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D. BARTON JOHNSON (Santa Barbara, CA, U.S.A.)
THE NABOKOVSARTRE CONTROVERSY Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were, in their very different ways, leading figures on the Western intellectual scene during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The two men held radically divergent views of the world, and it is not surprising that they came into conflict. Their dispute arose from Sartre's 1939 re view of Nabokov's novel Despair and expanded, at least on Nabokov's part, to an attack on Sartre's views of literature, politics, and, ultimately, philosophy. While the Nabokov-Sartre controversy is less well known than the Nabokov-Wilson feud, it was no less elegantly acidulous. Brian Boyd and Andrew Field briefly discuss the Nabokov-Sartre exchange in their books, as does Simon Karlinsky in his notes to the Nabokov-Wilson correspondence and in a subsequent essay.' Both of the protagonists have published and republished their contributions.2 My purpose is to gather and summarize the available information and to suggest that an early Nabokov story may have some relevance to the imbroglio. In 1926 Nabokov wrote a short story called "Uzhas" or "Terror" about a world suddenly devoid of meaning.3 The first person poet-narrator is nameless, as is his mistress, the only other character of conse quence. There is no dialogue. Events take place in a nameless Russian city, and in an equally anonymous non-Russian city, all set in a featureless
1. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 138-39; Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), pp. 132-33, and VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Crown, 1986), pp. 167-68; Simon Karlinsky, ed. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: 1940-971 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 198, and Simon Kariinsky, "Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)," in Histoire de la LittÃ©rature Russe. Le XXe SiÃ¨cle**. La RÃ©volution et les annÃ©es vingt, ed. Efim Etkind, Georges Nivat, llya Serman et Vittorio Strada (Paris: Fayard, 1989), pp. 166-67. 2. Jean-Paul Sartre, "La MÃ©prise," Europe, June 15, 1939, pp. 240-49; rpt. in Situations I (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), pp. 58-61; Vladimir Nabokov, "Sartre's First Try," The New York Times Book Review, April, 24 1949, pp. 3 & 19; rpt. in Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 228-30. 3. Vladimir Nabokov, "Uzhas," in Sovremennye zapiski (Paris), No. 30 (Jan. 1927), pp. 214-20; Terror," in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), pp. 113-21. Page citations to Nabokov's works in the text of the article refer to both the Russian and the English versions, e.g. (R201/E118).
I saw the actual essence of all things" (R202/E119). The narrator's affairs require a solitary business trip abroad. 4. ""terror': Pre-texts and Post-texts. where she dies without regaining consciousness. On the fifth sleepless day.. His existential tenor instantly vanishes in the face of simple human grief. Quotes in the text of my article are from this English translation and Hayden Carruth's "Introduction. He fears he is going mad. 6. intro. Charles Nicol and G. On the street he suddenly sees "the world . At that moment he receives a telegram telling him that his mistress is dying. The "essence" of an object is everything that permits us to recognize it Not only does this include obvious features such as size. its past or anything that discussions. Ibid. 1987). Roquentin who is engaged in historical research in a French orovincial city. by Hayden Carruth (New York: . tr. but also function and history. unmediated reality. Some eight years later in that same city a provincial French schoolteacher and student of philosophy completed a second draft of a novel to be called La NausÃ©e. people have all lost any connection with ordinary life: "My line of communication with the world snapped. cars. I was on my own and the world was on its own. but what is to protect him now?4 Nabokov's tale of vastation was written in Berlin. Nausea. Ronald Hayman. an aimless glance moving in an absurd world" (R203/E120)." in A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction." he feels he is "no longer a man but a naked eye.70 Nabokov Studies present. as it actually is" (R201/E118). brief episodes of existential estrangement.." Hayden Carruth's "Introduction" to Nausea provides necessary background (ix). p. His head feels as if it were made of glass. all of which define objects in the human context. trees. Uoyd Alexander. see D.. 108. Sartre. 132-33. The Russian poet-narrator tells of earlier.7 The diary is an account of Roquentin's growing psychological and metaphysical despair as he undergoes a vastation very similar to that of Nabokov's narrator. pp. For an analysis of the philosophical antecedents of this story and a survey of prior New Directions. A Life (New York: Simon and Shuster. in part to his relation- ship with his beloved mistress whose gay simplicity seemingly protects him from the abyss of a stark. thanks. Floundering to regain his former. 1969). habitual "reality." 7. The "existence" of an object is simply that it isÂ—quite apart from its perceptual qualities. Houses. Her death has saved him. texture.6 it launched one of the twentieth century's most controversial intellectual careers. 39-64. Jean-Paul Sartre. La NausÃ©e purports to be the diary of one M. Roquentin's madness entails a catastrophic descent from the familiar world of "essence" into the stark world of "existence. he goes out for a stroll. color. He travels back to her bedside.5 When Jean-Paul Sartre published his inaugural novel in March 1938. 5. Barton Jonnson. Set in the early thirties. 1993). ed. He has survived these. and that worid was devoid of sense. pp. Barabtarlo (New York: Garland. weight.
