Category Archives: Biography

At the Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage, £9.99)

About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.

 Did I know these were existential books? Probably not. I did, after all, read Camus’ Plague without realising it was a metaphor for the German occupation of France. I learned that later, but never got round to finding out what existentialism was. Here was my chance…
Well, existentialism could be summed up by “existence precedes essence”, which even Bakewell says “gains in brevity [but] loses in comprehensibility”. Right. So let’s go back to phenomenology, out of which the e-word came. The brief description of this by Husserl is “to the things themselves”, which it took Husserl 87 volumes to explain. I’m not planning to live long enough to read them. All this lot are long-winded. Sartre, the key person in this book, was asked to write an introduction to a book of essays by Genet. He sent 700 pages, which might have been a tad long, so his publisher turned it into Sartre’s well-known Saint Genet book.
Bakewell’s title, however, is a bit misleading. I expected to be thrown into the world of cafes, of Juliette Gréco , of black polo-neck sweaters (I bought one specially) – we were, but also thrown into the much darker world of Heidegger. In fact the third chapter, twenty-four pages, was all about him and we weaved back and forth to him later, not least his involvement with the National Socialists. Though he had an affair with Hannah Arendt and pre-war friendships with other Jews, he never recanted on his support for the Nazis. His followers only needing an apology before they would accept him back into the fold. And he did have followers, acolytes. One early fan remarked about a lecture that Heidegger had “given us a glimpse into the foundation of the world… manifest in an almost aching brilliance.” But why did he not recant? Perhaps he just being true to himself. These Nazis, eh?
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As an exercise in group biography At the Existentialist Cafe is brilliant. In comes Colin Wilson, in comes James Baldwin, and also from Black America, in comes Richard Wright. And Sonia Orwell has a walk on part. The book is full of humour, for example when Heidegger gives a lecture to some shipping magnates in Bremen there is a huge ovation at the end. Brakewell interjects that perhaps it was simply because he had finished.#
Sartre and the others fell out with each other all the time. At one stage Sartre did a diagram to work out who was speaking to whom, which presumably also included who had been sleeping with whom. He and De Beauvoir were together, unfaithfully on both sides, for fifty-one years, but non-sexually after the first eight or so years. De Beauvoir revelled in her freedom and in sex. Sartre found it all a bit gloopy.
Sartre and De Beavoir also, in a sense, fell out with themselves, changing their own minds among others, particularly post-war when they became neo-Stalinists, somewhat at odds with their ideas of freedom. They fell out with Camus over their support for executions of French collaborators.
So what remains? Sartre is not so much read these days. Many of us have nostalgia for those Paris cafes in the period when we were actually still in short trousers. Visiting them now is not the same but De Beauvoir is still read – at least her 1949 book  Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is, not least by young people. Why? At our bookshop book group a young woman said it was because things have not changed, or not changed enough. People agreed. Though it was Sartre who encouraged, indeed pushed her to continue, it is perhaps De Beauvoir’s work that will be the lasting impact of that exciting philosophical movement created in a France still bleeding from the second world war and which was convulsed by the resistance to Colonialism in Algeria and France.
Ross Bradshaw
At the Existentialist Cafe is available, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop 0115 8373097