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abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence

23.9.05

Nabokov's Theme

Which book was it that Edmund Wilson thought Nabokov had constructed as a game of chess?

No, not The Defense (which is to chess what Kawabata's The Master of Go is to ...):
With his prickly competitiveness, Wilson attempted to ensure he would never be caught out by Nabokov, and as a result imagined hoaxes that had never existed. He telephoned Nabokov shortly after reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to tell him he had discovered that the whole novel was built as a chess game. Nabokov told him, truthfully, that this was not the case. Wilson wrote back to say: "I don't believe a word you may say about your book and am furious at having been hoaxed by it ..." (Brian Boyd, VN:The American Years)

Wilson would have been on safer ground had he chosen a chess problem as the governing metaphor. Nabokov was competent in chess problem composition, collecting his efforts in Poems and Problems (the latter only linkable in Italian); but his notoriety elsewhere were what gave his problems interest (though this stream of invention has not been without tributaries -- the form of the cited "Nabokov Theme" problem here being a helpmate, in which the sides conspire to uniquely arrive at the mating matrix -- another unorthodox form, known as the selfmate, may provide an interpretive matrix for The Defense).

Nabokov discusses his experience with chess problems in Chapter 14 §3 of Speak, Memory:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.
Problems have been called the poetry of chess; Nabokov here comes closest to giving the game away on how he wrote, and how he wanted to be read:
... it is only when [themes] are combined in a certain way that a problem is satisfying. Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of strategy; and although in matters of construction I tried to conform, whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity, weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.
[...] It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problem's value is due to the number of "tries"--delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray ...

But this itself has led many commentators astray, into believing that there is an unambiguous resolution to the meaning of his texts, and attempting to decipher it. Instead, the informed, to the point reading is accomplished by indirection, in the by-play and try-play:
... The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, "thetic" solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a fashionable avant-garde theme ... which the composer had taken the greatest pains to "plant"... Having passed through this "antithetic" inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the simple key move ... as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores. The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthern brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight.
There is a much richer lode of thought to be mined in considering thematic comparisons between themes in literature and in chess problems (some of which sound almost literary: interference, cyclic-, critical- and changed-play; doubling, dual avoidance, chameleon echoes), accumulations of practices from prior art and allusions thereto, coalescence into schools of thought.

Nabokov himself makes use of this cross-over potential in a variety of ways, some less obvious than others. It may be going out on a limn to assert the relevance of Poe and Carroll, two prime resources for Lolita, sharing not only a predeliction for too-young girls (asked what scenes he would have liked to seen filmed, Nabokov included: "Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics."), but also for essaying chess (Poe in Maelzel's Chess-Player, Carroll in Wonderland); nevertheless, Humbert's relation to Quilty is much that of would-be solver to composer. In Pale Fire, King Alfin's old flame Iris Acht (d. 1888), may be seen as translating to Iris Eight, i.e., i8 (or eye-8), in chess notation referring to a square just off the 8x8 board (which only goes up to h8); her irisated photograph hangs above the trapdoor escape that King Charles/Kinbote ("a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type") uses to evade capture. This passage was first discovered whilst his guardians were diverted by A Game of Chess, this being the name of the second part of Eliot's The Waste Land parodied by Shade in the poem "Pale Fire" in L653-664 and L408-427, with Pope's The Rape of the Lock in the background of the latter (per Boyd) -- meanwhile, the guards are now playing lasquenet (a card game appearing just before "lass" in the dictionary, for word golf fans), but this takes me too far afield, as Nabokov's cascading allusions are wont to do ...

So, to return to chess problems, the scope for cross-over the other way is quite limited for such an hermetic art. There is a typographical variant, the "letter problem", in which the piece configuration approximates an alphabetic character. This is more like occasional poetry (or perhaps ASCII-Art), less art than clever craft or curiosity, though it can have its moments. Nabokov did not essay this, but he did attempt to blend typography with typology from his other truly professional field, lepidoptery. This was the last short story he worked on (but did not complete), "The Admirable Anglewing"; his notes for it were published in Nabokov's Butterflies (Boyd & Pyle) in 2000. In quick sketch, it centers on discovery of a new species of butterfly for which the "type specimen" becomes a problem; this new discovery is apparently related to the Question-Mark Anglewing (Polygonia interrogationis) with its own distinctive markings: "maroon marked underside with a silvery exclamation mark beneath on the hindwing" (last notecard, in full).

