Saturday, 3 December 2016

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Hello all,

So as many of you know I've become very interested in existentialism recently. Despite the various emotional breakdowns I have suffered as a consequence, I find the literature that came out of this school of philosophy to be some of the most moving and thought-provoking. I reread Waiting for Godot - a favourite of mine - and discovered Tom Stoppard's Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Although I didn't find this as enjoyable, the existentialist play is something I find myself always wanting to return to.

After an afternoon of research I gathered as many books on existentialism as I could. If you want to see what I picked up you can watch my existentialist haul here. Whilst I started with Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling I didn't feel strongly enough about it to merit a full discussion. Yet the opposite occurred with Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea which I am writing about today. Twice today I have had to stop myself from buying my own copy. (Edit: I bought it.)


The novel follows Antoine Roquentin, a writer residing in Bouville where he is writing a novel on an 18th-century figure named Rollebon. Yet he becomes increasingly seized by a sickness he called the Nausea causing him great difficulty in not only the research and writing of his book, but in the day to day tasks of his life. As an existentialist writer, Sartre makes clear that the Nausea Roquentin feels is his realization of existence. "I exist" is a phrase that repeats itself through the text because he cannot escape the thought that he himself exists, and other things do not.

I tend to like novels where nothing really happens, and the power of the stream of conscious narrative was what struck me first. As with Lolita, the thing I was addicted to most was the fluency and beauty of the writing, as well as it's complexity. When writing about such a huge ideology like existentialism it doesn't seem like a good idea to dress up the writing in such a way that could mask the meaning of the words, but Sartre avoids this happening. He is an extremely talented writer and was captivating as well as thought-provoking. Just look at one section where Roquentin describes the movements of his mouth and links it to his existence. 

"I exist. It's sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light: you'd swear that it floats in the air all by itself. It moves. Little brushing movements everywhere which melt and disappear. Gently, gently. There is some frothy water in my mouth. I swallow it, it slides down my throat, it caresses me - and now it is starting up again in my mouth, I have a permanent little pool of whitish water in my mouth - unassuming - touching my tongue. And this pool is me too. And the tongue. And the throat is me."

With this came a great sense of characterization. Roquentin becomes increasingly disturbed by the Nausea and his sense of existence. He considers suicide and frequently considers giving up on his book. His erratic ideas emphasized the vast amount of choice he really has in his life and the idea that it didn't really matter if he finished his book, if he stabbed himself in the hand, or if he moved out of the city. By the end of the novel, he is condemned to be free. This idea is something that haunts many people, including myself - the idea that everything we work for is ultimately a product of nothing. Roquentin is writing a book and I'm currently writing a dissertation; guess I kind of felt for him at some of these points. 

"I've stopped writing my book about Rollebon; it's finished, I can't go on writing it. What am I going to do with my life?"
There are various points in this novel that are going to stick with me for different reasons. I loved Roqeuntin's deconstruction of objects and realizations that they exist in essence. I also loved the long passage where he has lunch with the Autodidact and he realizes how alone he really is in his thoughts. When the Autodidact proposes his thoughts to Roquentin he makes sure they are thoughts that another person in history has related before. He claims that if he is the first one to think it, then it must be wrong. This, for me, solidified Roquetin's isolation from those around him, both in body and mind. The point where he finally stops work on his novel was a beautifully written enlightenment that I went back and read again.

If you are interested in this branch of philosophy or the diary of a very lonely French writer sounds like your kind of thing, then I'd definitely urge you to read this. It had definitely made it's way onto the top ten list of this year and I'm hopefully going to seek out some more Sartre. I have Existentialism and Humanism to read and also What is Literature? Right now I'm reading McEwan's Nutshell which is a story told from the perspective of an eight-month-old foetus. There are strong links with the play Hamlet and which is the main reason I'm reading it. I'm not a massive fan of Ian McEwan but this one seems to be doing something different than I'm used to so hopefully will warm to it.

It's getting closer to Christmas and so very soon I'm going to be picking the books I'll take back home with me. I have no idea what to pick so far, so suggestions should be welcome. Don't forget to add me on Goodreads and follow my Twitter and Tumblr!

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