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.

Ibis Mummies and Jade Cicadas

January 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Reading next: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Jade Cabinet — my wife Jaime’s pick for me for our annual exchange of books we force the other person to read — is rather too cool to belabor with my typical blather.  So I’ll just give you a sense of a few of my favorite plot points and devices.  If they intrigue you, pick up the book.  You won’t regret it:

1.  Two words: ibis mummies.

Ibis mummies. From Description de l'Egypte Antiquites, v. 2. Image via Linda Hall Library

Millions of them, in fact, from the plundered tombs of Egypt, being crushed into a powder to be used as fertilizer by an evil British industrialist.

2.  “The cabinet was Ming and of sober elegance, and the jade of such rare perfection that as he fingered them our father trembled…. the jade represented an insect, a cicada…. ‘Han period… southern China…” breathed my father.”

Jade cicada, Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), Hebei Provincial Museum. Image from the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

The figurines in the jade cabinet are an awesome device.  I know it’s Angus Sphery’s fault for being such a damned fool and trading his daughter away for the jade, but come on… pretty gorgeous stuff.  Jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of the dead as symbols of immortality in ancient China.

3.  Etheria and Memory are photographed and befriended by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.  Ducornet’s handling of this is admirably nonjudgmental.

Alice Liddell, photographed by Lewis Carroll. Image from Fixing Shadows,

4.  Etheria’s beloved gardens and grotto at the New Age, tragically paved over to make way for Tubbs and Baconfield’s “Temple to Industry and Infancy,” a windowless building to house the nursery of Tubbs’s unborn son and instill in him a proper appreciation for clockwork, mechanization, and all things industrial and efficient, no sunlight or nature required. (I’m guessing the clock tower on the Baconfield building is something Brutalist like this, but less fanciful.)

5.  My favorite character: Feather, Tubbs’s subversive servant, who teaches Etheria magic and presents fat-cat Tubbs calling cards from Mr. Marx, so that, when Tubbs says he’s never heard of him, Feather can respond, “Indeed, Sir, you are bound to, sooner or later.”  My heart broke a little at his tragic fate.

Karl Marx. From the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University,

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