the naked world suddenly revealing itself. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things. all in disorderÂ—naked. we must pause for a clarification. their methods of use. Nabokov's term "essence" is his translation of the Russian periphrastic [mir]. knotty mass. I was sitting. the bench. Perception of objects thus stripped of their humanizing essence ends in existential horror and the "nausea" of Sartre's title. Partially recovering from his vastation... but this proves ineffectual. Never until these last few days. monstrous masses. leaving soft. in a frightful. This veneer had melted. I was not surprised. I couldn't remember it was a root any more.kakov on est' na samom dele" (202). He notices the black root of the tree by his foot. obscene nakedness (126-27). i..I looked at the tree.. shall be Roquentin's mode of accommodation with existence. which frightened me.e. and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. '[the world] as it is in actual fact' Thus Nabokov's "essence" is identical with Sartre's stark "existence. Or rather the root the park gates. Then I had this vision. as clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself." The hom'fying existential illumination that Sartre assigns to his hero is loosely derived from an incident in his own life that he described in a 1931 letter to his companion Simone De Beauvoir: ". Roquentin visits his ex-wife.. Sartre. a veneer. were only an appearance.".. the distraught Roquentin collapses on a park bench under a chestnut tree. I was floating. their individuality. all that had vanished: the diversity of things. entirely beastly. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things. Roquentin struggles to find words to express his loathsome vision (129 & 131).The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 71 gives it meaning. The entire world becomes ooze: "I was nowhere.. It was beautiful. The novel ends indeterminately with a hint that perhaps art. is using "essence" and "existence" in the technical sense described above. stooping forward.. Sartre's hero is clearly undergoes the same experience as Nabokov's.. and I choked with rage at this gross absurd being" (134). the philosopher... the sparse grass. but this is some what confused by matters of philosophical terminology and translation. had I understood the meaning of "existence. there it was. And then all of a sudden.. I knew it was the world. alone in front of this black.. head bowed. Like Nabokov's hero. specifically a novel. Before proceeding. In the novel's most famous scene.. and I have no hesitation in setting down two facts vital to my biography: it was at Burgos that I understood what a cathe- .
