Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea

During my early years at University, I studied some philosophy. However, literature soon overtook and I quickly abandoned the former altogether. One could argue that literature is philosophical in itself anyway, and this was enough then.

In later years, I found myself still drawn to philosophical texts, but this time designed my own curriculum alongside the belief that the theory books we were expected to study had been a little dry. I like a good story, something to follow and characters to connect with – two of the reasons I find Sartre’s work so appealing. Sartre is not only a philosopher but a novelist and dramatist as well, one who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 but famously declined to accept it.

Nausea is Sartre’s first novel; a work of fiction cleverly written in diary form to expose the existential crises of its central protagonist, French writer Antoine Roquentin. The reader is privy to his every passing thought, no matter how trivial. Roquentin is a historical writer engaged in research while residing in Bouville, France. In the midst of his writing and daily life, he is plagued by the never-ending questions humans continually ask themselves. Roquentin is scared of his own existence and through his writing discovers there is no escape from “self”. His ruthlessness culminates in what he describes as an all-consuming “nausea” that steadily grows to envelope him.

Sartre has explored the concept of “I”, the futility of existence, the desire for adventure, the monotony of routine, the quest for truth and authenticity, and the irrepressible passing of time – all with brutal honesty. He does not shy from difficult questions or subject matter and is never “preachy” in any way. In fact, he doesn’t offer any definitive answers but places supreme importance on posing the “right” questions instead.

The novel essentially represents the universal concerns and anxieties of humanity, but a ray of hope (thankfully) materialises towards the end in the shape of acceptance and surrender.

The challenge in reading the novel is to stay with it, to remain with Roquentin particularly when he is in “catalogue” mode and meticulously describing everything from passersby, to the trickle of condensation sliding down a beer glass. Part of me views this as the very essence of the novel: it presents the challenge of engaging in the everyday, whether exciting and inspiring, or mundane and insipid.

Not a book to read on a gloomy day, if you’ve just lost your job or your cat just died, but incredibly well conceived and thought-provoking nonetheless.

Book review by Annette Ong

Nausea Book Cover
Nausea book cover, published by New Directions (2007)
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