Title: Nausea (original title: La Nausée)
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Publication date: 1938 (original French); 1949 (English translation)
Genre: Existential novel

What’s it about?Nausea

Historian Antoine Roquentin becomes increasingly disturbed by existential angst. He feels that the mundane, indifferent physical world is placing limitations on his ability to find intellectual and spiritual meaning in life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Yet another checkout from the university library!

What did I learn from it?

I learned, rather hearteningly for this blog, about the value of stories.

I found Nausea quite heavy going: not because I couldn’t grasp the philosophical concepts, but because not much ‘happens’ – and this made me realise just how much we use stories as a means of remembering or making sense of things. Trying to retain all the narrator’s (sometimes quite wild) observations on life was much more difficult than trying to remember a plot with a defined beginning, middle and end. I would go over passages again and again to make sure I’d fully understood them, fearful that I’d get to the end of the novel without a clear picture of the direction Roquentin’s thoughts had taken. Because if that happened, I knew I’d experience my own existential crisis: what exactly did I read the book for?

It was also interesting to perceive that Roquentin sometimes finds meaning (or at least the illusion of meaning) in the connections we make between ourselves and other humans: the relationships we have with the rest of society, or the stories we tell ourselves about our purpose and our place in history. Telling stories is perhaps the only way we can define ourselves and make sense of our lives, which are essentially just strings of random occurrences that we only link together after the event.

Stories, therefore, are key to our understanding of the world and our ability to find meaning within it.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The book was a salutary lesson in how we have limited time and opportunity for finding purpose in life – and how it’s possible, ironically, to waste that time by agonising overmuch about it. Whilst I’ve not exactly had an existential crisis any time in recent years, I’ve certainly found myself pondering, with alarming frequency, ‘what it’s all for’ and how I can balance my need for personal freedom with a need to play a valuable part in society.

Nausea has reminded me that life is a work in progress, and that we need to run with whatever inspiration we find at any given time. Just as, when you stare at a word for too long, the letters start to become jumbled, if we stop and think about life for too long, we risk losing sight of the many little stabs of meaning that we encounter on a daily basis and which are what propel us forward. Seize your purpose – and your human connection – when you find it, and the rest will follow.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Pick any day and you’ll find me agonising over which of my many creative projects to focus on: should I do one this month, then another one next month? should I try to do a little bit on each of them every single week, and accept that means progress will be slow? or do I eliminate all but one and concentrate on that alone until it is complete? The thought process involved in all this is exhausting, and more often than not I end up going round in circles, failing to achieve anything.

So I will learn my lesson from Nausea, and stop agonising. I will figure out what the absolute priorities are in any given week, and do those – and then see how I feel about what comes next. Maybe one week it will be one project, and the next week something completely unrelated. The point is, I will do what I am inspired to do – and I hope that this means I will find an energy and an enthusiasm that have so far been sorely lacking.

One of the things I’m working on will even factor in this new understanding of how we use stories to give shape to our lives. But I’ll wait for the inspiration to strike and the words to flow before I make any promises as to when it will be released into the wild 🙂

A musical interlude

As I was reading a particular passage in Nausea, the following song sprang to mind. I’m not sure why, as I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, but it’s surreal enough for me to feel that it could be about just the kinds of concerns meditated on by Sartre in this novel…



Title: Metamorphosis (original title: Die Verwandlung)
Author: Franz Kafka
Publication date: 1915
Genre: Modernist fiction; absurdist fiction; magical realism

What’s it about?Metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, and his life changes drastically as he and his family try – with varying degrees of failure – to come to terms with this.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I borrowed this from the local university library.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that the urge to find meaning in even the most surreal of narratives is very strong indeed. As I was reading this story, I kept trying to figure out if Kafka intended it as an allegory of some kind. He may well have done, but I have deliberately not attempted to find out, as the purpose of this blog is to find my own meaning in the texts I read and translate that into action in my own life.

However, as I read, I found that I kept pausing to ‘try out’ one interpretation after another. Was the story about how we treat the disabled? the lack of direction felt by anyone who is not a breadwinner? the ultimate selfishness inherent in even the closest human relationships? Every time I tried to pin one of these theories down, it took something away from the story I was actually reading and enjoying – and yet at the same time, the uncertainty made me feel a little adrift.

Most of the books I read for this blog are fairly clear in their intent and themes, while at the same time being completely open to multiple alternative interpretations and personal epiphanies. Even The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which dealt with similarly existentialist themes, didn’t leave me feeling quite as bemused as Metamorphosis.

I think this is the first story I’ve read where I’ve been uncertain as to what I’m ‘supposed’ to have taken away from it. In theory this shouldn’t matter, as I am not attempting to write a critical appraisal – but it has certainly been disconcerting to realise just how much I still expect the author’s intention, at least, to be relatively clear. But I have to admit: it has made me keen to read more Kafka, to see if any further enlightenment comes my way!

How did it make me see the world differently?

I guess as I was trying on my different interpretations for size, I started to see a little more of life from those perspectives. For example, what happens if someone we love becomes disabled, through no fault of their own, and is reduced to having to be cared for utterly by the family? I recently saw the film The Theory of Everything, about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife and the development of his illness, and it raised similar questions.

I’ve no idea how I would act in such circumstances, and I don’t know that I’m any the wiser for having seen that film or read this book. However, it has made me consider what choices I might have to make if this happened in my own life, and maybe this will serve me at least a little bit if that time ever comes.

One other interpretation that I found particularly interesting was the view of the Samsa family and the ending of their financial dependence on Gregor. As a freelancer, I’m aware that it’s entirely possible that at some point my work may dry up and I will be reliant on my husband’s income. While I am sure we would manage, the idea of not being self sufficient is pretty unpleasant for more reasons than purely monetary ones.

Gregor’s family are shown as being listless and next to useless all the while he is in work – but as soon as he becomes incapacitated, they force themselves to go out and find employment, and in the end prove themselves surprisingly capable of it. How much could they have done for themselves before? How much was Gregor himself to blame for keeping them in a dependent state? Or were they merely taking advantage of him?

All of these questions leave me with the firm certainty that I want to be able to continue earning my own living for as long as I can possibly manage it – because who knows what might swoop down one day to change things completely?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

This is perhaps the second time since starting this blog that I’ve made a decision and taken action even before writing the post (the first was The Three Musketeers).

Once I’d pondered on the above issues for a little while, I realised that if I am to remain independent for as long as possible, I need my health. I am pretty sedentary and, being an introvert, don’t get out much except for limited, carefully chosen activities that don’t over-exert my social nerves. This means that I am probably (OK, definitely) not as fit as I would like to be.

So I decided that this had to change. I need to start taking more exercise, so I have joined my local gym and will be trying to go there regularly, in a serious attempt to improve my health and fitness. I’ll probably aim to do some cardio work in the gym before hitting the swimming pool for some relaxation and a wind down; and maybe the odd yoga class.

In addition to the physical benefits, I’m hoping this will also improve my mental health. I’ve been ridiculously busy recently, and last weekend in particular I had real problems switching off and getting my brain to calm down after a long work session. So by getting out and about to do something physical, fingers crossed it’ll give my mind something else to focus on other than the next ingenious idea I have to turn into reality.

That’s the plan, anyway. And in three months I’ll be writing an update to report back on whether I’ve stuck with it! (Not for publication on the blog – you’ll have to buy the book next year to find out for yourself…)

A musical interlude

There was no competition for this week’s music video. It’s a celebration of the late, much-loved David Bowie – who, as luck would have it, just happened to write a song about Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!