Nabokov belongs to the second.1. Nabokov was resident in France when Sartre's novel appeared in 1938 and was probably aware of it. pp. and Laughter in the Dark in French translation dur- ing the mid-thirties. Nabokov had already published three novels. he contrives an insurance swindle in which he trades identities with his double and kills him. discovers a tramp whom he recognizes as his double. The Eye. & D14."" He enclosed a sketch and asked De Beauvoir to identify what was apparently a chestnut tree.1.. 10. I am not sure what kind of tree it was. Terming Despair "a strange miscarriage of a novel. 1986). and at Le Havre what a tree is. 133 & 125-26. Despair. Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York: Garland.u The French version was a translation of Nabokov's own 1937 English translation of the Russian original. Both writers had ties to the prestigious La Nouvelle Revue FranÃ§aise and to its editor Jean Paulhan. Since his business is failing. . Dl 5. If Sartre was not already familiar with Nabokov's work. the Russian Otchaianie. 9. D10. appeared as La MÃ©prise "The Mistake" (not "Contempt" as Juliar has it confusing the feminine mÃ©prise for the masculine mÃ©pris). he was soon to become aware of Despair. Sartre. Unfortunately. Ibid.'0 In eariy 1939. The devices that Nabokov chooses to mock are those of Dostoevsky whose tormented heroes re 8. and Sartre's "Le Mur" appeared there in July. whom Nabokov considered the bad seed in nineteenth century Russia's cultural and political development. Sartre reviewed Nabokov's Despair for the journal Europe on 15 June 1939. 11. the myopic utilitarian social and literary critic. Nabokov had recently incorporated into his novel The Gift a mocking biography of Chernyshevsky in which the radical martyr's myopia and ignorance of nature were a central metaphor. The fatal mistake (mÃ©prise) is that his 'double" does not re semble him in the least. The Defense. evokes that of Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Fresh from the triumph of La NausÃ©e. D12. 90. who had admired La NausÃ©e in manuscript. for Sartre's blind eye to the natural world. Nabokov would have been perversely amused.. Hayman.1. fbid. both real and metaphoric. Michael Juliar. and a second in which they reflect on those tools.^ in March 1937 Nabokov had published his essay "Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable" in NRF. Hermann. Sartre began to review for the journal the following year.72 Nabokov Studies dral is." Sartre focuses on Nabokov's tendency to provide his tale with a built-in critique that causes it to self-destruct The critic remarks that the history of literature falls into two periods: one in which authors create their tools. Despair or La MÃ©prise is a psychological detective story in which a Russian Ã©migrÃ© businessman.
similar complaints had previously been voiced by Russian Ã©migrÃ© critics. 'poor Knight' as a product and victim of what he calls 'our time'Â—though why some people are so keen to make others share in their Chronometrie concepts."'3 In high dudgeon.The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 73 semble Hermann Karlovich more than the latter resembles his double.. his first English language novel. 62. In any case. Both Nabokov and his "hero. Fyodor GodunovCherdyntsev. Goodman magic words opening every door. Such writers "do not concern themselves with any society. Like his hero. however." Sartre was apparently unaware that Despair had been written in Russian. believes in his characters while Nabokov does not." Hermann Karlovich. Goodman. Nabokov. and M. At about the time Sartre's review appeared. lurii Olesha... M.'s scorn is Goodman's insistence on seeing: ". not even to revolt against it. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Directions. Nabokov is completely deracinated. p. he fails to replace the old techniques with anything new of his own. p. 165. Although Nabokov borrows from Dostoevsky in order to mock him. Why does Nabokov bother to write? Masochism? Simply the pleasure of catching himself in the act of trickery? His novel dissolves in its own venom. Nabokov to writing in English about gratuitous matters. Nabokov is a man who has read too much. self-destructs. "V. 1977 [19411. Goodman calls 'the atmosphere of postwar Europe' is utterly preposterous" (66). some years earlier in The Gift 12. although much the same sentiments had been voiced by Nabokov's hero. the very idea of [Sebastian! reacting in any special 'modern' way to what Mr." Sartre concludes: "At the present time there exists a curious literature by Russian Ã©migrÃ©s and others who are dÃ©racinÃ©s. In chapter 7. 13. [Hermann] is consequently reduced to committing perfect crimes.". Sebastian's Russian half-brother "V. Sebastian's former secretary. Nabokov was apparently completing The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.. The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight.. because they do not belong to any society. It is tempting to see this as Nabokov's response to Sartre. who has just written a biography. . Unlike his brilliant Soviet countryman. We do not know if Nabokov saw Sartre's original review.' 'Postwar Generation' are to Mr. He probably did since he was living in Paris and well-connected in French literary circles. launches a diatribe against Mr. has always been a mystery to me. The particular object of V." declares that ". the narrator. Ibid. 'Postwar Unrest. are "victims of the war and the emigration. the tramp Felix. Vladimir Nabokov. the author.12 Nabokov reacted strongly to attitudes such as those expressed by Sartre and earlier critics in his novel-inprogress. Dostoevsky.
