Nabokov Studies, 1 (1994), 69-82. D. BARTON JOHNSON (Santa Barbara, CA, U.S.A.) THE NABOKOV- SARTRE CONTROVERSY Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were, in their very different ways, leading figures on the Western intellec- tual 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-narra- tor 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 Littérature Russe. Le XXe Siècle**. La Révolution et les années vingt, ed. Efim Etkind, Georges Nivat, llya Serman et Vittorio Strada (Paris: Fayard, 1989), pp. 166-67. 2. Jean-Paul Sartre, "La Méprise," 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).

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Nabokov Studies, 1 (1994), 69-82.

D. BARTON JOHNSON (Santa Barbara, CA, U.S.A.)


Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)were, in their very different ways, leading figures on the Western intellec-tual scene during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The twomen held radically divergent views of the world, and it is not surprisingthat they came into conflict. Their dispute arose from Sartre's 1939 review of Nabokov's novel Despair and expanded, at least on Nabokov'spart, to an attack on Sartre's views of literature, politics, and, ultimately,philosophy. While the Nabokov-Sartre controversy is less well knownthan the Nabokov-Wilson feud, it was no less elegantly acidulous. BrianBoyd and Andrew Field briefly discuss the Nabokov-Sartre exchange intheir books, as does Simon Karlinsky in his notes to the Nabokov-Wilsoncorrespondence and in a subsequent essay.' Both of the protagonistshave published and republished their contributions.2 My purpose is togather and summarize the available information and to suggest that anearly 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-narra-tor is nameless, as is his mistress, the only other character of consequence. There is no dialogue. Events take place in a nameless Russiancity, 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)," inHistoire de la Littérature Russe. Le XXe Siècle**. La Révolution et les années vingt, ed. EfimEtkind, Georges Nivat, llya Serman et Vittorio Strada (Paris: Fayard, 1989), pp. 166-67.

2. Jean-Paul Sartre, "La Méprise," Europe, June 15, 1939, pp. 240-49; rpt. in SituationsI (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), pp. 58-61; Vladimir Nabokov, "Sartre's First Try," The New YorkTimes 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 theRussian and the English versions, e.g. (R201/E118).

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present. The Russian poet-narrator tells of earlier, brief episodes of exis-tential estrangement. He has survived these, thanks, in part to his relation-ship with his beloved mistress whose gay simplicity seemingly protectshim from the abyss of a stark, unmediated reality. The narrator's affairsrequire a solitary business trip abroad. On the fifth sleepless day, he goesout for a stroll. His head feels as if it were made of glass. On the street hesuddenly sees "the world ... as it actually is" (R201/E118). Houses, trees,cars, people have all lost any connection with ordinary life: "My line ofcommunication with the world snapped, I was on my own and theworld was on its own, and that worid was devoid of sense. I saw the ac-tual essence of all things" (R202/E119). Floundering to regain his former,habitual "reality," he feels he is "no longer a man but a naked eye, an aim-less glance moving in an absurd world" (R203/E120). At that momenthe receives a telegram telling him that his mistress is dying. His existentialtenor instantly vanishes in the face of simple human grief. He travels backto her bedside, where she dies without regaining consciousness. Herdeath has saved him, but what is to protect him now?4

Nabokov's tale of vastation was written in Berlin. Some eight yearslater in that same city a provincial French schoolteacher and student ofphilosophy completed a second draft of a novel to be called La Nausée.5When Jean-Paul Sartre published his inaugural novel in March 1938,6 itlaunched one of the twentieth century's most controversial intellectualcareers. Set in the early thirties, La Nausée purports to be the diary of oneM. Roquentin who is engaged in historical research in a French orovincialcity.7 The diary is an account of Roquentin's growing psychological andmetaphysical despair as he undergoes a vastation very similar to that ofNabokov's narrator. He fears he is going mad. Roquentin's madnessentails a catastrophic descent from the familiar world of "essence" intothe stark world of "existence."

