Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026329, Thu, 30 Jul 2015 13:16:23 -0400

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems in Literature| July 30th, 2015 Leave a Comment

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems

in *Literature <http://www.openculture.com/category/literature>*| July
30th, 2015 Leave a Comment

[image: 20100602_nabokov_chess]

Most of us strive to achieve some kind of distinction—or competence—in one,
often quite narrow, field. And for some of us, the path to success involves
leaving behind many a path not taken. Childhood pursuits like ballet, for
example, the high jump, the trumpet, acting, etc. become hazy memories of
former selves as we grow older and busier. But if you have the formidable
will and intellect of émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov
<http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/bio.htm>, you see no need to abandon
your beloved avocations simply because you are one of the 20th century’s
most celebrated writers—in both Russian and English. No indeed. You also go
on to become a celebrated amateur lepidopterist
earning distinction as curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of
Comparative Zoology <http://www.mcz.harvard.edu/> and originator of an
evolutionary theory of butterfly migration
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/science/01butterfly.html?_r=0>. And as
if that were not enough, you spend your spare time formulating complicated
chess problems, earning such a reputation that you are invited in 1970 to
join the American chess team to create problems for international

[image: Nabokov Chess Problem]

Nabokov was not easily impressed by other writers or scientists, but he
held chess players in especially high regard. His “heroes include a chess
grandmaster,” writes Nabokov scholar Janet Gezari
<http://web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/nabokov/poems.htm>, “and a chess
problem composer…; chess games occur in several of the novels; and chess
and chess problem language and imagery regularly put his readers’ chess
knowledge to the test.” His third novel, 1930’s *The Defense
<http://amzn.to/1h6Zpt8>*, centers on a chess master driven to despair by
his genius, a character based on real grandmaster Curt von Bardeleben
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curt_von_Bardeleben>. For Nabokov, the skill
and ingenuity required for composing chess problems paralleled that
required for great writing: “The strain on the mind is formidable,” he
wrote in his memoir *Speak, Memory <http://amzn.to/1h6YI30>*, “the element
of time drops out of one’s consciousness.” Puzzling out chess problems and
solutions, he wrote, “demand from the composer the same virtues that
characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness,
harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity”—all qualities, we’d have to
agree, of Nabokov’s finely wrought fictions.

[image: Nabokov Chess Game]

In 1970, Nabokov published *Poems and Problems <http://amzn.to/1U8n0bl>*, a
collection of thirty-nine Russian poems, with English translations,
fourteen English poems, and eighteen chess problems, with solutions. He had
pursued this passion since his teens, and published nearly three dozen
chess problems in his lifetime. At the top of the post, see one of them,
“Mate in 2,” sketched out in Nabokov’s hand (try to solve it yourself here
Below it, see another of the author’s chess problem sketches, and in the
photo above, see Nabokov absorbed in a chess game with his wife.

Though it may seem that Nabokov had limitless energy and time to devote to
his extra-literary pursuits, he also wrote with regret about the price he
paid for his obsession: “the possessive haunting of my mind,” as he called
it, “with carved pieces or their intellectual counterparts swallowed up so
much time during my most productive and fruitful years, time which I could
have better spent on linguistic adventures.” Like the lepidopterists still
marveling over Nabokov’s contributions to that field, the chess lovers who
encounter his problems, and his ingenious use of the game in fiction, would
hardly agree that his pursuit of chess was fruitless or unproductive.

*Related Content:*

Marcel Duchamp, Chess Enthusiast, Created an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now
Available via 3D Printer

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delightful Butterfly Drawings

Vladimir Nabokov Creates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Greatest (and Most Overrated) Novels of the 20th

*Josh Jones* <http://about.me/jonesjoshua>* is a writer and musician based
in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness <https://twitter.com/jdmagness>*

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