which mistranslates romanesque as "romantic" rather than "novelistic. is ultimately a refutation of the thesis since he succeeds.16 The works share the idea that the self exists only as reflected in the eyes of others (L'enfer. E. Russian Ã©migrÃ© writer Nina Berberova. 16. Sarraute's novel is a sort of parodie existential detective story. in reintegrating his scattered images. to destroy it before our very eyes while seeming to construct it" Such works express the fact that "we live in a period of reflection and that the novel is reflecting on its own problems. long-time Paris resident and acquaintance of Nabokov. partially. D. Barton Johnson. Nabokov was certainly on Sartre's mind in 1947 when the French philosopher republished his dismissive essay on La MÃ©prise in a collection called Situations I. 3 (Fall 1985). Nina Berberova. Press. 57 (June 1959). 1982). p.'4 Sartre. 1940. were remarkably similar in tone and content to Sartre's earlier review. pp. on the other hand. 1966)." Novyi zhurnal (New York). (An abridged English version. ed. c'est les autres). The Oxford Companion to French Literature (Oxford: Oxford Univ. 23. 19. Heseltine. Among the features that en14. Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 261. 15. Sartre cites the works of Nabokov. No." Mme. Norman Page. emerged from the war as the undisputed leader of the French intellectual scene: novelist. but Nabokov's hero. after a fashion. playwright. and founder of Existentialism. p. Paul Harvey & |."'5 Some lingering presence of Nabokov may have remained with Sartre even during the war years. The idea is not without its appeal. and. No. but the theme is scarcely original.) The following year Sartre contributed a preface to Nathalie Sarraute's first novel Portrait d'un inconnu. "Nabokov i ego Lolita." may be found in Norman Page's invaluable Nabokov: The Critical Heritage." These "penetrating and entirely negative works" look like ordinary novels but their "aim is to make use of the novel in order to challenge the novel. Some. like that of Diana Trilling. that "metaphysical expression of the spiritual dishevelment of a postwar age. Smurov. 347. During the following decade he established himself as a well-regarded minor figure on the American literary scene and as an academic. has made the rather startling observation that the seed of Sartre's 1944 Huis clos "No Exit" may be found in Nabokov's The Eye which had appeared in French in 1935. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947) attracted a handful of mixed reviews. eds. . Nabokov arrived in the United States on May 28. Evelyn Waugh.74 Nabokov Studies The Sartre-Nabokov exchange receded into the background during World War II. Sartre opens his preface by introducing the term the "anti- novel. AndrÃ© Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs. As earlier exemplars of the anti-novel. "Eyeing Nabokov's Eye. 92-115." Canadian-American Slavic Studies.
pp. Straus. Edmund Wilson. Sartre avers that the alkoo-real world is nauseatingry absurd and amorphous. The novel's fatal flaw. Apparently Sarraute's parodie detective story succeeds where Nabokov's had failed. Nabokov.) Her admiration for Dostoevsky is also mentioned. accompanied by a discussion of Existentialism. with its honesty and misgivings" creates a psychology of "authenticity" that Nabokov had presumably failed to achieve. Nathalie Sarraute. 2 1947. 20. Nonetheless. if any.'Â· The following April. p. p. although not an innovator. 198. ." pp. The Age of Reason. 18. Classics and Commercials (New York: Farrar. Wilson inquired whether Nabokov had seen the republished Sartre review of Despair./bid. Sartre's view of Nabokov was apparently changing for the better.'7 Nabokov wrote Wilson that he had liked the essay. groping style. and hints that Dostoevsky at his worst lurks in the novel's background. according to Nabokov." He doubts whether La NausÃ©e was worth translating in the first place. 19.The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 75 chant M. mucous.19 The published correspondence does not contain Nabokov's answer." (One cannot but remark certain similarities to La NausÃ©e.20 Nabokov opens with a broadside against Sartre and existentialism which he terms "a fashionable brand of cafÃ© philosophy" whose practitioners inevitably seem to attract 'suctorialists'. Sartre's preface not only cites Nabokov as a forerunner of the antinovel but exalts Nabokov's fellow ex-Russian. but on June 1 Wilson writes that he is sending the Sartre. hesitant amoeba-like movements. In the spring of 1949 New Directions brought out Sartre's La NausÃ©e in English and The New York Times asked Nabokov to review it The re view does less than justice to Sartre's novel. for pre cisely those qualities that he had condemned in his 1939 review of Despair." Her characters are on the verge of terror: "something is about to explode that will illuminate suddenly the glaucous depths of a soul. Her "stumbling. Much 17. Sartre is Sarraute's "protoplasmic vision of our interior universe: roll away the stone of the commonplace and we find running discharges. 192. 393-403. is that Roquentin's illumination is not artistically integrated into the work. Any revelation would have done as well without affecting the rest of the book in the slightest. 3 & 19. in Edmund Wilson. Nabokov's friend Edmund Wilson had meanwhile become interested in Sartre and had done a New Yorker review essay of the novel.. even conceding Nabokov's point that it is badly written and translated. Karlinsky. Aug." The New Yorker. slobberings. Letters. "Sartre's First Try. rpt. 1950). "Jean-Paul Sartre: The Novelist and the Existentialist. He was important as a predecessor. Sartre's artistry is inadequate to his message.
