Chess and Oysters

Vladimir Nabokov loved chess. He played it, spoke about it, read about it, and famously wrote about it. In Poems and Problems and in Speak, Memory, for instance, the game is grandly discussed. Frequently chess also appears as a matrix underlying his fiction. Critics have pored over his novels to discover a pattern—stories that play out on boards of opposing sides; riddles meant, as Nabokov admits in Speak, Memory, “for the delectation of the very expert solver.” Nabokov’s characters play out their fates as on a chessboard.

For Roy Blount Jr., a writer whose abundant gift for humor might not at first seem related to Nabokov’s slyness, the key is oysters. Initially apprehensive about eating them, he smothers his first one in ketchup, horseradish, hot sauce, and lemon juice, and then he’s hooked, devouring them by the dozen with only a spritz of lemon. More than a token of Blount’s love affair with New Orleans, oysters are the word thread of his essay. He writes, “I’m in New Orleans alone, at Felix’s, having a dozen and working the New York Times crossword. And the shucker is condescending to talk to me. He can evidently shuck and jive at the same time. He is telling me that the other night a man ate forty-eight dozen oysters at a sitting. Not here, but at a seafood place out by the lake. ‘I don’t know if he even leaves the shells,’ he says. ‘Lives in Hammond, Loozanna. I wish I owned a grocery in Hammond.’ ” On Blount’s tongue the talk of oysters expresses a Big Easy that nothing can destroy.

—Rebecca Kaden

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