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La Nausée (English Nausea), published in 1938, was not the first ‘existentialist’ novel I read; that honour goes to Albert’s Camus’s La Chute (English The Fall) which I received as a present in 1970. However, this famous work by Jean-Paul Sartre was devoured not long afterwards.

According to Wikipedia:

“The protagonist of the novel, Antoine [Roquentin] is a former adventurer living alone in Bouville for three years. He has no friends and is out of touch with family, and often resigns himself to eavesdropping on other people's conversations and examining their actions from a distance. He settles in the seaport town of Bouville [‘Mud town’ - similar to Le Havre] to finish his research on the life of an 18th-century political figure, but during the winter of 1932 a "sweetish sickness," as he calls nausea, increasingly impinges on almost everything he does or enjoys. He attempts to find solace in the presence of others, but exhibits signs of boredom and lack of interest when interacting with them. Because of his aloofness to the world and the people around him, he eventually starts to doubt his own existence.”

Sartre regarded
La Nausée as probably his finest novel and it was almost certainly a major factor in the decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 which he declined to accept (cf. Bob Dylan). However, although the novel is rightly regarded as a “canonical” work in existentialism, it is also important to consider the preoccupations of its nineteenth literary antecedents, most notably Gustave Flaubert’s delineation of bourgeois morality and values and Émile Zola’s espousal of ‘theatrical naturalism’.

Ten years after reading
La Nausée, I found myself having to read in French (admittedly with an English translation by my side) Sartre’s L'Être et le néant : Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique (English Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology).

In an essay entitled
Crabs (2004), Peter Royle writes:

“One of the distinctive features of Sartre’s philosophy is the role played within it by such qualities as hardness, softness, wetness, sweetness, and viscosity, phenomena that would generally be considered as irrelevant to philosophy, but which Sartre regards as universally significant. Viscosity (stickiness or sliminess, for example), is universally repugnant, says Sartre, because it reverses the relations between observer (a ‘being for-itself’ in Sartre’s jargon) and physical object (a ‘being in-itself’).”

The idea of viscosity is, indeed an interesting one, and I write as somebody who once spent several months in early 1970 exploring whether viscosity could be a useful property (think: the timing of sinking ball bearings) for calculating the ageing of epoxide resins!
La Nausée is in a sense a novel about boundaries, a novel about transgression, a novel about self-disgust and the disassembly of emotions. In a sense it’s perhaps the ultimate ‘Badread’, but a brilliant one nonetheless.

But let Antoine Roquentin have the last word:

"I grow warm, I begin to feel happy. There is nothing extraordinary in this, it is a small happiness of Nausea: it spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of out time - the time of purple suspenders, and broken chair seats; it is made of white, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain. No sooner than born, it is already old, it seems as though I have known it for twenty years."


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Jean-Paul Sartre