Oxford Companion. some of Sartre's comments had been echoed by English reviewers of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister." whom the Germanless Nabokov had never read."21 Nabokov's opportunity for a major riposte came with the American reissue of Despair. Nabokov may have found it particularly galling when La NausÃ©e was selected as one of the one of the twelve best novels of the first half of the century in 1950.22 Nabokov's modest reputation continued to grow slowly until the American publication of Lolita in 1958 when he. and Jean-Paul Sartre "with whom I would not consent to take part in any festival or conference whatsoever. but perhaps do not fully account for his reaction. A 1962 letter to the London Times objected strongly to the unauthorized use of Nabokov's name in the program of the Edinburgh International Festival Writers' Conference.24 Nabokov's "Introduction. is that Nabokov's was." The allusion to Sartre's play No Exit is unmistakable. Despair (New York: McGraw-Hill. . Nabokov's comments about the inadequacies of Sartre's novel as art are well taken. he continues: "On the other hand. no message to bring in its teeth. 662 & 576. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man. 212. Nabokov now returned to the attack. Nabokov." dated March 1. I do know French and shall be interested to see if anyone calls my Hermann 'the father of exis21. 1965). The mention of Dostoevsky suggests a reaction to Sartre's charge that Despair was a sickly descendant of Dostoevsky whom Nabokov intensely disliked. if nothing else. Worst yet. 24." and to complaints about the translation which. Sartre's star continued to rise. The 1947 reviewers had been particularly hard on the latter. Page. in part.76 Nabokov Studies of the review is devoted to making fun of Sartre's misapprehensions about Sophie Tucker's "Some of these Days. Strong Opinions. has no social comment to make. Bertrand Russell. like Sartre. pp. culminating in the 1964 Nobel Prize which he rejected. p. The post-war !ionization of Sartre and the reprinting of his review of Despair could not have helped matters. however. Sartre (8-9). Nabokov. After dismissing Freudians and critics who will discover "the influence of German Impressionists. Nabokov was appalled to find himself listed alongside llya Ehrenburg. 23. Nabokov is obviously responding to the Frenchman's 1939 review: "Despair. Harvey and Heseltine. pp. in kinship with the rest of my books. Although Sartre's name does not appear in the text. tacitly devotes two of its ten paragraphs to M. 7-9 & 23. 1965. show that Nabokov had examined the French text. Vladimir Nabokov. a visceral reaction to Sartre's apologias for Soviet communism and advocacy of littÃ©rature engagÃ©e. 22. nor does it show humanity the right exit. became a public figure.21 More likely.
