Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
When I first began reading French authors of the 20th century, all those decades ago, I was a little intimidated by the prospect but actually ended up loving them all. In particular, I read Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus; but although I’ve returned to the latter two over the years, I’m not sure that I’ve actually gone back to Sartre in the interim. So the fact that his great novel, Nausea was published in 1938 has given me a great excuse to revisit it…
Nausea is regarded as Sartre’s great statement of his philosophy, and it takes the form of the diary of one Antoine Roquentin. Having travelled the world, mostly in the company of his ex-lover Anny, he’s settled in the coastal town of Bouville (based apparently on Le Havre). Here he’s working on a book on a French historical figure, spending much of his time researching in the local library. His life is somewhat isolated; his contacts are a local clerk he nicknames the Autodidact, and the owner of a local bar whose bed he sometimes shares.
I guess that kind of isolation might be enough to unsettle you, particularly if you’ve spent a life of action; and Roquentin *is* unsettled. As the book begins, he’s started to notice some strangeness about his reactions to his surroundings which he decided to record. What he calls the Nausea keeps descending on him; a kind of dissociation or alienation from things around him, whether people or objects, and as the diary progresses these attacks become more frequent. He finds himself zoning out in a cafe, losing all attachment from his surroundings; the people blur, things lose their meaning. At first, Roquentin thinks there’s something wrong with him; then he begins to wonder if it’s the objects themselves…
Struggling to retain a grasp on reality, he spends time with the Autodidact against his better judgement; and a meal they share does not go well. A letter out of the blue from Anny raises the possibility of them meeting again – but will this help clarify things for Roquentin, or will it just make things worse?
“Nausea” is a fascinating novel; the writing is quite stunning; the town and its geography, the weather (so important to the mood of the story) and the people are all conjured vividly; the landscape and climate are almost tangible. The Autodidact (so named because he’s self educating himself by reading through all the books in the library in alphabetical order!) is a pitiful and needy creature with a disturbing fate. Anny runs through the story in Roquentin’s memory until she makes her reappearance in the flesh, to allow them both to take stock of their lives, their pasts and their current beliefs, and move on. In the end the Bouville time has simply been another phase in Roquentin’s life and he moves on to another location to start something new.
I am moved, I feel my body like a precision tool at rest. I for my part have had some real adventures. I can’t remember a single detail, but I can see the rigorous succession of circumstances. I have crossed the seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the course of rivers towards their source of else plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back, any more than a record can spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where? To this very moment, to this bench, in this bubble of light humming with music.
But, you might ask, what is the novel actually *about*? Frankly, that’s as hard to answer as explaining what existentialism really is, and I’m not sure I’m actually qualified to answer it! In many ways you could simply regard it as a novel about depression; many of Roquentin’s reactions could match the symptoms of schizophrenia and it would be possible to see the book as continuing the tradition of authors such as Dostoevsky. However, that’s perhaps a very simplistic reading of what is a complex piece of writing.
Then there is the enhanced reality of everything around Roquentin; people and objects become almost hyper-real, as he seems them with an intense clarity, as if they’re alive in their own right. His mental state allows him to pierce the veneer of the everyday and step outside the normal role a human takes on, seeing the whole of existence as it really is. Perhaps it’s the ultimate freedom – and freedom is scary, because we rely on the structure of the world around us to give us a framework in which to live. If we start questioning that framework, then who or what actually are we?
I am going to go back to Bouville. The Vegetation is besieging Bouville on only three sides. On the fourth side, there is a big hole full of black water which moves all by itself, The wind whistles between the houses. The smells stay for a shorter time that anywhere else: driven out to sea by the wind, they race over the surface of the black water like little frolicsome mists. It rains. Plants have been allowed to grown between four railings. Castrated, domesticated plants, which are so thick-leaved that they are harmless. They have huge whitish leaves which hang down like ears. When you touch them, it feels like gristle. Everything is fat and white at Bouville, because of all that water which falls from the sky, I am going back to Bouville. How horrible!
Notably, one of the few things that keeps Roquentin on the straight and narrow is music. A particular jazz record, with a female singer, is a recurring motif throughout the book; and Roquentin asks for it to be played in the cafe on several occasions (particularly when he is about to take leave of Bouville).
Ultimately, for me, this is a book that raises many questions and doesn’t necessarily give the answers. Certainly, I can only the scratch the surface in a short blog post and I think I’d need to read the book once more to really start digging down to the deeper meanings. As for whether this is a clear statement of Sartre’s philosophy, I’m not sure. There are many philosophical passages but I didn’t feel they always conveyed a clear enough meaning for me. Certainly, alienation was one of the strongest elements I picked up, as well as the sense that we’re so bogged down in the everyday that we’re mostly unaware of the fact that we exist in the world, as does everything else around us. “Nausea” is a novel that deserves repeated visits, as I’m sure it’s one the reader is going to get something different from every time.