Jean-Paul Sartre

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Laurence Gill Lyon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11,944 words.)