This is the third of the great existential novels I have read so far this year, and is easily my favourite. It is beautifully written, with real characters the reader can identify with, and contains in a simple story the outline and mood of the existentialist attitude.
The story follows writer Antoine Roquentin through a period of his life in which he questions the validity and authenticity of all he comes across. It is a comment on love, art, ageing, friendship and society as distinct from the individual. It highlights the absurdities of social custom that face us in our everyday lives, and it lets us right into the perspective of a man alone but for his thoughts and his work.
I found the scene in which the protagonist debates (in his mind at least) over dinner with a devout humanist particularly compelling. The conversation highlights the key differences between the two stances, and forces the reader to consider his own thoughts on some specific aspects of the argument. Is a misanthrope actually a form of humanist? Must you know the particular instance of a thing, not just the general qualities of its being, in order to love it? Why would a writer write if not for other people to read?
The character of Annie, with her relentless pursuit of the perfect moment, is also very thought provoking. She opens up a dialogue about what it is exactly that creates meaning for us, and how the unique standards we set for ourselves can drive us on but also lead to disappointment and isolation.
There is a hint of Schopenhauer’s philosophy to this book too, as we are confronted with the idea that what a thing is in itself is distinct from the symbolic and romantic representation we make of it in our minds.
‘The real sea is cold and black, full of animals; it crawls underneath this thin green film which is designed to deceive people’.
I like to write down interesting quotes and pieces of prose as I go through books for later consideration, and this was one of those adventures where I hardly put my pen down. Here are a couple more of my favourites:
‘I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved. There are reasonable hypotheses that take facts into account: but I am all too aware that they come from me, that they are simply a way of unifying my knowledge. Slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves to the order I wish to give them, but it remains outside of them.’
‘You feel that time is passing, that each moment leads to another moment, this one to yet another and so on; that each moment destroys itself and its no use trying to hold back etc., etc., and then you attribute this prioperty to the events which appear in the moments; you extend to the contents what appertains to the form’
It is a bit depressing, yes, and this is the main criticism of the book I have seen from other reviewers. I think it is because it really gets to the roots of what human existence means, stripping away layers of fanciful ideals, social conditioning and the notion of a higher spiritual authority. Nothing is dressed up, this is existence in its grossest form and, especially if it is not something you have considered consciously before, it can be so hard hitting it makes you feel… well, nauseous.
However, a good book for me is one that really builds on my worldview and challenges my assumptions to the point that it’s mood and message stays with me for days afterwards. Nausea definitely had that effect, and has really helped me in firming up my personal philosophy on life.