous Internet posting is just rehashing previously established scholarship.  I’ll plan to update this post thereafter with what I find.

UPDATE, 5/15/11: A quick-and-dirty literature review shows that the major scholarly article about this chess problem is David Sheidlower’s “Reading Between the Lines and the Squares,” published in Modern Fiction Studies way back in 1979.  Sheidlower sees this problem as pointing towards the conclusion of the novel Bend Sinister, and makes a convincing case.  His argument also pegs the problem to the problem in Alice in Wonderland.  The Freudian interpretation of the anonymous online interpreter and Sheidlower’s interpretation seem to work at the problem from opposite angles: one uses the evidence in Bend Sinister to interpret the chess problem as an independent part of Nabokov’s overall oeuvre, the other sees the chess problem as primarily important for interpreting the meaning of Bend Sinister.

Nabokov’s notorious declared hatred of Freudian ideas and symbols may have been a case of protesting too much, or a stance that guides the reader toward an attempt to understand his own ideas about sex which differ from Freud’s.  (The end of Speak, Memory, with its allusions toward his and his wife’s vigilance in protecting their son from sexual predators, certainly does lead one to think that the topic was much on his mind.)  And I think he’d certainly be pleased at the idea of a problem that could be interpreted on narrative, thematic, and societal levels.

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