" Nabokov had taken his revenge.27 Nabokov is caught in the tension between "modernity and nostalgia. of The Eye. Koch thinks. Koch cites Sartre's introduction to Portrait d'un inconnu in which the philosopher speaks of novels that demote plot and character to mere technical de vices while their subject matter becomes fiction itself. 3-6.'" Sartre's name is introduced in a quite different context. At the end of October the English translation of The Eye appeared.25 Wilson did not approve of Nabokov's literalist approach to Pushkin's masterpiece: given the inventiveness and virtuosity of Nabokov's English style. his bald. 87-88. has Sartre as the author of "the leftist propaganda of the thirties. July 15. pp. by inference. Sartre returned to haunt Nabokov once again in Edmund Wilson's famous review of the Eugene Onegin translation. A Window on Russia (New York: Farrar. pp. Wilson's July 1965 resurrection of Sartre's comment seems to have fallen on fertile soil. rather than an original genius. one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance.. After reading the note. 1966." Notice that the footnote asterisk is attached to the text's relatively innocuous introductory clause. Jan. rpt in Page. thatÂ— with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre Â— he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 77 tentialism. pp. Rev. Juliar. 26. holding Nabokov to be "a virtuoso." Nabokov's footnote reads: "This did not prevent a Communist reviewer (J. ." In an attempt to locate Nabokov historically. 1965. The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov. 209-37. the review is ultimately dismissive. unrhymed translation can be explained only as perversity: ". P. who devoted in 1939 a remarkably silly article to the French translation of Despair. In the main text of his "Foreword" Nabokov remarks that Despair ".. 1972). pp. Stephen Koch. from saying that 'both the author and the main character are victims of the war and the emigration'. and. 17." The New York Review of Books. Sartre is. has less White-Russian appeal than my other Ã©migrÃ© novels:* hence it will be less puzzling and irritating to those readers who have been brought up on the leftist propaganda of the thirties. The Nation.." Although admiring in some ways. 81-82. 183-87. revised rpt. the reader's eye re turns to the text and completes the sentence which now.. Strauss.26 One of the most substantial reviews was by Stephen Koch in The Nation. through an asterisked footnote. pp. Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov. pointedly. Edmund Wilson. 27. "at least partly right" in assigning Nabokov to this dubious cate 25. in Edmund Wilson." The critic could scarcely found a more effective way of outraging Nabokov. Sartre).
78 Nabokov Studies gory. posed the following question: I have a "theory" that the French translation of Despair (1939)Â— not to mention the books she could have read in RussianÂ—ex- erted a great influence on the so-called New Novel. Nabokov's massive response to the French New Novel and to his old arch-enemy to whom he refers later in the interview as "that. A new French study asserts that Nabokov parodies La NausÃ©e in both Ada and Pnin. he said that as an Ã©migrÃ© writerÂ—land lessÂ—you had no subject matter. that lush portrait of Antiterra." When pressed for his opinion about Sartre's remark. pp. Isabelle Poulin. Every original novel is 'anti-' because it does not re semble the genre or kind of its predecessor" (173). Given the time of the interview just a year after the publication of Ada. Sartre" (175).29 That Ada is permeated with French subtexts has been admirably shown by Annapaola Cancogni's The Mirage in the Mirror: 28. he added: "I'm immune to any kind of opinion and I just don't know what an 'anti-novel' is specifically. "La NausÃ©e de Nabokov et La MÃ©prise de Sartre. the latter's re cent reference to Sartre may well have caught the reviewer's eye. Is Nabokov precursor of the French New Novel? Nabokov replied: "The New French Novel does not really exist apart from a little heap of dust and fluff in a fouled pigeonhole. one might wonder whether Ada is.. Nabokov's connection with the Sartrean category of the "anti-novel" came up again in a 1970 interview in which Nabokov commented upon several French writers. 1993). "But what is the question?" you might ask at this point. Or perhaps he may have noticed that The Eye shares certain thematic concerns with Sartre's No Exit. Nora Buhks. Vladimir Nabokov. 29. Strong Opinions. reviewing Despair. Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (1947). a rather more intelligent remarkÂ—don't you thinkÂ—than his comment of eight years before when. awful M. Sartre includes you among the antinovelists.. including Nathalie Sarraute. Although Koch does not refer to the on-going Eugene Onegin feud between Nabokov and Wilson. perhaps tongue-in-cheek.28 The interviewer. Like Sartre in his review of Despair. In his Preface to Mme. 10717. pp. Koch sees Nabokov's chief theme as self-consciousness. . (Paris: Institut d'Ã©tudes slaves." in Vladimir Nabokov et l'Ã‰migration. 159-76. Alfred Appel. in part. ed.
