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Vladimir Nabokov. Sartre's first try (Review)
Nausea. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Lloyd
Alexander. 258 pp. New York: New Directions, 1949
Sartre's name, T understand, is associated with a
fashionable brand of cafe philosophy, and since for every
so-called "existentialist" one finds quite a few
"suctorialists" (if I may coin a polite term), this
made-in-England translation of Sartre's first novel. La
Nausйe (published in Paris in 1938) should enjoy some
It is hard to imagine (except in a farce) a dentist
persistently pulling out the wrong tooth. Publishers and
translators, however, seem to get away with something of that
sort. Lack of space limits me to only these examples of Mr.
1. The woman who "s'est offert, avec ses йconomies, un
jeune homme" (has bought herself a young husband with her
savings) is said by the translator (p. 20) to have "offered
herself and her savings" to that young man.
2. The epithets in "Il a l'air souffreteux et
mauvais" (he looks seedy and vicious) puzzled Mr. Alexander
to such an extent that he apparently left out the end of the
sentence for somebody else to fill in, but nobody did, which
reduced the English text (p. 43) to "he looks."
3. A reference to "ce pauvre Ghehenno"' (French
writer) is twisted (p. 163) into "Christ . . . this poor man of
4. The forкt de verges (forest of phalli) in the
hero's nightmare is misunderstood as being some sort of
Whether, from the viewpoint of literature, La
Nausйe was worth translating at all is another question. It
belongs to that tense-looking but really very loose type of
writing, which has been popularized by many second-raters--
Barbusse, Coline, and so forth. Somewhere behind looms
Dostoevski at his worst, and still farther back there is old
Eugene Sue, to whom the melodramatic Russian owed so much. The
book is supposed to be the diary ("Saturday morning," "11.00
p.m."-- that sort of dismal thing) of a certain Roquentin, who,
after some quite implausible travels, has settled in a town in
Normandy to conclude a piece of historical research.
Roquentin shuttles between cafe and public library, runs
into a voluble homosexual, meditates, writes his diary, and
finally has a long and tedious talk with his former wife, who
is no\v kept by a suntanned cosmopolitan. Great
importance is attached to an American song on the cafe
phonograph: "Some of these days you'll miss me, honey."
Roquentin would like to be as crisply alive as this song, which
"saved the Jew [who wrote it] and the Negress [who sang it]"
from being "drowned in existence."
In an equivocal flash of clairvoyance (p. 235) he
visualizes the composer as a clean-shaven Brooklynite with
"coal-black eyebrows" and "ringed fingers," writing down the
tune on the twenty-first floor of a skyscraper. The heat is
terrific. Presently, however, Tom (probably a friend) will come
in with his hip flask (local color) and they will take swigs of
liquor ("brimming glasses of whisky" in Mr. Alexander's lush
version). I have ascertained that in reality the song is a
Sophie Tucker one written by the Canadian Shelton Brooks.
The crux of the whole book seems to be the illumination
that comes to Roquentin when he discovers that his "nausea" is
the result of the pressure of an absurd and amorphous but very
tangible world. Unfortunately for the novel, all this remains
on a purely mental level, and the discovery might have been of
some other nature, say solipsistie, without in the least
affecting the rest of the book. When an author inflicts his
idle and arbitrary philosophic fancy on a helpless person whom
he has invented for that purpose, a lot of talent is needed to
have the trick work. One has no special quarrel with Roquentin
when he decides that the world exists. But the task to make the
world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre's powers.
The New York Times Book Review
April 24, 1949
Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:52:23 GMT
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