Wednesday, March 21, 2018

the last book I read

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Our protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is a writer trying to write a biography of some 18th-century French political type. Being a Frenchman of philosophical bent this mainly involves hanging around various coffee shops and bars shrugging moodily and not doing a lot of writing. He has retreated to the coastal town of Bouville (a thinly fictionalised Le Havre) to avoid the distractions of the varied fleshpots of Paris, but has still been managing to have it away intermittently with the proprietress of a local café, Françoise, and spend a lot of time mooning about in the library without really achieving very much.

Antoine is wrestling with some key philosophical concepts, in between knobbing local businesswomen and quaffing claret: since God does not exist to guide our actions towards some ineffable target, how should we live? What should we do? Should I light up another Gauloise? If I can't understand my own life even as I'm living it, what chance do I have of understanding someone else's, and what's the point of trying to document it? Is there any meaningful response we can give to these questions other than a Gallic shrug and another glass of vin ordinaire?

Roquentin mooches around some cafés with his friend (who he calls the Autodidact) and has a reunion with an old girlfriend, Anny, one that he seems to be expecting to provide some revelation that will bring everything into focus, or maybe just an opportunity to get his end away, but ends up being somewhat unsatisfactory. Anny leaves on a train with her new boyfriend, and it is revealed that the Autodidact has a bit of a thing for underage boys, a revelation that gets him beaten up by the custodian of the local library.

Roquentin abandons his plans for writing his book and resolves to return to Paris. He stops in to see Françoise for a cheeky drink before he leaves, only to find that she seems to have a new man on the go as well. Ah...*lights Gauloise* vie, eh? FIN.

It's easy to satirise this sort of thing, of course, and there's a sketch comedy trope (Monty Python are probably partly to blame) of the intense Frenchman with a cigarette and a beret staring at a chair going "zis chair.....exeeests, non?" to applause and adoration from various chic female acolytes. I should also say that while I've read a few definitions of existentialism, the philosophical school with which Sartre is primarily associated, and various of the principles of which Nausea is supposed to exemplify, I'm still not terribly clear what it's all about, other than a general rationalist acknowledgement that there's no divine purpose to anything and we've got to extract our own meaning from life. Maybe that's all there is to it.

Hanging about in cafés not doing very much is only possible, of course, if you have some means of paying for all the coffee and croissants and fags, and it turns out that Roquentin has some sort of income, possibly from an inheritance or something, that absolves him of any obligation to get off his arse and earn a living. This certainly makes it easier to devote all of your time to contemplating What It All Means and scoffing at the bovine unreflectiveness of those who have to grab a quick omelette between shifts down at the Gauloise factory. In that sense this is a book with a lot of similarities with previous books in this series, Hunger, DemianThe Moviegoer and The Catcher In The Rye in particular; all of those could be said to embody existential angst in one way or another. As with all of those books, increasing age (i.e. mine) probably carries with it an increasing desire to reach in and give the main protagonist a bit of a slap and tell him to get a grip.

Nonetheless, for all the potential intimidatingness of the philosophical baggage, and despite the fact that (as with most books of this type) pretty much nothing happens, this is actually pretty easy to read and has a certain lugubrious humour in places. If you're on a desperate quest for some meaning in your life and are expecting this book to provide it, you'll probably be disappointed, but it's probably an unrealistic thing to expect of a novel anyway.

Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, though he famously refused it - just as with the Oscars, though, the academy don't care and award it to you anyway. The Hunger review contains some links to other Nobel laureates on this list, though with no guarantee it's comprehensive. It won't, for instance, include 2017 winner Kazuo Ishiguro, featured here.

A couple of other footnotes: my old (1970s, I'd guess) second-hand Penguin Modern Classics edition carries a reproduction of the painting The Triangular Hour by Salvador Dalí. Reproductions of old paintings as cover art seem to have been a feature of this particular incarnation of the series: see also Tortilla Flat. Secondly the sharp-eyed among you will have spotted that the record-breaking sequence of one-word book titles now extends to four. I can exclusively reveal that my next book is a multi-worder, so that's your lot.

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