At the Existentialist Café
Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Great philosophy meets powerful biography in this entertaining and immensely readable portrait of mid-20th century Paris and the fascinating characters of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and their circle, who loved and hated, drank and debated with each other--and forever changed the way we think about thinking.
At the Existentialist Café is a thrilling look at the famous group of post-war thinkers who became known as the Existentialists: Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, and their circle. Starting with Paris after the devastation of the Second World War, Sarah Bakewell (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for her previous book) takes us inside the passionate debates and equally passionate lives of these brilliant, if flawed, characters. Here is a wonderful, vibrant look at the social, artistic and political currents that shaped the existentialist movement--a mode of thinking and being that, as Bakewell vividly shows, deeply affects us today.
Never has the story of this influential group, and especially that of the legendary relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir, been told with such verve and sweep, weaving personal life with social upheaval and the universal quest for understanding.
“Vivid, humorous anecdotes are interwoven with a lucid and unpatronising exposition of their complex philosophy. . . . This tender, incisive and fair account of the existentialists ends with their successive deaths, leaving me with the same sense of nostalgia and loss as one feels after reading a great epic novel.” —Jane O’Grady, National Post
“[A] remarkable book. . . . Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl play strong supporting roles in this ambitious book about passionate people with a philosophical bent. Bakewell is able to present difficult ideas in a playful, witty way.” —Sarah Murdoch, Toronto Star
“Intellectually sharp and fluent. . . . [Bakewell] combines confident handling of difficult philosophical concepts with a highly enjoyable writing style. I can’t think of a better introduction to modern intellectual history.” —Times Colonist
“[A] bracingly fresh look at once-antiquated ideas and the milieu in which they flourished. Ms. Bakewell’s approach is enticing and unusual: She is not an omniscient author acting as critic, biographer or tour guide. As someone who came back to this material by rereading it later in life, she has made her responses part of the story. . . . [T]he biographies of most people here intersect with either Sartre’s or Heidegger’s, sometimes both—and each man’s story requires its own telling, which Ms. Bakewell does fascinatingly.” —The New York Times
“Sarah Bakewell is expertly equipped to tell us the story of existentialism. . . . It helps that she writes well, with a lightness of touch and a very Anglo-Saxon sense of humour. . . . Bakewell is a skilful and nuanced teacher. Her explanation of the mysteries of phenomenology, clear and succinct, is as brilliant as any I’ve heard in a French university classroom. . . . The author offers fascinating insights into the cultural impact of existentialism on the English-speaking world.” —Andrew Hussey, The Guardian
“[Bakewell’s] prose remains lucid and warm no matter how challenging the ideas she’s dissecting. She brings wry humor to her subjects’ foibles . . . but is clear-eyed in describing their more substantive failings. . . . Bakewell recalls that she was less attracted to their individual biographies than their theories; now, she writes, she’s changed her mind: ‘Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’ Much to the great fortune of her readers, this book is richly populated with both.” —Boston Globe
“[A] wonderfully readable combination of biography, philosophy, history, cultural analysis and personal reflection.” —The Independent
“Bibliophiles will feel . . . welcome arriving At the Existential Café . . . [a] vivid and warmly engaging intellectual history. It is an exemplar of the notion that ‘books come from books.’ This is a text that sings the writing life—of the existentialists, of their critics and of their biographers. . . . Like Jim Holt’s superb and jaunty 2012 philosophical exploration, Why Does the World Exist? . . . Bakewell’s book offers an autobiographical hand to hold through a parade of big ideas.” —Los Angeles Times
“Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly explains twentieth-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to ‘the task of responsible alertness’ and ‘questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.’ Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the ‘story of a whole European century,’ dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility. . . . This ambitious book bears out Bakewell’s declaration that ‘thinking should be generous and have a good appetite,’ and that for philosophers and the general reader alike, ‘ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With characteristic erudition, accessibility, intellectual seriousness, and good humor, Sarah Bakewell’s robust new history of existentialism . . . traces the history of the movement.” —Jonathon Sturgeon, Literary Editor, Flavorwire
“[T]he most engaging work of philosophy I have read. . . . Bakewell is brilliant at describing her philosophers’ sensibilities but doesn’t often present them mid-action. . . . Bakewell movingly celebrates thought itself as a sensual, passionate act. And there is certainly a sense of the philosophers as embodied people, moving in a peopled and thing-filled world. She is excellent at showing how the works emerge out of the personalities and in giving the works themselves more personality as a result. . . . Bakewell is also very strong on the relationship between existentialism and the political and historical currents that shaped it.” —Lara Feigel, The Guardian
“[B]risk and perceptive. . . . A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.” —Kirkus Reviews