Hayden Carruth's "Introduction" to Nausea provides necessarybackground (ix). The "essence" of an object is everything that permits usto recognize it Not only does this include obvious features such as size,weight, texture, color, but also function and history, all of which defineobjects in the human context. The "existence" of an object is simply thatit is—quite apart from its perceptual qualities, its past or anything that

4. For an analysis of the philosophical antecedents of this story and a survey of priordiscussions, see D. Barton Jonnson, ""terror': Pre-texts and Post-texts," in A Small AlpineForm: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction, ed. Charles Nicol and G. Barabtarlo (New York:Garland, 1993), pp. 39-64.

5. Ronald Hayman, Sartre. A Life (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1987), p. 108.6. Ibid., pp. 132-33.7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, tr. Uoyd Alexander, intro. by Hayden Carruth (New York:New Directions, 1969). Quotes in the text of my article are from this English translation and

Hayden Carruth's "Introduction."

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gives it meaning. Perception of objects thus stripped of their humanizingessence ends in existential horror and the "nausea" of Sartre's title. In thenovel's most famous scene, the distraught Roquentin collapses on a parkbench under a chestnut tree. He notices the black root of the tree by hisfoot.

I couldn't remember it was a root any more. The words had van-ished and with them the significance of things, their methods ofuse, and the feeble points of reference which men have tracedon their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed,alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, whichfrightened me. Then I had this vision.... Never until these last fewdays, had I understood the meaning of "existence."... And thenall of a sudden, there it was, as clear as day: existence had sud-denly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstractcategory: it was the very paste of things,.... Or rather the root thepark gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: thediversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, aveneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses,all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness (126-27).

Like Nabokov's hero, Roquentin struggles to find words to express hisloathsome vision (129 & 131). The entire world becomes ooze: "I wasnowhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I knew it was the world, thenaked world suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at thisgross absurd being" (134). Partially recovering from his vastation,Roquentin visits his ex-wife, but this proves ineffectual. The novel ends in-determinately with a hint that perhaps art, specifically a novel, shall beRoquentin's mode of accommodation with existence.

Before proceeding, we must pause for a clarification. Sartre's hero isclearly undergoes the same experience as Nabokov's, but this is somewhat confused by matters of philosophical terminology and translation.Sartre, the philosopher, is using "essence" and "existence" in the technicalsense described above. Nabokov's term "essence" is his translation ofthe Russian periphrastic [mir]...kakov on est' na samom dele" (202), i.e.,'[the world] as it is in actual fact' Thus Nabokov's "essence" is identicalwith Sartre's stark "existence."

The hom'fying existential illumination that Sartre assigns to his hero isloosely derived from an incident in his own life that he described in a1931 letter to his companion Simone De Beauvoir: "...I looked at thetree. It was beautiful, and I have no hesitation in setting down two factsvital to my biography: it was at Burgos that I understood what a cathe-

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dral is, and at Le Havre what a tree is. Unfortunately, I am not sure whatkind of tree it was."" He enclosed a sketch and asked De Beauvoir toidentify what was apparently a chestnut tree. Nabokov would have beenperversely amused, for Sartre's blind eye to the natural world, both realand metaphoric, evokes that of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the myopic utili-tarian social and literary critic, whom Nabokov considered the bad seedin nineteenth century Russia's cultural and political development.Nabokov had recently incorporated into his novel The Gift a mockingbiography of Chernyshevsky in which the radical martyr's myopia andignorance of nature were a central metaphor.

