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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 success. 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. Alexander's blunders. 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 Gehenna." 4. The forкt de verges (forest of phalli) in the hero's nightmare is misunderstood as being some sort of birchwood. 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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