For my meager contribution to Annabel’s five-week Nordic FINDS challenge, I got out my copy of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that came from the free mall bookshop in 2020.
Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (1994)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Paulette Møller]
Sophie Amundsen, 14 going on 15, starts receiving mysterious letters asking her life’s big questions: Who are you? Where does the world come from? Soon her anonymous correspondent starts sending whole sheaves of paper elaborating on episodes from the unfolding history of philosophy, from creation myths through the Greek philosophers to Marxism and Darwinism via the Renaissance and Enlightenment. She’s so engrossed in her impromptu philosophy course that she starts to neglect her schoolwork and worry her mother. Sophie identifies the letter-writer as one Alberto Knox, who perhaps lives in a lake cabin nearby, and starts to interact with him by writing back. (I loved that their letters are delivered by a golden Labrador named Hermes.) Meanwhile, she’s perplexed by all the postcards she receives addressed to “Hilde,” also 15. Is she reading Hilde’s story, or is Hilde reading hers?
I’ll be honest … I made it just 96 pages (out of 394) before I started skimming, flipping past big chunks to get to the story. As to what I did experience, my feelings are mixed:
- On the one hand, this is certainly a more fun way to encounter philosophy than the textbook I had in college, while still offering accurate and thorough information.
- On the other hand, is the novel’s young adult audience really going to stick around for all the talky/preachy bits surrounding the slightly magical, mind-bending plot?
I think this became a word-of-mouth bestseller a couple of decades ago because of its novelty value. It’s a book that asks and assumes a lot of its readers: that we be curious and diligent, that we engage in the universal search of meaning. As Alberto writes in his first proper letter, “We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.” I feel I missed my moment to read it, though I can admire its aim.
(See Annabel’s review here.)
My current Scandinavian read is Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen, a Finnish author, about the treatment of Sámi people during World War II (coming out from Pushkin Press tomorrow).
I’m really not a Valentine’s Day person, yet this is the fifth year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February. (Here are the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 posts. I’m also at work on a set of three “Heart” titles to post about on the 14th.) All three of the below books reflect, in their own ways, on how love perplexes and sustains us at different points in our lives.
The Emma Press Anthology of Love, ed. Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright (2018)
I read my first book from the publisher (Tiny Moons by Nina Mingya Powles) last summer and loved it, so when this one popped up in the Waterstones sale in January I snapped it up. Your average love poetry volume would trot out all the standards from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Carol Ann Duffy, whereas this features recent work from lesser-known contemporary poets. Of the 56 poets, I’d heard of just two before: Stephen Sexton, because I reviewed his collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, last year; and Rachel Long, because I was simultaneously reading her Costa Award-shortlisted debut, My Darling from the Lions.
What I most appreciated about the book is that it’s free of cliché. You can be assured there will be no ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’ simplicity of theme or style. It must be nigh on impossible to write about romantic and erotic love without resorting to the same old symbols, but here there is a fresh, head-turning metaphor every few pages. Rachel Plummer describes her first crush, on a video game character, in “Luigi.” Love is conveyed through endless cups of tea or practical skills that favor postapocalyptic survival; desire is sparked by the downy hair on a woman’s back or the deliberate way a lover pulls on a pair of tights. Anything might be a prelude to seduction: baking, preparing lab specimens, or taking a taster at the off-license.
There are no real duds here, but a couple of my overall favorites were “Note from Edinburgh” by Stav Poleg and “Not the Wallpaper Game” by Jody Porter (“her throat was a landmine grown over with roses / and her arms were the antidote to the sufferings of war”). I’m running low on poetry, so I’ve gone ahead and ordered three more original anthologies direct from The Emma Press (poems on the sea, illness, and aunts!). After all, it’s #ReadIndies month and I’m delighted to support this small publisher based in Birmingham.
I have a friend who always believed
love was like being touched
by a livewire or swimming
on her back in a lightning storm.
I want to tell her it’s homesickness,
how longing pulls us in funny ways.
(from “Falooda” by Cynthia Miller)
It’s today already
and we have only the rest of our lives.
Long may we dabble our feet in the clear Italian lakes.
Long may we mosey through the graveyards of the world.
(from “Romantic” by Stephen Sexton)
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (2020)
I saw the author read from this in November as part of a virtual Faber Live Fiction Showcase. My interest was then redoubled by the book winning the Costa First Novel Award. All three narrators – Betty, her son Solo, and their lodger Mr Chetan – are absolutely delightful, and I loved the Trini slang and the mix of cultures (for example, there is a Hindu temple where locals of Indian extraction go to practice devotion to the Goddess). Early on, I was reminded most, in voice and content, of Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo.