Nabokov was resident in France when Sartre's novel appeared in1938 and was probably aware of it. Both writers had ties to the presti-gious La Nouvelle Revue Française and to its editor Jean Paulhan, whohad admired La Nausée in manuscript.^ in March 1937 Nabokov hadpublished his essay "Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable" in NRF, andSartre's "Le Mur" appeared there in July. Sartre began to review for thejournal the following year. Nabokov had already published three novels,The Defense, The Eye, and Laughter in the Dark in French translation dur-ing the mid-thirties.'0 In eariy 1939, Despair, the Russian Otchaianie, ap-peared as La Méprise "The Mistake" (not "Contempt" as Juliar has it con-fusing the feminine méprise for the masculine mépris).u The French ver-sion was a translation of Nabokov's own 1937 English translation of theRussian original. Despair or La Méprise is a psychological detective storyin which a Russian émigré businessman, Hermann, discovers a trampwhom he recognizes as his double. Since his business is failing, he con-trives an insurance swindle in which he trades identities with his doubleand kills him. The fatal mistake (méprise) is that his 'double" does not resemble him in the least. If Sartre was not already familiar with Nabokov'swork, he was soon to become aware of Despair.

Fresh from the triumph of La Nausée, Sartre reviewed Nabokov'sDespair for the journal Europe on 15 June 1939. Terming Despair "astrange miscarriage of a novel," Sartre focuses on Nabokov's tendencyto provide his tale with a built-in critique that causes it to self-destructThe critic remarks that the history of literature falls into two periods: onein which authors create their tools, and a second in which they reflect onthose tools. Nabokov belongs to the second. The devices that Nabokovchooses to mock are those of Dostoevsky whose tormented heroes re

8. Hayman, Sartre, 90.9. Ibid., pp. 133 & 125-26.10. Michael Juliar, Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York: Garland,

1986), D10.1, D12.1, & D14.11. fbid., Dl 5.1.

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semble Hermann Karlovich more than the latter resembles his double, thetramp Felix. Dostoevsky, however, believes in his characters whileNabokov does not. Although Nabokov borrows from Dostoevsky inorder to mock him, he fails to replace the old techniques with anythingnew of his own. Why does Nabokov bother to write? Masochism?Simply the pleasure of catching himself in the act of trickery? His noveldissolves in its own venom. Nabokov, the author, self-destructs. Like hishero, Nabokov is a man who has read too much. Both Nabokov and his"hero," Hermann Karlovich, are "victims of the war and the emigration."Sartre concludes: "At the present time there exists a curious literature byRussian émigrés and others who are déracinés. Unlike his brilliant Sovietcountryman, lurii Olesha, M. Nabokov is completely deracinated. Suchwriters "do not concern themselves with any society, not even to revoltagainst it, because they do not belong to any society. [Hermann] is con-sequently reduced to committing perfect crimes, and M. Nabokov towriting in English about gratuitous matters." Sartre was apparently un-aware that Despair had been written in Russian.

We do not know if Nabokov saw Sartre's original review. He prob-ably did since he was living in Paris and well-connected in French literarycircles. In any case, similar complaints had previously been voiced byRussian émigré critics. At about the time Sartre's review appeared,Nabokov was apparently completing The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,his first English language novel.12 Nabokov reacted strongly to attitudessuch as those expressed by Sartre and earlier critics in his novel-in-progress. In chapter 7, the narrator, Sebastian's Russian half-brother "V.",launches a diatribe against Mr. Goodman, Sebastian's former secretary,who has just written a biography, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. Theparticular object of V.'s scorn is Goodman's insistence on seeing: "...'poor Knight' as a product and victim of what he calls 'our time'—thoughwhy some people are so keen to make others share in their Chronometrieconcepts, has always been a mystery to me. 'Postwar Unrest,' 'PostwarGeneration' are to Mr. Goodman magic words opening every door."'3 Inhigh dudgeon, "V." declares that "... the very idea of [Sebastian! reactingin any special 'modern' way to what Mr. Goodman calls 'the atmo-sphere of postwar Europe' is utterly preposterous" (66). It is tempting tosee this as Nabokov's response to Sartre, although much the same senti-ments had been voiced by Nabokov's hero, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, some years earlier in The Gift

12. Ibid., p. 165.13. Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Directions,

1977 [19411, p. 62.

