Reviews for At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

by Sarah Bakewell

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Days in the lives of influential philosophers. In this brisk and perceptive intellectual history, Bakewell (Masters of Studies in Creative Writing/Kellogg Coll., Univ. of Oxford; How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, 2010, etc.) focuses on a diverse cast of men and women who, beginning in the 1930s, worried over questions of freedom, authenticity, anxiety, and commitment, creating the movement that came to be known as existentialism. Their antecedents were Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who "pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life." Dominating Bakewell's narrative are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, lovers and "compulsive communicators" of every detail of their work. Sartre, appealingly fun-loving (he played piano and sang jazz hits) in his youth, became "monstrous" as he aged: "self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered. He was a sex addict who didn't even enjoy sex, a man who would walk away from friendships saying he felt no regret." Bakewell was surprised at how much affection she felt for him despite his faults. Certainly he was more likable than Martin Heidegger, who "set himself against the philosophy of humanism andwas rarely humane in his behaviour." As the author reveals historical context for the philosophers' workprewar Paris; the Nazi occupation; postwar debates among internationalists, pro-Americans, and communistsshe explains the significance of cafes: "they were the best places to keep warm" for those who lived in cheap, unheated hotel rooms. Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch (Britain's first popularizer of existentialism), James Baldwin, actress Juliette Grco, and Emmanuel Levinas are just a few featured in this well-populated book, whose hero, Bakewell writes, is phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "the happy philosopher of things as they are." A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly explains 20th-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. Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all strut and fret across the stage, with cameos from Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Iris Murdoch, among others. Casting his shadow over all is Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps existentialism's most famous face, and beside him Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminist masterpiece The Second Sex, was as "revolutionary in every sense" as Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Heidegger's Being and Time. Bakewell illustrates how existentialism contributed to "almost all the great liberation movements" of the 1950s and '60s, arguing persuasively for its continued relevance. 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." Photos. (Mar.) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
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"What is existentialism anyway?" asks Bakewell in her tremendous new work, and you're wrong if you find that question irrelevant to your life. As articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre and his confreres, existentialism is so wound up in contemporary culture that we think it, speak it, and encounter it daily-consider, for instance, those moody existential film heroes and the angst driving our self-improvement schemes. After completing her National Book Critics Circle Award winner, How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Bakewell ambitiously launched on a project to revisit this passion of her youth. Along with her rigorous and clarifying explanations of existentialism as project, sensibility, and evolution from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger (finally, you'll understand what all these philosophers were talking about), she offers refreshing reaction and context that make this book a journey for the reader as well as the writer. Though she focuses on the philosophy, Bakewell also probes biography, detailing the relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, and taking Heidegger's Nazi associations head-on. There's humanizing cheekiness, too; after explaining how each philosopher fell out with a predecessor, Bakewell adds, "Arthur Koestler fell out with everyone and punched Camus in the street." VERDICT Highly recommended for anyone who thinks. [See "Editors' Spring Picks," p. 29.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* Bakewell follows her celebrated study of Montaigne (How to Live, 2010) with a lively appraisal of existentialism and its leading thinkers. This is no easy task: some argue that existentialism is more of a mood or an aesthetic than a philosophy, and even those who agree that it is a philosophy often end up in fisticuffs over how to define it. Avoiding such potholes, Bakewell focuses upon key individuals Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Martin Heidegger and on their interactions with each other and with the historical circumstances of the harsh twentieth century. With coverage of friendship, travel, argument, tragedy, drugs, Paris, and, of course, lots of sex, Bakewell's biographical approach pays off, in part because certain abstractions, like Sartre's enigmatic notion of freedom, seem to make more sense when one knows something about the man's mess of anxieties and personal entanglements. Sartre is portrayed sympathetically, his erratic late-career work and controversial politics accepted as part of an imperfect life lived in pursuit of noble ideals; Heidegger, with his questionable postwar rehabilitation and inward-turned gloominess, less so. And de Beauvoir emerges as very much the hero: humanistic, prescient, and fearless. The result is an engaging story about a group of passionate thinkers, and a reminder of their continued relevance.--Driscoll, Brendan Copyright 2016 Booklist