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Jean-Paul Sartre: La Nausée (US: Nausea; UK: The Diary of Antoine Roquentin)

Nabokov clearly did not think much of this book. Fortunately, his views have not prevailed. He may be right about the Dostoevsky influence but then lots of writers have been influenced by Dostoevsky. However, this book had an immediate success on publication and has remained in print and a key work of the twentieth century. It purports to be the diary of Antoine Roquentin, a historian who is writing about the Marquis de Rollebon, and the manuscript of his notes has been found, an old cliché. Roquentin is a solitary person and has recently returned to France after a long period abroad. He is writing his diary because he feels a change coming over him, a sort of nausea. Real things – a stone, a glass of beer – make him feel uneasy. He is at a loss to explain these feelings but gradually he (and we) realise that he is feeling existential angst. The theory behind existentialism is clear. Other philosophies postulate a higher being. For existentialists, there is no higher being or higher order. We are, by chance, and everything else exists because we make it so. If we do something, it is because we choose to do so, not because of predetermination or god. This puts a huge burden on us and ultimately leads us to despair but also to freedom.

For Roquentin, the nausea that he feels is this gradual realisation. For example, his historical research into the Marquis is ultimately futile. He is trying to validate himself through the past and through someone else, someone long since dead. He now understands that he and his life are meaningless but also that everything else is meaningless. He compares himself with the autodidacte (self-taught man) who is trying to give meaning to his life by reading every book in the library in alphabetical order. Ultimately, he gives up both his historical research and his relationship with his girlfriend, Anny, and, as a good existentialist, turns to commitment, in this case, writing a novel in the hope that it can help explain himself to him. This book was, of course, very influential, particularly in the 1960s, and still reads well today, even if some of the ideas might seem somewhat dated.

Publishing history

First published in French 1938 by Gallimard
First published in English 1949 by New Directions
Translated by Lloyd Alexander; Robert Baldick (Penguin)