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The Sartre-Nabokov exchange receded into the background duringWorld War II. Nabokov arrived in the United States on May 28, 1940.During the following decade he established himself as a well-regardedminor figure on the American literary scene and as an academic. The RealLife of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947) attracted ahandful of mixed reviews. Some, like that of Diana Trilling, were remark-ably similar in tone and content to Sartre's earlier review.'4 Sartre, on theother hand, emerged from the war as the undisputed leader of the Frenchintellectual scene: novelist, playwright, and founder of Existentialism, that"metaphysical expression of the spiritual dishevelment of a postwarage."'5 Some lingering presence of Nabokov may have remained withSartre even during the war years. Russian émigré writer Nina Berberova,long-time Paris resident and acquaintance of Nabokov, has made therather startling observation that the seed of Sartre's 1944 Huis clos "NoExit" may be found in Nabokov's The Eye which had appeared in Frenchin 1935.16 The works share the idea that the self exists only as reflected inthe eyes of others (L'enfer, c'est les autres), but the theme is scarcelyoriginal. The idea is not without its appeal, but Nabokov's hero, Smurov,is ultimately a refutation of the thesis since he succeeds, after a fashion, inreintegrating his scattered images.

Nabokov was certainly on Sartre's mind in 1947 when the Frenchphilosopher republished his dismissive essay on La Méprise in a collectioncalled Situations I. (An abridged English version, which mistranslates ro-manesque as "romantic" rather than "novelistic," may be found inNorman Page's invaluable Nabokov: The Critical Heritage.) The followingyear Sartre contributed a preface to Nathalie Sarraute's first novel Portraitd'un inconnu. Sartre opens his preface by introducing the term the "anti-novel." These "penetrating and entirely negative works" look like ordinarynovels but their "aim is to make use of the novel in order to challenge thenovel, 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 andthat the novel is reflecting on its own problems." Mme. Sarraute's novel isa sort of parodie existential detective story. As earlier exemplars of theanti-novel, Sartre cites the works of Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, and, par-tially, André Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs. Among the features that en-

14. Norman Page, ed. Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & KeganPaul, 1982), p. 23.

15. Paul Harvey & |. E. Heseltine, eds. The Oxford Companion to French Literature(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 261.

16. Nina Berberova, "Nabokov i ego Lolita," Novyi zhurnal (New York), No. 57 (June1959), pp. 92-115; D. Barton Johnson, "Eyeing Nabokov's Eye," Canadian-American SlavicStudies, 19, No. 3 (Fall 1985), 347.

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chant M. Sartre is Sarraute's "protoplasmic vision of our interior universe:roll away the stone of the commonplace and we find running discharges,slobberings, mucous; hesitant amoeba-like movements." Her charactersare on the verge of terror: "something is about to explode that will illumi-nate suddenly the glaucous depths of a soul." (One cannot but remarkcertain similarities to La Nausée.) Her admiration for Dostoevsky is alsomentioned.

Sartre's preface not only cites Nabokov as a forerunner of the anti-novel but exalts Nabokov's fellow ex-Russian, Nathalie Sarraute, for precisely those qualities that he had condemned in his 1939 review ofDespair. Apparently Sarraute's parodie detective story succeeds whereNabokov's had failed. Her "stumbling, groping style, with its honesty andmisgivings" creates a psychology of "authenticity" that Nabokov hadpresumably failed to achieve. Nonetheless, Sartre's view of Nabokovwas apparently changing for the better. He was important as a predeces-sor, although not an innovator.

Nabokov's friend Edmund Wilson had meanwhile become interestedin Sartre and had done a New Yorker review essay of the novel, The Ageof Reason, accompanied by a discussion of Existentialism.'7 Nabokovwrote Wilson that he had liked the essay.'· The following April, Wilsoninquired whether Nabokov had seen the republished Sartre review ofDespair.19 The published correspondence does not contain Nabokov'sanswer, if any, but on June 1 Wilson writes that he is sending the Sartre.

