After years of traveling the world, Antoine Roquentin returns to France. He stays in Bouville for three years to write a book about a revolutionary figure of the late 18th century (Le Marquis de Rollebon). Antoine spends his days eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, discussing travel with a self-taught man (l’Autodidacte), and attempting to reconstruct the life of the marquis. At times, he thinks of Anny whom he hasn’t seen in years. In general, Antoine experiences a dissatisfaction and boredom which he calls “la nausée” (the nausea). La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre is the story of a man who has one existential crisis after another.
What did I think of it?
There are two books that I have difficulty reviewing because I find it hard to justify my feelings toward them. The first is Candide by Voltaire. I have read it at least three times, but I always end up giving it two stars. While I think certain scenes are brilliantly constructed, the story always rubs me the wrong way. And this comes from someone who loves satire and unpolitical correctness. The second book is La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I have also read at least three times. But unlike Candide, I actually like La Nausée. My reaction to Sartre’s fiction is surprising as I do not share his philosophical views. This book may be to me what J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is to other teenagers and young adults. Antoine Roquentin in La Nausée is a hard character to decipher. Is he merely dissatisfied by life or does he have a mental illness? There are certain scenes in the book that make me question Antoine’s sanity.
“Seulement, tout de même, je suis inquiet : voilà une demi-heure que j’évite de regarder ce verre de bière. Je regarde au-dessus, au-dessous, à droite, à gauche : mais lui je ne veux pas le voir.”
[My translation]: “Even so, I am worried: for a half-hour now I have avoided looking at this glass of beer. I look over, under, to the right, to the left: but it, I don’t want to see.”
The narrative style is a blend of stream-of-consciousness and linear action. But I can understand Antoine’s quest to reconstruct the life of Le Marquis de Rollebon. I have spent years trying to reconstruct the life of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. After reading hundreds of pages of his journals and letters (in addition to his philosophical/religious works) I have come to the same conclusion that Antoine comes to in La Nausée: I don’t know the individual. But what’s the point of reconstructing the life of a historical figure? How does that have any bearing on my existence? La Nausée follows a character who is imprisoned by the past. When all’s said and done, the only reason I can give for enjoying La Nausée despite Sartre’s philosophy and the few unpleasant/objectionable scenes is that I can relate to a character who is self-reflective and who seeks to understand his/her place in the world. La Nausée is a good introduction to Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.
“Mais quand on raconte la vie, tout change; seulement c’est un changement que personne ne remarque: la preuve c’est qu’on parle d’histoires vraies. Comme s’il pouvait y avoir des histoires vraies; les événements se produisent dans un sens et nous les racontons en sens inverse.”
[My translation]: “But when one gives an account of life, everything changes; only it is a change that no one remembers: the proof is that one speaks of true stories. As if there could ever be true stories; events produce themselves in a certain way and we tell them in reverse.”
“Voici ce que j’ai pensé: pour que l’événement le plus banal devienne une aventure, il faut et il suffit qu’on se mette à le raconter. C’est ce qui dupe les gens: un homme, c’est toujours un conteur d’histoires, il vit entouré de ses histoires et des histoires d’autrui, il voit tout ce qui lui arrive à travers elles; et il cherche à vivre sa vie comme s’il la racontait.”
[My translation]: “Here’s what I thought: so that the most ordinary event becomes an adventure, it is necessary and it is enough that one starts telling it. This is what tricks people: a man, he’s always a storyteller, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them [the stories]; and he tries to live his life like he was telling it.”
Note: If you have ever read Vol. I of Either/Or by Kierkegaard (particularly the Diary of a Seducer), the above quotes should remind you of the aesthete who tries to live in such a way that he can look back at events in his life with great pleasure. He tries to live “interestingly”.