Book Corner: ‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre

by theleighreview

“And somebody else will feel something scratching inside his mouth. And he will go to a mirror, open his mouth: and his tongue will have become a huge living centipede, rubbing its legs together and scraping its palate. He will try to spit it out, but the centipede will be part of himself and he will have to tear it out with his hands.”

Jean-Paul Sartre- Nausea

nauseaHow many of have experienced moments of disillusionment that have provoked us to question the meaning and nature of this life? During those dark days, we seem to perceive everything through a lens of moribund lucidity; all interactions seem false and contrived, everybody seems to be acting out a rehearsed and tacitly understood script for the sake of the expediency of their lives.

Nausea is a philosophical novel that dramatizes and expounds Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. The story is told from the perspective of Antoine Roquentin, a young writer plagued by many of the aforementioned feelings, which are chronicled in a series of diary entries.

‘Nausea’ is the term that Roquentin ascribes to these powerful ruminations. He spends many of his days idly perusing libraries and navel-gazing at terrace cafes; his occupation as an unemployed writer affords him plenty of time to get lost in his thoughts.

Many of the secondary characters are rendered only in broad strokes; characters that feature more prominently are those that are of greater interest to Roquentin, i.e. those who are cognisant of the ‘nauesa’ concept to varying degrees are shown in greater detail. Two characters which particularly pique his interest are the creepy Autodidact (a man seemingly consumed by the task of reading and comprehending the contents of an entire library) and former flame Anny.

A sombre introspective tone pervades Nausea and humour is relatively scant, although there is the occasional amusing passage: Early in the novel, Roquentin frequents a café to meet the patronne for sex, only to be told she was out shopping.

“I felt a sharp disappointment in my prick, a long disagreeable tickling…”

Pictured: Jean-Paul Sartre at work

Pictured: Jean-Paul Sartre at work

Towards the end of the book, Roquentin’s musings take a strange tangent. He posits how the unassuming denizens of Bouville would react if the laws of reality, which for so long they had brazenly taken for granted on day decided to turn on them:

“For example a father of a family may go for a walk, and he will see a red rag coming towards him across the street, as if the wind were blowing it. And when the red rag gets close to him, he will see that it is a quarter of rotten meat, covered with dust, crawling and hopping along, a piece of tortured flesh rolling in the gutters and spasmodically shooting out jets of blood.”

These visceral passages of fevered imagination feature intermittently throughout the book and serve to demonstrate the gymnastics of which the unconscious mind is capable, when it is left to simmer.

This is not a book suited for a hazy summer’s afternoon sprawled out on the grass; its ideas should be digested and reflected upon slowly, rather than consumed in a hurry.

Having said that, while I found the book enjoyable literarily, I do not share Sartre’s philosophical convictions. What this book suggests to me is that while some introspection is good; a fixation on the futility of being can cloud your world in a haze and in turn induce the kind of ‘nausea’ Roquentin felt. In fact, the book has helped me in the sense that I can now use Roquentin as point of reference and a reminder to take stock and put things in perspective when I become a little too absorbed in my own thoughts.

Living day to day in such a state of somnambulistic confusion is anathema to life. Roquentin’s efforts would have been better placed in the pursuit of life-serving goals and his own misplaced happiness, although admittedly this may not have been quite so compelling in a work of fiction.

Have you read this book? Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments box!