it was one that ran counter to the general tenor of his work. 31. like Freud. and for his political stance. More generally. In any case.The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 79 Nabokov's Ada and Its French Pretexts. 5arÂ£re. . and none of that novel's fatal defects. In his early story. On the other 30. It was ultimately philosophical. Nabokov's relationship with his French coeval comes full circle in his introductory remarks to the 1975 English translation of Tenor. 262. Nabokov despised Sartre for his neo-Chernyshevskian view of literature (engagÃ©e). an abstract universe lacking human features." which he closes by remarking "It preceded Sartre's La NausÃ©e. 1985. but these subtexts are from the French Romantic and Realist traditions rather than the New Novel. New York: Garland. Moreover." and suggests again the possible influence of La MÃ©prise (174). Press. who. "Terror. Nabokov was a writer of essences. p." an idea that anticipates much of Sartre's work. French Existentialism. His 1939 review of Despair attacked Nabokov for qualities that he later praised in Nathalie Sarraute and the French New Wave.30 Perhaps Ada is an "anti-anti-novel"? Appel returns to Despair and the French New Novel when he notes that someone has called the New Novel "The detective story taken seriously. it is interesting that he makes no mention of the prominent detective aspect of Nabokov's novel. 89 & 92-93. and although the story reportedly appeared in a German translation in 1928. To put the matter in existentialist terms. for Sartre was not only a fan of detective fiction. by at least a dozen years" (112). with which it shares certain shades of thought. Hayman. 1990)." Nabokov graphically portrayed existential terror arising from "the world as it is. the image was just thatÂ—an artistic speculation. SartreÂ—a writer of existences. Brian Boyd. Nabokov's dislike of Sartre is not surprising. and the French New Novel.32 it is most unlikely that he encountered it. Sartre did not know Russian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton Univ. became one of Nabokov's bÃªtes noires. those sensual textures that en- rich the world. The question is particularly piquant. For Nabokov. The controversy was over much more than personal and political differences. 32. There was apparently no contemporary French translation. Over the years Nabokov missed few opportunities to express his opinion of Sartre. The French intellectual won his first fame for a bad novel that chanced to echo the theme of the 1926 Nabokov story "Terror" describing an attack of existentialist horror. pp. but explicitly drew upon its techniques in La NausÃ©e which has been described as "a kind of whodunit in which contingency would turn out to be the villain"3' Given that Sartre's review of Despair followed hard upon the success of La NausÃ©e. it is virtually certain that Sartre never saw the story.
a Ressemblance et autres abus language (Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles. The oddity is that they shared at least one central idea. "features a firstperson narrator.80 Nabokov Studies hand. "La ressemblance. Appel's hypothesis finds confirmation in the work of at least one French writer."33 Nabokov and Sartre were polar opposites in almost every respect. Appel's hypothesis about the role of Despair in the French New Novel may have some merit as may the thought that Ada is a reaction to that "school. 1989) which . and would-be murderer named Vladimir N.' who is going to be killed by his double. Lahougue published a story. Sweeney says. . published a 1977 novel called Non-lieu dans un paysage (Paris: Caillimard) which uses The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as its subtext." (/. A dozen years later. The story uses the plot of Despair to tell the story of Lahougue's own previous borrowing from VN in Nonlieu. writer. Drawing upon an unpublished paper by Michel SirventÂ—"Doublures hypertextuelles: rÃ©cits rÃ©crits de Jean Lahougue"Â—. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney reports that Lahougue. Both men agreed on the primacy of consciousness and fiercely held man capable of free choice." My thanks to Professor Sweeney for this information. University of California at Santa Barbara 33. a literary descendant of Robbe-Grillet.
.The Nabokov-Sartre Controversy 81 W* """TrI'*'''1 **-Â·<>*. .
82 Nabokov Studies .
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