(This one has a soundtrack too)
Unlike Salinger, Kafka, Dostoievsky, Conrad and all the other mardy lads beloved of sulky graduates with long black coats, Sartre’s fallen from his former ubiquity. He used to be the touchstone for self-pitiers everywhere, and the key writer for anyone who tried to dignify angst as a political statement. Nausea was his pre-war smash, and then he did something or other in the Resistance (the extent of his actual involvement seems far less than, say, Camus or Beckett but he talked about it a lot more) then set about trying to ‘complete’ Marxist theory. People in black roll-necks (a look I have been known to rock) would blether about ‘Existentialism’ and ‘Anomie’ and his name would seldom be far from the conversation. Along the way he was so sexist that his various mistresses invented First Wave Feminism and took a lot of the credit for les evenements of May 1968, but didn’t actually risk his elder-statesman status by actually doing anything that might have got him arrested or thumped by les flics. By the time I was reading Literature in the late 80s and early 90s, and especially during my MA in 1994, he was a standing joke.
(He’d been that before, which is where my generation first heard of him before the dreary adaptation of The Roads to Freedom and the 70s reissues of his books in Penguin. At school, we called him Jean-Paul ‘Parrot-Face’ Sartre, for reasons nobody under forty will get without prompting.)
As even the introduction to our edition suggests, reading Nausea without knowing where the author took the ideas afterwards is hard even now that he’s a punchline. His post-war activities cast a shadow over the book. This is unfair. As a novel, very firmly in the mold of Notes From the Underground but with fewer laughs, it functions as a psychological insight rather than a political tract. As suggested, maybe the fact that the narrator and his ex-girlfriend have names beginning with A, as does ‘Autodidact’, the scholar whom Roquentin ridicules for actively caring about the subjects of his study but not about the methodology, might indicate that they are three aspects of the same personality. The manifestations of Roquentin’s anomie are hallucinations, a sense that his hand belongs to someone else and a disgust at all of humanity (and most of nature). These are all well-documented symptoms with a known pathology but because it’s described as if from the inside the book transcends the usual misery-memoir; we have little idea if Sartre underwent the same delusions or if he was working from case-histories or imagination. The consensus is that he took a lot from Rilke’s similar Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and some from psychological studies: he wanted to call the book Melancholia (see the Robert Burton book). Rather than get help or dose himself, the narrator tries to work through his situation by keeping a journal and working on the history textbook he was writing when it all began. In this he details how he can see through everyone and everything to the decay and falsehood in everyone and everything. He decides to make a decision, one day. And then he legs it.
I read it first when I was nineteen, and my main thought was a now-forgotten series on the terribly earnest new Channel 4. I tried again when I was thirty, and my opinion of it had fallen somewhat. I read it again when I had to stay put to let the builder in to Ros’ house last month (yes, she had a copy all along, despite her search for it in various libraries and eventually discovering our library had it). It struck me this time that this might all be a huge wind-up. Maybe the translation’s too precious and stilted for me to see the book Sartre wrote, maybe his subsequent reputation and output made it inconsistent for his first hit to be thought in any way ironic or playful. He’s not going for any form of bourgeois-realist character-motivation or sequential narrative, just putting his focal-point narrator in places where he can lecture us about how he sees what’s there. I was never that kind of sixth-former and my adult life’s been punctuated by genuine problems, but I can dimly see why it was so popular and why it isn’t now.
It’s a period-piece. Not just for constantly referring to Ethel Waters or, more plausibly from the description, Sophie Tucker as ‘The Negress’ (that could be ascribed to Robert Baldick, the translator) or the nonchalant way he pops over to Vietnam to work on an archaeological dig or Alexandria for a date with Anny, but the way small-town life, with one doctor and one librarian, is assumed to be so universal that he only lets slip by accident the oddness (for us) of provincial French pre-war life. He sees the town as always about to be engulfed in Nature, always living through the same days (Sunday being a slightly tidier version of that day) and reasonable, normal life being a thin veneer over chaos and decay. It’s hard these days to see that as any kind of revelation. As with Citizen Kane and early Beatles singles, what caught on became so common as to be almost invisible and the innovations that didn’t become standard look like oddities. Don’t go into this thinking you’ll magically ‘get’ Existentialist thinking in one go; it’s not a primer, it’s a novel.
If you find one or all of these worth your while, we have many more in similar vein: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (once rather unfairly called Nausea for grown-ups and once again a book to be found on every self-pitying student’s shelf until about 1980), Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, Kafka’s short-story collection that starts with Metamorphosis and gets better (I rather took to “The Burrow”) and even Joyce’s relatively straightforward Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
By Tat Wood