Antoine Roquentin is not having a good time. At first isolated objects, then most everything, and finally also people nauseate him beyond endurance, which makes him gradually lose control over his life.
Life is meaningless as such, and in order to survive mentally and perhaps even physically you need to invent purpose, whether it be work, friends, love, a hobby or whatever else you can think of. And you’d better stick to what you’ve come up with or, who knows, you might end up like Antoine, drifting aimlessly, trying to control your horror of the “superfluity” of existence and of “things which exist”.
Sartre was of course a philosopher, and Nausea can be seen as a philosophical treatise in the form of a novel. Among other things, this means that what most people would regard as Antoine’s mental breakdown is eventually presented as a revelatory epiphany. It is a rather glum one, it must be said, one which causes him to withdraw from everyone and everything – including the historical monograph he was writing – that used to give his life structure and focus. Everything is pointless to him, and the meaninglessness of existence makes effort and ambition impossible.
You wouldn’t think that much entertainment value could be mined from ideas like these, but Nausea generates a relentless fascination that pulls you into Antoine’s disintegrating world, where he observes both his own personality changes and the superfluous activities and traditions of other people with the same keen if perhaps dementedly skewed perceptivity. He grows emotional concerning what is happening to him personally, while the almost disinterested descriptions of human behaviour in Bouville (evidently a fictional version of Le Havre) create a nice balance between personal heat and impersonal coolness in the text, although everything in the novel is veneered with the greenish tint of Antoine’s nausea.
There’s also plenty of deadpan humour in his thoughts and in the meticulous depictions of strangers very seriously going about their meaningless, small minded daily rituals. Providing further interest is the fact that not the entire focus is on Antoine’s story; there are two other characters, Anny and the Autodidact, whose very personalities doom them to their own individual brands of tragedy, and whom it is painfully captivating to learn more about.
Now, I won’t act as if I fully understand Nausea, and there are several long passages of dense philosophical discourse which would fit right into a textbook on existentialism – difficult, sometimes dry stuff that needs more intellectual prodding to yield its potential wisdom than lazy old me had the patience to give it. Even so, I found myself agreeing with most of what I did comprehend, but then again I don’t have the most cheerful outlook on life; someone who’s more upbeat might well disagree with every thought in the novel.
The language is beautiful (as far as I can tell, having read the book in translation), which might seem strange for a work written as if it were Antoine’s private diary, but he is a writer after all, and there’s sort of twist at the end which goes further to explain the polished prose.
Nausea is haunting, alternately sublime and disgusting, and despite a small glimmer of light at the end, it’s not a book that’s likely to put a perky spring in your step. It is, however, great literature.
ating: 9 of 10.