Sartre's First Try

By VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Sunday, April 24, 1949

NAUSEA. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Lloyd Alexander.

Sartre's name, I 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 Nausée"
(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 économies, 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 ephitets 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 "her
looks."

3. A reference to "ce pauvre Ghéhenno" (French writer) is twisted (p. 163) into "Christ * *
* this poor man of Gehenna."

Whether, from the viewpoint of literature, "La Nausée" was worth translating at all is
another question. It belongs to that tense-looking but really very loose type or writing,
which has been popularized by many second-raters-Barbusse, Céline and so forth.
Somewhere behind looms Dostoevsky 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 now kept by a sun-tanned cosmopolitan. Great importance is attached to an American
song on the cafe phonograph: "Some of these days you'll miss me, honey." Roquentin

a lot of talent is needed to have the trick work.would like to be as crisply alive as this song." In an equivocal flash of clairvoyance (p. Tom (probably a friend) will come in with his hipflask (local color) and they will take swigs of liquor ("brimming glasses of whisky" in Mr. without in the least affecting the rest of the book. all this remains on a purely mental level. Alexander's lush version)." writing down the tune on the twenty-first floor of a skyscraper. The heat is terrific. 235) he visualizes the composer as a clean-shaven Brooklynite with "coal-black eyebrows" and "ringed fingers. I have taken the trouble to ascertain that in reality the song is a Sophi Tucker one written by the Canadian Shelton Brooks. which "saved the Jew [who wrote it] and the Negress [who sang it]" from being "drowned in existence. 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. however. Unfortunately for the novel. . and the discovery might have been of some other nature. But the task to make the world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre's powers. When an author inflicts his idle and arbitrary philosophic fancy on a helpless person whom he has invented for that purpose. One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists. Presently. say solipsistic.