In the spring of 1949 New Directions brought out Sartre's La Nauséein English and The New York Times asked Nabokov to review it The review does less than justice to Sartre's novel, even conceding Nabokov'spoint that it is badly written and translated.20 Nabokov opens with abroadside against Sartre and existentialism which he terms "a fashionablebrand of café philosophy" whose practitioners inevitably seem to attract'suctorialists'." He doubts whether La Nausée was worth translating in thefirst place, and hints that Dostoevsky at his worst lurks in the novel'sbackground. Sartre avers that the alkoo-real world is nauseatingry absurdand amorphous. The novel's fatal flaw, according to Nabokov, is thatRoquentin's illumination is not artistically integrated into the work. Anyrevelation would have done as well without affecting the rest of thebook in the slightest. Sartre's artistry is inadequate to his message. Much

17. Edmund Wilson, "Jean-Paul Sartre: The Novelist and the Existentialist," The NewYorker, Aug. 2 1947; rpt. in Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials (New York: Farrar,Straus, 1950), pp. 393-403.

18. Karlinsky, Letters, p. 192.19./bid., p. 198.20. Nabokov, "Sartre's First Try," pp. 3 & 19.

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of the review is devoted to making fun of Sartre's misapprehensionsabout Sophie Tucker's "Some of these Days," and to complaints aboutthe translation which, if nothing else, show that Nabokov had examinedthe French text.

Nabokov's comments about the inadequacies of Sartre's novel asart are well taken, but perhaps do not fully account for his reaction. Themention of Dostoevsky suggests a reaction to Sartre's charge thatDespair was a sickly descendant of Dostoevsky whom Nabokov in-tensely disliked. The post-war !ionization of Sartre and the reprinting of hisreview of Despair could not have helped matters. Worst yet, some ofSartre's comments had been echoed by English reviewers of SebastianKnight and Bend Sinister. The 1947 reviewers had been particularly hardon the latter.21 More likely, however, is that Nabokov's was, in part, avisceral reaction to Sartre's apologias for Soviet communism and advo-cacy of littérature engagée. Nabokov may have found it particularlygalling when La Nausée was selected as one of the one of the twelvebest novels of the first half of the century in 1950. Sartre's star continuedto rise, culminating in the 1964 Nobel Prize which he rejected.22

Nabokov's modest reputation continued to grow slowly until theAmerican publication of Lolita in 1958 when he, like Sartre, became apublic figure. Nabokov now returned to the attack. A 1962 letter to theLondon Times objected strongly to the unauthorized use of Nabokov'sname in the program of the Edinburgh International Festival Writers'Conference. Nabokov was appalled to find himself listed alongside llyaEhrenburg, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre "with whom I would notconsent to take part in any festival or conference whatsoever."21

Nabokov's opportunity for a major riposte came with the Americanreissue of Despair.24 Nabokov's "Introduction," dated March 1, 1965,tacitly devotes two of its ten paragraphs to M. Sartre (8-9). AlthoughSartre's name does not appear in the text, Nabokov is obviouslyresponding to the Frenchman's 1939 review: "Despair, in kinship with therest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bringin its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it showhumanity the right exit." The allusion to Sartre's play No Exit is un-mistakable. After dismissing Freudians and critics who will discover "theinfluence of German Impressionists," whom the Germanless Nabokovhad never read, he continues: "On the other hand, I do know French andshall be interested to see if anyone calls my Hermann 'the father of exis-

21. Page, Nabokov, pp. 7-9 & 23.22. Harvey and Heseltine, Oxford Companion, pp. 662 & 576.23. Nabokov, Strong Opinions, p. 212.24. Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).

