Sartre’s Nausea is the book that launched a thousand existential voyages. Fashioned as the diaries of Antoine Roquentin, a disaffected twenty-something living in the fictional town of Bouville, Nausea oscillates between modernist stream-of-consciousness psychological novel and detached exercise in philosophical exploration. I’m inclined to agree with Camus’ review (himself influenced by the novel while writing The Stranger) that these two halves don’t quite always marry up, and that Sartre’s philosophical tracts, delivered in Roquentin’s listless narration, occasionally induce a sense of anomie that makes the book a hard fought read. Roquentin’s titular nausea, brought about by a growing sense of the absolute meaninglessness of his own–and all things’–existence, owes a debt to Dostoyevesky’s nascent existentialism, Husserl’s phenomenonlogy, even Saussure’s linguistics (the latter pushing Nausea into postmodern territory). That an object, including a person, can exist extant of any structure of meaning and outside of language is ultimately both a terrifying and a liberating revelation, and it allows Roquentin at the close of the novel to begin to exercise some control over his listless life: a sense of agency derived from the existentialist epiphany that meaning must be self-constructed (though, to differentiate Sartre from Camus, the former doesn’t incorporate the self-awareness of the arbitrariness of this meaning structure itself in the same way as the absurdist latter). In the closing pages Roquentin begins to grasp this notion, embodied in a desire to write his experiences into a coherent novelistic narrative.
Like Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre’s book is finally empowering (if one believes Roquentin’s latest venture will be followed through), though the journey is somewhat less enjoyable, mostly on account of the endless spiral of overthinking and inaction that imprisons Roquentin and renders him a sort-of Cartesian caricature. However, Roquentin’s notes are not without their moments of humour: to read his sardonic account of requesting cheese ‘heroically,’ or his horror at his ‘mushroom existence,’ is to find a playfulness in the novel that seems often to be overlooked. Some scenes–I’m thinking particularly of the portrait gallery–are hard-going, but Sartre’s prose comes to life in the moments he describes the life of Bouville–the fog on the streets, the denizens in the cafes–through Roquentin’s clinical eye. Sometimes beautiful, often thought-provoking, and clearly influential.
From Steven Ungar, ‘Existentialism, Engagement, Ideology,’ in The Cambridge Companion to French Literature, 1800 to Present:
La Nausee subsumes Roquentin’s desire to exploit the creative potential of his nausea to what Sartre referred to when he conceived the novel in 1931 as a ‘factum on contingency’. By which he intended to have Roquentin’s identity crisis serve as an instance of the unstable ontological mode of existence that men and women try without success to transcend toward the more stable mode of being. While it is only several years later in L’Etre et le neant that Sartre analyses these ontological modes at length, La Nausee […] stage[s] the ongoing tensions between the desire to attain being in the form of a stable identity and an understanding that this desire opposes what existence imposes as a burden of freedom on all men and women forced to make and remake themselves within the evolving circumstances of their lives. Freedom is understood less in an absolute sense as the total absence of constraint than as a condition of responsibility for one’s actions in specific circumstances linked over longer duration to the variables of continuous flux.
https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521495636.009 (Cambridge Companion)