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Nabokov Studies, 1 (1994), 69-82. 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 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). 70 Nabokov Studies present. The Russian poet-narrator tells of earlier, brief episodes of existential estrangement. He has survived these, thanks, in part to his relationship with his beloved mistress whose gay simplicity seemingly protects him from the abyss of a stark, unmediated reality. The narrator's affairs require a solitary business trip abroad. On the fifth sleepless day, he goes out for a stroll. His head feels as if it were made of glass. On the street he suddenly sees "the world ... as it actually is" (R201/E118). Houses, trees, cars, people have all lost any connection with ordinary life: "My line of communication with the world snapped, I was on my own and the world was on its own, and that worid was devoid of sense. I saw the actual 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 aimless glance moving in an absurd world" (R203/E120). At that moment he receives a telegram telling him that his mistress is dying. His existential tenor instantly vanishes in the face of simple human grief. He travels back to her bedside, where she dies without regaining consciousness. Her death has saved him, but what is to protect him now?4 Nabokov's tale of vastation was written in Berlin. Some eight years later in that same city a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 69-82
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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