Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

I have discovered where the stereotype of the depressed, smoking Frenchman, who stares into his tea in cafés and despairs about the pointless of the universe, comes from. I have found navel gazing in its purest form, and I have stared into its whiney, shrivelled heart. This novel had some fantastic ideas and concepts behind it, but blimey did it test my patience at times.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre is short, it’s weird, and it’s depressing. None of these things are necessarily negatives in a book – there are a lot of similarities here to Notes from Underground and The Stranger, both which I really enjoyed. In Nausea, though, I never found myself convinced by the protagonist’s struggles. He felt more like an abstraction than a person.

While the Underground Man was clearly isolated and confused and the story around him a bit polemic, his problems were human and relatable, if extreme. Antoine Roquentin, however, felt as though he had been created with the sole purpose of exploring existentialism, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but every problem he faces is metaphysical and absurdly theoretical. This means the human drama which is also explored comes across as hollow because we just don’t know him or anyone else in this novel as a person, only as walking ideologies.

There were some interesting observations about the way we should appreciate existence on a moment to moment basis, but it all felt more like a message with a story than a story with a message. I’ll be reading Sartre’s non-fiction if I pick up his writing again, as at least that way I’ll know exactly what I’m in for.

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“O God, make me good, but not yet.”

I began to write this review of Brideshead Revisited almost immediately after I put the book down. That’s rare. Normally I take a day or two to mull things over, and let my reaction settle, but the ending here made me dissapointed and I wanted to vent. That’s rare, too. I like books a lot more often than I dislike them. Vonnegut was probably an influence on the way I approach reading, although I’m not quite as forgiving as he is:

“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

This is true to a degree. Unless an author is knowingly, maliciously wasting my time or looking to be deliberately condescending or irritating – and I’d like to give most published authors the benefit of the doubt on this front, as (outside of maybe Ellis) writers tend to have bigger aims than expressing their own misanthropy – I will set the book down, realize that it probably just wasn’t for me, and move on.

Brideshead Revisited’s ending made me annoyed because it deflated a novel which I had been enjoying tremendously. It’s a very, very well written book with acutely drawn characters, and is a great evocation of a lost time. It also has one of the most unsatisfying few pages that I’ve ever read, a conclusion that undercuts what I had previously enjoyed about the story and themes.

Waugh is at his best when he’s rolling in moral decay. At the start, I thought this novel was a direct descendant of The Great Gatsby, due to both its intricate and beautiful language and the acute representations of the upper class as hedonistic and morally bankrupt. Unfortunately, while the drama and writing – which are surface level elements of all stories, despite how much I love them both – maintain the high level reached earlier in the novel, the simple (yet, in hindsight, inevitable) way the problems addressed are dealt with left me unsatisfied. Theology is an interesting subject, but it felt both hamfisted and a unsatisfying here as I thought the characters’ religious beliefs were only one of many issues that should have been addressed.

What Brideshead is best at is conjuring a longing, an affection close to nostalgia, for a place you’ve never been. The language is, as mentioned, intricately put together and at times beautiful. It can also be pompous to the point of ridiculousness, which was fine when I thought Waugh was in on the joke and Ryder’s gushing was to show that he had been suckered in by this obvious mess of a family. But the reader is the one that had been suckered in. He wants you to worship these tortured, vaguely pathetic souls too. It all just comes across as overwrought when you realise Waugh’s being total and utterly sincere in his worship of the “elites”.

Brideshead Revisited isn’t, as it appeared from its first two-thirds, an examination of the indulgences of this upper-class. It’s a celebration of them. It’s a mournful wail at a world which let a world of manor-houses, beautiful dining, and charm die.

One of the clearest examples of this misguided fawning was when Ryder reflects on how unfair it was that many in the noble upper-classes had died to maintain modern England: “These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman.” 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war according to the BBC, compared with 17% of its officers. Mildly disproportionate, yes. But the utter dismissal of the struggles and deaths of those who didn’t have mansions during this era isn’t just snobbery, it’s disgusting.

