Nabakov's book is split into three - a lonely child's view of the world, an entrancing account of life as a chess genius, and his post-breakdown decline. It is equally about each part, and each has plenty of observations that ring true.
His portrait of Luzhin's childhood is a sad one, but realistic. The low points of anyone's childhood would be recognisable here - shyness, exclusion - but few of the high-points. It is only when he discovers chess that the narrative lights up with the harmony and depth he perceives in the structure of the game. The family is a melancholy one - his father's affairs drive his mother to death, and his dreams for Luzhin as a child prodigy, and himself as a writer always mindful of his future biographer, are painfully vainglorious.
When the novel rediscovers Luzhin after years of itinerant chess success, resting in a hotel from his childhood and about to meet his wife, we watch an utterly unworldly character. His mind is so shaped by chess that the real world intrudes only occasionally, only noticing his immanence when he is burnt by a match or struggles to climb a staircase. A novel character, a portrait of a mono-mania more pronounced than any I've seen before. He barely notices his transition between cities, and lives only for the logic of the game.
The description of the games are vital, and recognisable to anyone who's felt a thrill at stretching their mind around any logical puzzle. Here Luzhin finds all the emotion, expression, colour and pleasure he lacks in his real life, for him unremittingly grey and incomprehensible. He feels the logic of the game physically, sensing the lines of power and control. His duel with the Italien player is spectacularly drawn, with a heavy emphasis on musical metaphors. The players feel the melodies of each other's tactics, perceiving future threats as subtle refrains in the other's orchestration.
The finale sees Luzhin sundered from his real life, and lost in the real world. His wife takes pity upon him during the second section, in the same way she felt painfully concerned by the fate of animals. She slowly forces the marriage against the fear her parents feel in her engagement in a man totally unable to function in the real world, and Luzhin's inability to express himself. When Luzhin finally breaks down in the middle of the tournament, as the world of his childhood forcibly returns finding him searching a hallucination of a remembered forest track in central Berlin, she makes him swear off Chess. As its baleful influence slowly returns, Luzhin sinks into paranoia, perceiving his life as a long play against a occult opponent, and attempts to construct a defence. This ends in tragedy.
Nabokov has a fine eye for the path of lives, and the development of Luzhin is one of a few well, and occasionally ironical, portraits that make this an excellent book for spotting elements of yourself and others. The book is thoroughly melancholy, however. Unlike Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment you don't feel you've learnt a lesson by the end of it, just watched the unfortunate Luzhin stagger to a seemingly predestined and undeserved end. Emotional, but playing too long on the same note: vulnerability is the key note in each of the characters, with only Luzhin's father having the vim to express it in arrogance rather than introversion.