Laurence Gill Lyon
Both Malte Laurids Brigge and Antoine Roquentin are young writers living with dubious purpose in the shabby, if not squalid milieu of a large French city. Alienated from the past as well as from the environs, each begins a diary in response to a sudden intensification of perception. Both diaries stress Angst, angoisse, and the disintegration of personal identity, and each also documents attempts to reconstitute the integrity of self and world. These and other parallels in image, motif, and theme between Rainer Maria Rilke's Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel La Nausée (1938) have already been recorded, but no one has investigated their relationship in detail. Admittedly, some of the parallels are trivial, while others represent concerns held in common by numerous twentieth-century authors. Yet close reading of several compact passages will demonstrate more than a casual similarity in setting or problematic. In at least nine major instances, La Nausée recapitulates neatly discrete metaphoric configurations and extended images prefigured in Malte.
It is not a new observation that Sartre derived important motifs in his first novel from his omnivorous reading. Can the identification of Malte as one more source for La Nausée have more than marginal interest? It can, I submit, if Sartre's creative response to Malte exhibits a consistent pattern of reinterpretation. The resonance between the two works then constitutes a kind of dialogue which illuminates the characteristic themes of both. What name shall we give this resonance? Cautious readers will prefer to explore it in terms of motivic and metaphoric analogy, especially in the absence of any evidence for a more specific intention on Sartre's part…. Perhaps,… the resonance is merely an unconscious persistence of poetic vision. For this reader, however, some of the parallels are too extended, too detailed to admit this explanation. They imply a more deliberate artistic intent. The pattern of reinterpretation they reveal suggests an intriguing hypothesis: that Sartre sought to parody the tone and value system of Rilke's novel. If the parallel passages do exhibit parodic intent, it is only in the formal sense of that word. Sartre's parody is not principally satiric, though satiric content is not foreign to it. In general, he appropriates the structure of Rilke's motifs and images while negating the thematic significance they bore in Malte. (pp. 53-4)
Malte and La Nausée are participants in the tradition of the diaristic novel. One convention of that form is the encapsulation of the diary proper in a fictitious editorial commentary. The differing manner in which Rilke and Sartre treat this convention illustrates an important distinction between their respective narrative stances…. [In Malte, the] intrusion of the editor is always succinct and betrays no editorial personality…. Sartre's treatment of the editorial convention, on the other hand, is distinctly ironic and concentrated within the first few pages of his work. His point once made, he abandons the device…. This barrage of scholarly impedimenta establishes Sartre as an ironic manipulator of the diaristic-novel convention which Rilke had simply accepted as a tool in the orchestration of his novel. Roquentin-Sartre's ironic ambivalence toward forms and values accepted by Malte-Rilke can be observed repeatedly in the parallel passages to be discussed. Here, of course, no specific dependence on Rilke need be inferred.
Another obvious but superficial point of contact between Malte and La Nausée is the employment of eyes and hands as symbols of perceptive understanding and effective interaction with the world, respectively. (pp. 54-5)
Both Malte and Roquentin have suddenly experienced an inexplicable and threatening alteration in their perception of everyday existence. Malte immediately recognizes that this change is actually a penetration into uncharted regions of the self…. [He] launches the continuing motif of "learning to see."
A more tentative voice speaks in the first pages of La Nausée, but the basic elements of Malte's situation are repeated in Roquentin's words…. (p. 56)
The parallelisms of literary form, setting, personal problematic, and even symbolic vocabulary mentioned until now provide some material for a general comparison of Malte and La Nausée, but they are only preliminary to our discussion of related imagery. The instances of extended correspondence between the two works will be presented in three somewhat arbitrary sections: first, images and motifs expressing alienation from society; second, those relating to the dissolution of personal identity; and finally, those concerning the potential solutions which might permit the narrator to reintegrate himself into the social and the very physical world.
The primary symbol of the social integration and security which both narrators lack is the house. Rilke's use of this symbol takes the most varied forms…. Sartre's usage is more limited. (pp. 56-7)
A strain of unresolved nostalgia does emerge from Roquentin's reverie, but his images, unlike Malte's, ultimately stress the pettiness of an existence he does not aspire to. (p. 58)
If we accept, for the moment, the hypothesis that La Nausée stands in a direct relationship to Malte, Roquentin's reflections on the [homelessness] theme can be read as a response to Malte's self-pity…. The parallels here might, of course, be fortuitous. The house is, after all, almost a natural symbol for security and none of the specific points of similarity is truly distinctive…. Yet it is only one of several such passages; closer reading shows that it broaches many of the characteristic themes of Sartre's hypothetical dialogue with Rilke.
It is relevant, for example, that Malte does indeed possess a past, one which is unhappily inaccessible to him at present. Roquentin, on the other hand, lacks any facility for storing his past…. Roquentin recognizes that it is necessary to abjure the comfort of a self-definition imposed by the past. Malte, for his part, is ambivalent toward the past. In spite of his fear of an externally imposed self-definition, he is unable to renounce his longing for the security of a stable tradition. Although Sartre in La Nausée had not yet clearly formulated his concept of free human life as a projet continually redefined by the future, his rejection of the stable order of the past is already apparent. It constitutes a recurrent element of contrast between the value systems of the two works.
A second repository of traditional values in both works is the portrait gallery. The hallowed aura which suffuses Malte's candlelight expedition to the gallery at Urnekloster well suits the mystique surrounding his ancestral past in the novel. Just as the mansion is disjunct in Malte's memory, so too, only some of the figures in his heritage are known to him....
(The entire section is 2940 words.)