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tentialism.'" Sartre's name is introduced in a quite different context, and,pointedly, through an asterisked footnote. In the main text of his"Foreword" Nabokov remarks that Despair "... has less White-Russianappeal than my other émigré novels:* hence it will be less puzzling and ir-ritating to those readers who have been brought up on the leftist propa-ganda of the thirties." Nabokov's footnote reads: "This did not prevent aCommunist reviewer (J. P. Sartre), who devoted in 1939 a remarkablysilly article to the French translation of Despair, from saying that 'both theauthor and the main character are victims of the war and the emigra-tion'." Notice that the footnote asterisk is attached to the text's relativelyinnocuous introductory clause. After reading the note, the reader's eye returns to the text and completes the sentence which now, by inference,has Sartre as the author of "the leftist propaganda of the thirties."Nabokov had taken his revenge.

Sartre returned to haunt Nabokov once again in Edmund Wilson'sfamous review of the Eugene Onegin translation.25 Wilson did not ap-prove of Nabokov's literalist approach to Pushkin's masterpiece: giventhe inventiveness and virtuosity of Nabokov's English style, his bald, un-rhymed translation can be explained only as perversity: "... one suspectsthat his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted bySartre — he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flatteningPushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play."The critic could scarcely found a more effective way of outragingNabokov.

Wilson's July 1965 resurrection of Sartre's comment seems to havefallen on fertile soil. At the end of October the English translation of TheEye appeared.26 One of the most substantial reviews was by StephenKoch in The Nation.27 Nabokov is caught in the tension between"modernity and nostalgia." Although admiring in some ways, the review isultimately dismissive, holding Nabokov to be "a virtuoso, rather than anoriginal genius." In an attempt to locate Nabokov historically, Koch citesSartre's introduction to Portrait d'un inconnu in which the philosopherspeaks of novels that demote plot and character to mere technical devices while their subject matter becomes fiction itself. Sartre is, Kochthinks, "at least partly right" in assigning Nabokov to this dubious cate

25. Edmund Wilson, The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov," The New YorkReview of Books, July 15, 1965, pp. 3-6; revised rpt. in Edmund Wilson, A Window onRussia (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1972), pp. 209-37.

26. Juliar, Vladimir Nabokov, pp. 87-88.27. Stephen Koch, Rev. of The Eye. The Nation. Jan. 17, 1966, pp. 81-82; rpt in Page,

Nabokov, pp. 183-87.

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gory. Like Sartre in his review of Despair, Koch sees Nabokov's chieftheme as self-consciousness. Although Koch does not refer to the on-go-ing Eugene Onegin feud between Nabokov and Wilson, the latter's recent reference to Sartre may well have caught the reviewer's eye. Or per-haps he may have noticed that The Eye shares certain thematic concernswith Sartre's No Exit.

Nabokov's connection with the Sartrean category of the "anti-novel"came up again in a 1970 interview in which Nabokov commented uponseveral French writers, including Nathalie Sarraute.28 The interviewer,Alfred Appel, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, posed the following question:

I have a "theory" that the French translation of Despair (1939)—not to mention the books she could have read in Russian—ex-erted a great influence on the so-called New Novel. In hisPreface to Mme. Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (1947), Sartreincludes you among the antinovelists, a rather more intelligentremark—don't you think—than his comment of eight years beforewhen, reviewing Despair, he said that as an émigré writer—landless—you had no subject matter. "But what is the question?" youmight ask at this point. Is Nabokov precursor of the French NewNovel?

Nabokov replied:

"The New French Novel does not really exist apart from a littleheap of dust and fluff in a fouled pigeonhole." When pressed forhis opinion about Sartre's remark, he added: "I'm immune to anykind of opinion and I just don't know what an 'anti-novel' isspecifically. Every original novel is 'anti-' because it does not resemble the genre or kind of its predecessor" (173).

