Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Some favorite bits of Nausea - Enjoying the ignoble marmelade

What did I especially like in Jean-Paul Sartre’s debut novel, La Nausée?  I will list many things.  Some may come from my misunderstanding of the French language.

For example, this sentence: “J’avais peur, mais j’étais surtout en colère, je trouvais ça si bête, si déplacé, je haïssais cette ignoble marmelade” (185).  “I was afraid, but mostly I was angry; I found it so stupid, so unwarranted; I hated this vile pudding.”  The narrator, Roquentin, has just had – or is writing in his journal as if he has just had – a profound experience in which he gets a glimpse of reality by staring intensely at the root of a chestnut tree.  This line comes a bit after.  The ignoble marmelade is reality, everything, or everything outside of Roquentin.  This is by far the most famous scene in the novel.

Soon after, in an long, especially novelistic scene, Roquentin has a long reunion with his ex-girlfriend, who gently expresses her despair and insists that they are never ever getting back together.  This leads the narrator – I am taking this all as psychological, rather than metaphysical – to embrace his newfound sense of freedom, of existence, while affirming his loathing of people and their fat, comfortable faces, and their popular novels (“ils écrivent des romans populistes / they write popular novels,” 217).

Won’t they be surprised, he thinks, when the forest invades the town and unleashes Lovecraftian horrors on the people, when third eyes appear in their foreheads and their tongues turn into millipedes, or maybe centipedes.  “Mille-pattes,” not sure how the French distinguish between the two.  A forest of phalli will erupt, oozing sperm and blood from their wounds.  “Alors j’éclaterai de rire, même si… / Then I will burst into laughter, even if…” (219)  I will direct you to Time’s Flow Stemmed, where Anthony thoughtfully posted the entire magnificent paragraph.

It was at this point where I realized I had to let the “philosophical” novel go, and accept that the narrator was an extreme psychological case, which is a good subject for a novel; this is not a complaint.

My other favorite scene is completely different, and sane.  It is a sketch of Sunday in a French city.  French Sundays have changed since 1938 – it is easier to shop – but maybe they have not changed that much.  This long scene, in which Roquentin wanders around looking for a place to just sit and read Eugénie Grandet, felt right to me.  Since we are fairly early in the novel, the narrator uses this section to describe the town, its streets and shops and crowds.  I especially like the exterminator across from the church, with a window display with a diorama of rats and mice sailing a ship, and being driven back to sea by some kind of poison.

J’aimais beaucoup cette boutique, elle avait un air cynique et entêté, elle rappelait avec insolence les droits de la vermine et de la crasse, à deux pas de l’église la plus coûteuse de France.  (67)

I really loved this shop; it had a cynical and stubborn air, recalling with insolence the rights of the vermin and the dirt, a couple of steps from the most costly church in France.

In Lyon, there is an exterminator a few steps from a church who has for some reason a mounted beaver in the window.  In Paris, there is a truly hideous exterminator displaying several rows of dead rats in traps.  I seem to have gotten away from the depiction of Sunday.  That seemed right, but so did the bit about the exterminator.

Roquentin gets a little Balzac read.  He for some reason copies a page directly into his journal.  Sartre puts a page of Balzac in his novel.  Now that is a real anti-novelistic gesture.

Translations are all mine; please correct them if that seem like a good use of your time.


  1. I like your turn from the philosophical novel to looking at the protagonist as a psychological study. I do not remember reading the book like that but it seems to make sense to do so. I will ask some of my French speaking relatives how they distinguish millipedes from centipedes :)

  2. A stronger way of saying this is that I found a point where I abandoned the idea that Nausea had a special status as a philosophical novel, that it was any more philosophical than The Good Soldier or The Tin Drum. No less philosophical, but no more. I would call The Moviegoer a philosophical novel, so I am not dismissing the idea.

  3. Now I feel I have to reread this book. I'm impressed by your capturing Nausea obliquely by beginning your conclusion with a promised focus on Sunday in a French city and ending it with a row of dead rats in a window.

    Since you asked and if I may, I think your translations do the job admirably with the single exception of the word "pudding," a concoction most French people I know would recoil from in horror (maybe that was the intention - such a "Naked Lunch" line). "Marmelade" is the same in French and English and might have been left as is.

  4. I agree that marmelade is not pudding, but it's not really marmelade either; marmelade is only one kind of marmelade. I'd render it "compote," "mush," or (taking it in a figurative sense) "mess."

    I've never been able to take Sartre seriously -- at least, not as seriously as he expected/demanded -- and that Existential Comics link isn't helping.

  5. How reassuring, or kind, since "pudding" was a bit of a joke, although almost every choice available is hilarious. I mean, "despicable mush," that's funny.

    I think I like "mush" best because it keeps the texture and sense that there is food involved somehow, but loses the orange peel, which is what "marmelade" means to me.

    You will see it in Kermode, another trip back in time, when Sartre, and this novel, in particular, was taken so, so seriously. Authentic historical detail.

  6. The only thing I actually remember from this book is the character who's reading all the major French authors alphabetically. I think there's at least one enjoyable joke where the narrator mockingly references something he knows the guy hasn't quite gotten to in his reading.

  7. It's a great joke. The character, the Autodidact, my brother, is in the "L"s when the narrator meets him.

    Except it made me wonder how exactly the library in Le Havre was organized in the 1920s. Everything alphabetical, regardless of subject?