Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea (1938)

When I read books that have been translated I feel frustrated with not knowing how great a part the translator has played in developing the tone of the writing. I am sure it wouldn’t bother me in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but for something as lyrical as Nausea it is a factor.

Nausea is an epistolary novel, being told in the diary of a French writer, Antoine Roquentin. Roquentin is plagued by feelings of nausea that come from the revelation of the bare existence of things. He tries to cure himself, looking to rational humanism, adventure, the past, art and love, but never really finding solace.

I did not enjoy it very much. I generally find stream of consciousness writing quite irritating (if it’s a choice between the thumbscrew and another Jack Kerouac novel, I’m still undecided) and this takes the cake. Although Sartre creates images of remarkable poignancy the overall impression is enough to drive one mad. And it’s hard to have sympathy for a character you want to see killed off asap. The novel can be enjoyable when Roquentin is not left to his own thoughts, but these are rare occurrences and to reach them you must endure long passages of him standing around thinking about nothing or, more rightly, nothingness.

Basically the whole novel is about existential despair, but it is not treated in a way I find convincing. Roquentin is completely unlike Mersault from Camus’s L’Étranger (The Stranger). Mersault accepts the bareness of existence and acts accordingly; Roquentin cannot overcome the nausea, but nor will he surrender to it. Instead he must keep looking for a reason for the nothingness. My personal experience is that existential despair and rationalism are so opposed that they do not cohabit for extended periods of time. Looking back, the Absurd never seems frightening, but irrational. So, while I find Mersault believable and engaging, Roquentin is just irritating.

A lot of novel reads like this:
My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: the hatred, the disgust of existing, there are as many ways to make myself exist, to thrust myself into existence.

If you enjoyed reading that and you want to understand existentialism then this novel is going to be the bee’s knees, otherwise it’s going to be their sting.

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