Given the time of the interview just a year after the publication of Ada,that lush portrait of Antiterra, one might wonder whether Ada is, in part,Nabokov's massive response to the French New Novel and to his oldarch-enemy to whom he refers later in the interview as "that... awful M.Sartre" (175).29 That Ada is permeated with French subtexts has beenadmirably shown by Annapaola Cancogni's The Mirage in the Mirror:

28. Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, pp. 159-76.29. A new French study asserts that Nabokov parodies La Nausée in both Ada and

Pnin. Isabelle Poulin, "La Nausée de Nabokov et La Méprise de Sartre," in VladimirNabokov et l'Émigration, ed. Nora Buhks. (Paris: Institut d'études slaves, 1993), pp. 107-17.

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Nabokov's Ada and Its French Pretexts, but these subtexts are from theFrench Romantic and Realist traditions rather than the New Novel.30Perhaps Ada is an "anti-anti-novel"?

Appel returns to Despair and the French New Novel when he notesthat someone has called the New Novel "The detective story taken seri-ously," and suggests again the possible influence of La Méprise (174). Thequestion is particularly piquant, for Sartre was not only a fan of detectivefiction, but explicitly drew upon its techniques in La Nausée which hasbeen described as "a kind of whodunit in which contingency would turnout to be the villain"3' Given that Sartre's review of Despair followedhard upon the success of La Nausée, it is interesting that he makes nomention of the prominent detective aspect of Nabokov's novel.

Nabokov's dislike of Sartre is not surprising. The French intellectualwon his first fame for a bad novel that chanced to echo the theme of the1926 Nabokov story "Terror" describing an attack of existentialist horror.His 1939 review of Despair attacked Nabokov for qualities that he laterpraised in Nathalie Sarraute and the French New Wave. More generally,Nabokov despised Sartre for his neo-Chernyshevskian view of literature(engagée), and for his political stance. Nabokov's relationship with hisFrench coeval comes full circle in his introductory remarks to the 1975English translation of Tenor," which he closes by remarking "It precededSartre's La Nausée, with which it shares certain shades of thought, andnone of that novel's fatal defects, by at least a dozen years" (112). Overthe years Nabokov missed few opportunities to express his opinion ofSartre, who, like Freud, became one of Nabokov's bêtes noires.

The controversy was over much more than personal and political dif-ferences. It was ultimately philosophical. To put the matter in existentialistterms, Nabokov was a writer of essences, those sensual textures that en-rich the world; Sartre—a writer of existences, an abstract universe lackinghuman features. In his early story, "Terror," Nabokov graphically por-trayed existential terror arising from "the world as it is," an idea that antic-ipates much of Sartre's work, French Existentialism, and the French NewNovel. For Nabokov, the image was just that—an artistic speculation.Moreover, it was one that ran counter to the general tenor of his work. Inany case, it is virtually certain that Sartre never saw the story. There wasapparently no contemporary French translation. Sartre did not knowRussian, and although the story reportedly appeared in a German transla-tion in 1928,32 it is most unlikely that he encountered it. On the other

30. New York: Garland, 1985.31. Hayman, 5ar£re, pp. 89 & 92-93.32. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton Univ.

Press, 1990), p. 262.

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hand, Appel's hypothesis about the role of Despair in the French NewNovel may have some merit as may the thought that Ada is a reaction tothat "school."33

Nabokov and Sartre were polar opposites in almost every respect.The oddity is that they shared at least one central idea. Both men agreedon the primacy of consciousness and fiercely held man capable of freechoice.

University of California at Santa Barbara

33. Appel's hypothesis finds confirmation in the work of at least one French writer.Drawing upon an unpublished paper by Michel Sirvent—"Doublures hypertextuelles: récitsrécrits de Jean Lahougue"—, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney reports that Lahougue, a literarydescendant of Robbe-Grillet, 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 yearslater, Lahougue published a story, "La ressemblance," (/.a Ressemblance et autres abuslanguage (Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 1989) which , Sweeney says, "features a first-person narrator, writer, and would-be murderer named Vladimir N.' who is going to bekilled by his double. The story uses the plot of Despair to tell the story of Lahougue's ownprevious borrowing from VN in Nonlieu." My thanks to Professor Sweeney for thisinformation.

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