Review: “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1938]; translated from French by Robert Baldick [1963]

Nausea. Simply hearing the title and author make many shiver with trepidation. It’s even more difficult to review!

Nausea is the published (fictionally) diary of writer Antoine Roquentin and it appears to have been published posthumously. It begins with Roquentin beginning his diary and vowing to record things down as they appear. In diary’s preface, it appears that Roquentin has returned to France after many years of travelling. His first proper entry is Roquentin’s description of his first experience of what he labels as ‘nausea’:

Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all … and now it has started blossoming. – p. 13

A change has occurred in Roquentin and has altered the way he perceives the world. Every little thing is just that little bit more different, a little bit more absurd and senseless. Everything in Roquentin’s world becomes superfluous. As he struggles through the daily motions of researching in the Bouville library, his encounters with the people he regularly sees there and his musings on his long, lost love Anny, Roquentin becomes even more unhappy trying to live in the now:

I build my memories with my present. I am rejected, abandoned in the present. I try in vain to rejoin the past: I cannot escape from myself. – p. 53

Roquentin realises that he was much happier before this nausea, before his new perception of the world he lives in. Perhaps it’s another aspect of the idea that ignorance may indeed be bliss. But the real question that haunts Roqeuntin is what does it mean to exist?

My thought is ‘me’: that is why I can’t stop. I exist by what I think … and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. – p. 145

The paradox and contradictory terms of existence makes itself known to Roquentin as he slowly examines the ideas of existence and arrives at various, however futile, theories of how Roquentin might live out his life.

The crux of Sartre’s existentialist theory (theories) is that a being is essentially free but when one realises that they are entirely free (arguably – but let’s not get into that right now), the sense and responsibility of the freedom is overwhelming.

This is a rather short and blunt review but it is quite difficult to review this novel because of all the aspects and details. I had no trouble reading this but while I struggled at times with the theoretical subtext of Nausea, I usually just let it wash over me while I read the book. The novel is very enjoyable and it’s a marvellous read if only for the story. The writing is simply beautiful and often quite poetic. I think the readability of Sartre’s novels is very underrated. I remember being so amazed at how much fun I had reading The Age of Reason. Don’t let it intimidate you and simply enjoy the ride.

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9 comments

  1. I went through a stage of reading Sartre and Beauvoir at university but I think Sartre confounded me no matter how many times I tried. But reading your post has made me want to go back and revisit him again. Maybe this time, what with the years passing, I may get what he’s talking about. So thanks for the post!

    1. I went through the Beauvoir stage during uni but I was never attracted to Sartre. They both still confound me but I think you gain a little more insight the older or the more experience you have, or where you are in life. I did find Sartre’s dedication ‘To the Beaver’ at the beginning of Nausea really sweet though.

  2. Despite all the secondary source reading I’ve done on Sartre I’ve yet to pick this up. It actually sounds more accessible than I had imagined – I’ll have to give it a try.

    1. I did a lot of secondary reading on Sartre and Beauvoir before I actually picked up their writing and was pretty blown away at how … different the original writer is.

  3. I am still reading Nausea in my native language Dutch. Its an old translation, and I had the book on a shelf in the bookcase for years. The title was daunting me. Nausea is having a profound effect on my state of mind however. A very positive effect to be sure.
    I just read the episode where Roquentin muses over the madmen and the doctor he meets in a café on a foggy morning. Just marvelous, all the different interpretations, the calydeiscope of thought. I believe uptill now, this episode to be the crusx of the story. How indeed, the responsibility one has as an individuel to regain sanity without actually starting to believe in the objective truth of your experience.
    Anyway, the book is a very pleasant read. Very poetic, and still in the tradition of the french naturalists I like so much. I actually just visited Normany (and La Havre) this fall. I can picture how dreary “Boudeville” must have been in the 1930’s. My wife and I made up a film scenario on how awkward a visist is when traveling off season. The region still is rather errie.

  4. I think just letting the novel wash over you is a pretty good way of reading it. Aside from all the theoretical ideas underpinning Nausea, it is actually a pretty strong portrait of alienated life in the twentieth century.

    My review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

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