At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

existentialist cafeI’ve long meant to read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, a biography of Montaigne that also promises to be a deep examination of philosophical and ethical issues. When I heard she had a new book out, I jumped at the chance to learn more about existentialism. I’ve come away from At the Existentialist Café with only a nebulous sense of what existentialism actually means (though Bakewell’s bullet-pointed list of points towards a definition on page 34 is helpful), but certainly with more knowledge about and appreciation for Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of her main subjects. This is appropriate given the shift in Bakewell’s thinking: “When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important. … Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

Some of the interesting characters herein, apart from Sartre and de Beauvoir (always referred to in these pages as “Beauvoir,” which irked me unduly), are Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. It’s a large cast; you may well find yourself flipping back and forth to the helpful who’s who list in the back of the book. I was amused to see that Freiburg, Germany is the seat of phenomenology (which gave rise to existentialism) – I’m heading there in June to stay with friends at the start of a mini European tour. Husserl was the chair of philosophy at Freiburg, and Heidegger his colleague.

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1950. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Paul Sartre in 1950. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The best I can make out, Heidegger’s philosophy was about describing experience to get to the heart of things. Disregard peripherals and focus on the self’s knowledge of the world, he advised. His best known work, Being and Time, contrasted individual beings with Being itself (i.e. ontology). Think of him as an experimental, modernist novelist, Bakewell advises; understanding what he’s doing with his philosophy is difficult otherwise. Existentialism built on this framework but emphasized freedom and how it is exercised in particular situations.

World War II, especially the year 1945, was a turning point for many of the philosophers discussed. Sartre was held in a POW camp but his eye troubles gave him a way out. Many left Europe for America due to anti-Semitism, including Hannah Arendt and Bruno Bettelheim. Although Heidegger contrasted “the they” (das Man – more similar, perhaps, to the English phrase “the Man”) with the voice of conscience in such a way that suggested one should resist totalitarianism, he would later be exposed as a Nazi. In the following years, the United States became very popular culturally: jazz music, film noir, Hemingway. At the same time, the French were shocked at America’s racial inequality. Sartre believed that one should always take the opinion of the “least favored” or most oppressed party in any situation, which would lead him to speak out for minorities and the colonized, as in the Algerian liberation movement of the 1950s–60s. In the meantime, the rise of the Soviet Union and the development of the atom bomb would emerge as imminent societal threats.

De Beauvoir and Sartre meeting with Che Guevara in 1960. By Alberto Korda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
De Beauvoir and Sartre meeting with Che Guevara in 1960. By Alberto Korda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Sartre and de Beauvoir had an open relationship but clearly relied on and felt deeply about each other, especially when it came to their writing. Bakewell convinced me of Sartre’s surprising sex appeal, despite his unprepossessing appearance: “down-turned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions.” Apparently he had a silly side and would even do Donald Duck impressions. At the same time, he had rock-solid convictions, as evidenced by his refusal of the Légion d’Honneur and the Nobel Prize. I also learned that he was a biographer of Jean Genet and Gustave Flaubert; his biography of the latter, in three volumes, stretched to 2800 pages! Bakewell waxes anti-lyrical in her account of the disheartening experience of reading it: “Occasional lightning flashes strike the primordial soup, although they never quite spark it into life, and there is no way to find them except by dredging through the bog for as long as you can stand it.”

Sarah Bakewell at the 2010 National Book Critics Circle awards. By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons
Sarah Bakewell at the 2010 National Book Critics Circle awards. By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

From the title and subtitle (“Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails”), I expected this book to be a bit more of a jolly narrative than it was. The frequent Left Bank Paris setting is atmospheric, but the tone is never as blithe as promised. I would also have liked some additional autobiographical material from Bakewell, who grew up in Reading, England (where I currently live) and met the existentialists through Sartre’s Nausea at age 16.

In the end the fault may not be her book’s but mine: I wasn’t up for fully engaging with a multi-subject biography packed with history and hard-to-grasp philosophical ideas. I’d recommend this to readers who long for bohemian Paris and have enjoyed either an existentialist work or a philosophical novel like Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder) or 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Goldstein).

My rating: 3 star rating

With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy. 


Further reading: If anything, I think I’m likely to try de Beauvoir’s autobiographical works – the descriptive language Bakewell quotes from them sounds appealing, and of course she was fundamental in paving the way for modern feminism.

You can read an excerpt from At the Existentialist Café, about de Beauvoir’s composition of The Second Sex, at Flavorwire. See also Bakewell’s Guardian list of 10 reasons why we should still be reading the existentialists.


Have you read anything by the existentialists? What would you recommend?

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7 thoughts on “At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

    1. I’ve always been curiously drawn to How to Live. Not sure why, as I have no particular interest in Montaigne (though we did read some of his essays in college French). I think it fits in with my interest in the School of Life/bibliotherapy and the idea that books can help you figure out daily life. At least that’s what I hope it will be like.

      Liked by 1 person

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