Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and philosopher, lived from 1905 to 1980. His philosophical novel Nausea, first published in 1938, is one of the landmark works of twentieth century French literature and Sartre’s most famous work. In it, the fictional character Antoine Roquetin (Sartre himself?) is a Parisian writer who is in the medium-sized French city that he calls “Bouville” (means “Mudtown” and is probably Le Havre), researching the life of—and writing a historical book about—an eighteenth-century aristocrat and political figure, the Marquis de Rollebon. The novel is set in 1932 when Antoine Roquetin is thirty years old.
There is really not much of a story or plot to Nausea. It is told in the form of diary entries and is mostly the stream of consciousness impressions of Roquetin as he goes about living from day to day. He observes the people around him and the things they say and do, whether he’s in a café, his hotel, the library or some other place. He anticipates reuniting with an old girlfriend from his past named Anny. He has a superficial dalliance with a waitress. He takes long walks in the fog. He contemplates, at great length, portraits hanging in the library of the city’s founding fathers. He befriends a man whom he calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.
Roquetin is afflicted with a sort of moral paralysis that he calls “nausea.” It’s not a physical malady but a degeneration of the spirit. Human life to him is unnecessary. Existence is pointless and there is no God, which is the essence of the philosophy known as “existentialism.” He eventually gives up his writing and research in Bouville to return to Paris to—what?—probably just waste away. Aren’t we all going through the paces of living just so we can die? Seems that way, doesn’t it? But, wait a minute! If we were to write a song that will be remembered long after we die, or to sing that song on a recording that will be listened to for a long time to come, maybe that (or something like it) is enough is rescue us from the awful pointlessness of existence. What do you think?
Nausea is philosophical treatise disguised as fiction. It’s fitfully interesting, fascinating at times and tedious at other times. If you’re a student of French literature or a student of Sartre, it’s going to be essential reading. If you are just looking for a good “story” because you enjoy reading, Nausea probably isn’t it. Not exactly painful reading, but you’ll almost certainly be glad when you reach the last page. I think I’ll take my diary and turn it into a depressing philosophical novel. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have a story, a beginning, a middle or an end, will it? Everything is pointless, anyway.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp