Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Luzhins

As soon as I read the Russian title of Nabokov’s novel Защита Лужина (which is translated into English as simply The Defense], I realized immediately that the name of the hero could not be coincidental. The first Luzhin in Russian literature, of course, is one of the villains in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Indeed, the latter seeks to rush Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya into what is very much a marriage of convenience. In Nabokov’s novel, the mother of Luzhin’s fiancée also accuses her would-be son-in-law of seeking to rush into marriage: “You would probably get married today and right now, if you could” [Вы, вероятно, хотели бы жениться уже сегодня, сейчас]. (Perhaps the mother also has Dostoevsky’s character in mind: when she first hears his name, she wonders if it is not a pseudonym). She dresses down the hero for his slovenliness and lack of personal hygiene. She wonders aloud to him whether he is not a “lecher” [разватник], and she suspects that he might have a venereal disease. Here we think of the other villain seeking to despoil Dunya in C&P: the truly lecherous Svidrigailov. 

In truth, Nabokov’s Luzhin is really quite innocent and completely without ulterior motives. Though he is far from uninterested in pursuing the relationship and does indeed clumsily seek sexual gratification, the relationship is in many ways initiated and advanced by his wife-to-be. During the initial courtship at the German resort, Nabokov makes clear that it is the girl who pursues the man and not the other way around. In this way Nabokov’s passive Luzhin, who gradually goes mad and becomes the victim of hallucination during the match with Turati, deflates Dostoevsky’s active and designing villain of the same name. 

In either case, it is worth noting that the name could be literally translated as the rather negative and deprecating “Mr. Puddle” in English (since лужа = puddle).

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