This permits me to effect this reverse cross-over, punctuating Nabokov's unfinished story with an unpublished curiousity of my own, for which I'll resuscitate the 19th century convention of titling chess problems: I give you "The Admirable Anglewing".
W: Kg1; Ne3,e7; Bf6
B: Kd4; Nb6,e5
Helpmate in 3
Solution: 1. Kc5 Nc8 2. Nc6 Na7 3. Nd4 Be7
Piece configuration changes from "?" in initial setting to "!" as W executes coup de grace. (But then, "?!" is standard chess annotation for "dubious" ...)

4 Comments:

Anonymous Perezoso said...

This is sort of engaging, but I for one find the Nabakovian bric a brac sort of nauseating. Lolita seemed like some over-the-top soap opera in ways. Nonetheless, the chess motif is great and I think a quite profitable literary theme (tho I would claim Carroll's Through the Looking Glass a far more advanced and poetic treatment of the game). I did not know Poe was also a chess fiend--that indicates something rather complex about his character. Poe's best stories--The Masque of the Red Death, Usher, Hopfrog--resemble chess games in a way...very ornate, detailed, complex and a tad sinister.

I don't think chess composition studies are as rare as yr man Vladdy thought tho. I play a bit--advanced on Yahoo if you care for a game--and tho I m not a pro, I think most decent hacks have a book or some 'ware which features combination problems. (I have Burgess' book which features quite a few)

I'd rather leaf through some Kasparov-Karpov games then read lit. crit. any time (and don't forget 'Toly Karpov defeated that freak more than a few times). Or Bobby Fischer's games against Spassky, and other of the Russian/slav masters.

The most interesting notated game I have on my Extreme Chess 'ware(with the Fritz engine--it will kick yr ass most of the time when set to Expert) is Napoleon vs The Automaton, from like 1800 or so. I have read that one of the leading french mathematicians of the time designed some sort of automated chess machine/algorithm and it handily defeated the Corsican in about 15 moves.

25/10/05 19:24  
Blogger nnyhav said...

Perezoso -- de gustibus so far as preference of games (and game settings) to problems and all. But Poe was on to the hoax that was the Turk (his Maelzel is a quick read). I used to be expert myself, but am now shamelessly an aesthete about it, whether masterplay, problems, or idiosyncracies -- in the latter category, you may enjoy Tim Krabbé's Chess Curiousities or ChessCafe, and in masterplay, Timman's The Art of Chess Analysis is recommended (or Tal's games) to really get inside what's going on over the board.

26/10/05 20:22  
Anonymous perezoso said...

EAP reveals the mysteries of not only the Automaton but the enigmatic Duck-'Bot! Pynchon uses the mechanical Duck somewhere I think ( I have not read Mason and Dixon as of yet so it may be in there). So the Turk-Automaton was rigged according to EAP; the box fitted with Maelzel's Italian grandmaster travelling companion or something. Was each venue they performed at sort of in on the hoax--they have to find time to sneak him in there? Perhaps, but brave souls they must have been if they pulled off the stunt in front of Napoleon and his officers; or among the hicks and farmers of the early States. EAP does a marvelous job (he's as much detective--nearly noirish--as ghoul hack really) presenting his arguments--especially the Turk's variable response time--but they must have been quite the sleight-of-hand experts since the Gimp had to change his positions rather rapidly as Maelzel demonstrates the box. I'm not sure on the dimensions either, but it seems a bit odd that they were never exposed, if it really was a man inside.

Maelzel was enjoyable if in that sort of hyper-ratiocination style of Poe that is simultaneously exhilirating and exhausting; but what flair, style, syntax--after completing his critique of Hawthorne I thought that few American writers--or even British--ever matched his prose, in terms of both analysis and aesthetic quality, but then I am not so qualified to offer views on belle-lettres. Even Ambrose Bierce, not a man given to praising American writers, admitted Poe's genius, and there is quite a bit of EAP's sensibility in Bierce's best writing, though I think he lacked some of EAP's soothsayer logic.

Another interesting fictional chess combination solver: Raymond Chandler's detective-hero Philip Marlow.

26/10/05 22:10  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very interesting! But my only comment here, nine years late, is that "lansquenet" has an N before the S.

24/3/14 23:34  

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