(It could be I’m misreading this, but the way it currently stands this comes across as so dismissive that I almost couldn’t believe it came from the same book which created a character as interesting and conflicted as Sebastian Flyte.)

None of this will matter as you go through it, though. It’s one hell of a ride. But while there are some novels I only love in hindsight and can look back in astonishment at the ways they toyed with me as a reader (The Crying Lot of 49 by Thomas Pynchon, for example), this is the first time I remember setting a book down, and, despite really enjoying it while reading, know I’m not interested in thinking about it, ever again. There’s just not much there I think is worth reflecting on. It’s a nice pond I mistook for a great lake.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try.”

A good collection of essays can enlighten, entertain, and persuade without feeling like it’s trying too hard to do any of these things. That’s what A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again does. You’re swept along weird, quirky, or banal topics, subjects which other writers might make boring but not, fortunately, this one. It’s littered with funny and smart observations, and its arguments/explorations are interesting and the style playful. If you’re looking for a place to begin reading David Foster Wallace, this is it.

Wallace zeroes in on the weird bind that comes from life in the Western world (particularly America, capitalist bastion that it is): mental discomfort, weird thought patterns, and eventually ennui can actually be instilled by our physical comfort and societal wide sense of entitlement for luxury and ease. This all creates some strange ways of responding to entertainment and art. Most of us are (relatively) pampered people, who eat tasty food, have (compared to most of the world) good educations, and are unlikely to be blown up by mortar shells. We also have some of the highest mental illness rates on the planet.

We’re bombarded with advertising and cultural prompts about what to want, when to want it, and what it means to want what we want when we want it and why wanting what we want means we should also want this different product, as that will be what truly makes us individual, and when we want that we should want this other thing, but we’re not the kind of person who wants too much, as that would make us materialistic…

It all gets a bit complex and weird and frustrating, but these essays are great at pulling back the layers of modern life and revealing what it is at heart: mildly absurd. I don’t get the feeling that Wallace is being a Luddite, either. If you had planted him anywhere from 12th century France to present-day Saudi Arabia, he would have come away from these cultures with some bizarre and fascinating musings.

It’s just nice to be reminded of how silly all us humans look from the outside sometimes.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”

It speaks to Morrison’s skill that a tale about such harrowing circumstances is still as tender as this one. She’s the kind of writer who could find beauty in the reflections of a pool of blood.

A house with a dead baby’s footsteps echoing through its halls sits next to a river. An ex-slave, Sethe, and the remnants of her family try to make sense of the United States after the Civil War, and struggle against poverty, prejudice, and their own memories. Beloved by Toni Morrison is difficult to read at times, due to the prose’s density and the painful subject matter, but it’s harrowing and heartfelt, and deserves patience.

I’m going to make this book sound very serious, but please don’t think I’m using serious as interchangeable for dry or boring; this is an interesting and occasionally warm book. It’s just a good idea for someone picking this up to go in with the knowledge that their emotions are about to be beaten with a pipe wrench.

This is a mournful book which is still extremely engaging. Hope is something these characters can’t afford to have, and we watch as they struggle to navigate a “free” world they never expected to experience. They’ve been let down too often before to risk the pain of disappointment again, so they approach life like it’s contained in a glass case on a wobbly mantelpiece: nice to look at, but not something to get attached to. It will fall and shatter eventually. The cruelty they’ve suffered—on both a personal and institutional level—leaves scars, both literal and figurative.

The story here is gripping, despite that the writing at a sentence level blends between first- and third-person, and the plot structure is (purposefully) as fractured and confused as the the minds of its characters. It’s still a joy to read, somehow; like any great story of tragedy, the pathos feels almost tangible.

When you’ve never seen a house or a happy home, how do you make a life for yourself? Slavery destroyed the humanity of the people it ensnared, and Morrison offers no easy answers. Beloved stares penetratingly into how racism and slavery have created a cycle of pain that will continue for generations. There are difficult questions here but no easy answers, and it’s a better story than most because of that.