But the lightness of Part One, which ends with a comically ill-fated tryst, soon fades. When Solo moves to New York City to make his own way in the world, he discovers that life is cruel and not everyone is good at heart. Indeed, my only hesitation in recommending this book is that it gets so very, very dark; the blurb and everything I had heard did not prepare me. If easily triggered, you need to know that there are many upsetting elements here, including alcoholism, domestic violence, self-harm, attempted suicide, sadomasochism, and gruesome murder. Usually, I would not list such plot elements for fear of spoilers, but it seems important to note that what seems for its first 100 pages to be such a fun, rollicking story becomes more of a somber commentary on injustices experienced by both those who leave Trinidad and those who stay behind.
A beautiful moment of reconciliation closes the story, but man, getting to that point is tough. The title speaks of love, yet this novel is a real heartbreaker. What that means, though, is that it makes you feel something. Not every author can manage that. So Persaud is a powerful talent and I would certainly recommend her debut, just with the above caveats.
Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life by Gillian Rose (1995)
The English philosopher’s memoir-in-essays got on my radar when it was mentioned in two other nonfiction works I read in quick succession (one of my Book Serendipity incidents of late 2019): Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth and My Year Off by Robert McCrum. I had in mind that it was a cancer memoir, and while receiving a terminal diagnosis of ovarian cancer in her early forties is indeed an element, it is a wide-ranging short book that includes pen portraits of remarkable friends – an elderly woman, a man with AIDS – she met in New York City, musings on her Jewish family history and the place that religious heritage holds in her life, and memories of the contrast between the excitement of starting at Oxford and the dismay at her mother’s marriage to her stepfather (from whom she got her surname, having changed it by deed poll at age 16 from her father’s “Stone”) falling apart.
The mishmash of topics and occasional academic jargon (e.g., “These monitory anecdotes indicate, however, the anxiety of modernity” and “Relativism of authority does not establish the authority of relativism: it opens reason to new claimants”) meant I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d expected to.
Words about love:
“However satisfying writing is—that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control—it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving.”
“There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. … each party … is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. … I am highly qualified in unhappy love affairs. My earliest unhappy love affair was with Roy Rogers.”
“To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.”
If you read just one … Make it The Emma Press Anthology of Love. (But, if you’re feeling strong, add on Love After Love, too.)
Have you read any books about love lately?
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.
Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?
Which book do you expect to win?
I plan to dip in and out of Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to increase my familiarity with Murdoch and get through some of the paperbacks I happen to own. Even though I don’t own it, I decided to join in with Under the Net (1954) to see how her fiction career began. My university library copy is a rebound 1960s Penguin paperback, so – alas! – has a generic cover. See Liz’s introductory post for the different cover images and to get a peek at some of the recurring Murdochian themes that make their first appearance here.
Under the Net is narrated by Jake Donoghue, a translator who arrives back in London after a trip to France to find that he’s being kicked out of the flat where he’s been living for free with his friend Finn. In his desultory search for where to go next he takes readers along to Mrs Tinckham’s cat-filled shop, his Jewish philosopher friend Dave’s place, and the theatre where a former girlfriend, Anna Quentin, is in charge of props. (One of my favorite scenes has him accidentally locked into the theatre overnight; he has to sleep among the costumes.)
Anna’s sister Sadie, an actress, offers Jake a role as her bodyguard; she has a stalker of sorts, fireworks manufacturer and film studio owner Hugo Belfounder – whom, it turns out, Jake already knows. Together they were guinea pigs for an experiment on the common cold, and Jake secretly worked up Hugo’s conversations into a poorly received book called The Silencer. “Hugo was my destiny,” Jake muses; even though he’s embarrassed to see Hugo again, he gets drawn back into a connection with him.
One of the central themes of the novel, playing out with various characters, is the difficulty of seeing people clearly rather than resting with the image of them you’ve built up in your mind. I enjoyed Jake’s contrasting of physical and intellectual work, and his (sometimes contradictory) reflections on solitude and introversion:
I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life. I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer.
I hate solitude, but I am afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide.
If like myself you are a connoisseur of solitude, I recommend to you the experience of being alone in Paris on the fourteenth of July.
Many readers probably expect Murdoch’s books to be dense and difficult, bogged down with philosophical ideas. But what I most noticed about this first novel is how humorous it is: it’s even madcap in places, with some coming and going via windows and Mister Mars, the film star dog, playing dead to get Jake out of a sticky situation. Over at Liz’s blog we’ve been discussing whether Murdoch is a typical ‘woman writer’; if her books had been published anonymously or under her initials, would it have been assumed that she was a man? I think so, given her success in creating a male narrator and her focus on the world of work and less traditional domestic arrangements.
This is my sixth Murdoch book. I didn’t enjoy Under the Net as much as the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea or The Bell (), but liked it more than The Black Prince and An Unofficial Rose () [I’ve also read one of her philosophy books, The Fire and the Sun (; I could make neither head nor tail of it)], so it falls in the middle for me so far at a solid . I’m looking forward to participating with several more of the readalong books next year, starting with A Severed Head in March.
Another favorite line, spoken by Hugo: “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”
Have you read anything by Iris Murdoch? Do you enjoy her work?
Join us for one or more of the readalong books!
I’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.
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.
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.”
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).
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?