At the Existentialist Café

AtTheExistentialistCafeAt the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others
Sarah Bakewell
Other Press (March 1, 2016), sold by Penguin Random House Publisher Services
449 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon hardcover $15.00

This is by no means an objective study. Sarah Bakewell opens the book writing of her strong attraction to existentialism when she was of college age. She wrote the book because she admired the existentialist writers and their philosophy. Nonetheless her narrative is not only entertaining, but also balanced.

Bakewell writes about how Martin Heidegger accepted a post at the head of a German college under the Nazis. She describes how much of his early writing showed sympathy to the Nazi cause, and how he later moved away from that. But she also describes how he never explicitly renounced his earlier Nazi affiliation, much to the frustration of his existentialist colleagues.

Front and center, as you might imagine, are Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I’m not sure that there was ever been a couple quite like them. They were friends, lovers, and companions in intellect who lived separately but spent much time together. Each had their own lovers separately, yet the relationship endured until Sartre’s death.

She describes Camus, and how we was rather different from the other existentialists, in that he seemed to see no meaning in existence while Sartre, de Beauvoir, and most of the others insisted that there is meaning to our existence. Originally friends, Sartre and de Beauvoir fell out with Camus early on.

I believe that Bakewell’s love for her subject is part of what makes this book extraordinarily readable. At 449 pages in the print version, it never dragged and kept my interest right to the end. If you have an interest in existentialism I would expect you to thoroughly enjoy this book.

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