Book Club: At The Existentialist Café By Sarah Bakewell Chapter One *Spoilers*

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If you would like to purchase a copy of The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails to read along with us, you can find a copy here.


On the first day out with a few friends to Winchester after the lockdown, it rained. Excellent. With all of us loving books, we decided to hide within a Waterstones until the weather had passed. We were approached by the book keeper, who was clearly deeply passionate about his job and began a discussion with me about the books within the philosophy section. There, a white book caught my eye with the title, At the Existentialist Café; Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I had no clue that such a thing as apricot cocktails existed, so I purchased the book.

The author of the book, Sarah Bakewell, is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the university of Oxford, with other works, such as How to Live A Life: The Life of Montagne. She has had a fascination with philosophy, particularly the existentialists, since a young age but has rejected studying it in a formal setting. Part of the reasoning for this choice is founded from the Existentialists (the topic of the book) who focused partially on phenomenology and what it means to be alive. Overall, her approach to philosophy is unique and is reflected by this book.

The premise for the book is centred around a meeting between John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron at the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris in 1932. This is identified by Bakewell as a pinnacle point within the existentialist movement. She claims that it is the key moment where Sartre began to establish himself as one of the most influential philosophers of his time and as the founder of Existentialism. He proceeded to go on to travel the country, filling lecture theatres and halls with all those who wanted to listen to his philosophy. All of this motivation arose through Aron’s use of an apricot cocktail as a metaphor to illustrate ideas around being. It creates an intriguing basis for an exploration of Existentialism and the key figures within it.

The introduction of the book is lively, making you feel that you are thrown into the streets of Paris and the cafes that these philosophers would regularly frequent. It makes you engage with the strong philosophical tradition that can be traced back to Socrates of discussing pressing philosophical questions in public settings. This feeling illustrates perfectly the strengths of Bakewell’s untraditional approach to philosophy; she does not merely cover the facts but absorbs into an animated world that she is creating. Not only can you feel the philosophy culture of the time, but it gives a feeling of excitement and anticipation and that something exciting is about to happen. It is the perfect writing style for an introduction that motivates you to read the rest of the book. However, the most impressive thing is it matches the style of the existentialists. You get the feeling on being on the edge of what it is to be alive and a sense of the ‘Rock and Roll lifestyle’ that Sartre and Beauvoir led. Bakewell’s approach not only serves as an opening to make you read more, but also to emphasise the message of the existentialism. It is nothing short of genius.

My favourite part of the introduction is the examination of why existentialism became so prominent within culture. Sartre became the equivalent of today’s celebrities, selling out theatres and having to yell out over crowds in order to give his lectures. When compared to the image of philosophers today (old men with beards sat among dusty books) the fame of Sartre would be unrecognisable. However, Bakewell smoothly puts this popularity within the pressing context of the time. At the time of the development of Sartre’s writing, the world had seen two wars which had resulted in a suffering that the world had never seen before. Death was prominent throughout society, lingering around the corner, particularly for those who developed PTSD as a result. Such suffering left people questioning the existence of God. People wanted to abandon God as no loving God would have allowed the horrors of the wars. However, the Church had traditionally provided the guidance on how people should live. It created a new society with a vacuum in the middle. However, Sartre’s philosophy provided a new way of living and coping in a world that saw tragedy. Existentialism provided promising grounds for finding a way to cope with the belief that there was no God.

This part of the introduction makes the book one that could have significant impact on our society. We too have experienced a horrific tragedy. The pandemic has taken the lives of many in the worst way possible. For some, they will no longer be able to believe in a loving God when faced with the natural evil that is persisting within society. Revisiting the philosophy of the Existentialists may provide answers for many who feel the same vacuum as those who lived through the horrors of the wars. Bakewell’s book, as a book that is accessible to those who have no foundation within philosophy, may be able to provide this guidance.

The introduction of this book is thus excellent. However, this does not mean it doesn’t present any problems. I would have liked to have received more information about Beauvoir throughout the introduction. She was an excellent philosopher in her own right and Bakewell acknowledges that Beauvoir played an important role in Sartre’s life, both philosophically and romantically; they corresponded every day to discuss the ideas that they had come across and had an open relationship where both were the other’s primary partner. However, she is portrayed throughout the introduction as mostly a love interest or a spectator to the greatness of Sartre. She was a great philosopher in her own right, and I feel Bakewell could have emphasised that point better. The book could have been used to help erode the mostly male canon but Beauvoir was sidelined. However, this issue may be dealt with at a later point within the book.

The most prevalent problem with the introduction is the organisation. It is 35 pages long compared to all the others which are 25 pages long. This directly challenges the fast-paced tempo that Bakewell was attempting to build. It also jumps back and forth between bibliography, context and philosophy. I feel this could have been sharpened and streamlined in order to provide a more dynamic chapter. The study of philosophy is partially about condensing things into their simplest form and making them clear. Bakewell could have done more to ensure this. For instance, at the end of the chapter she attempts to define existentialism. This is not needed. As Bakewell acknowledges herself, there is no one definition of existentialism or phenomenology that can be provided, despite Bakewell’s attempt. A rough definition can also be inferred from the chapter and there are many other chapters that can be used to build up the picture of existentialism. Thus, certain areas of the introduction, like the end section, could have been reduced to make it more streamline.

With that being said, however, the genius outweighs the lack of organisation. As someone who has not read any Existentialism, it makes it engaging and fun to read. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the book holds and whether Bakewell can keep the same passion throughout the book?

Comment below how you found the introduction of the book. Do you agree with us that the introduction was excellent? Or do you think we missed something in our review?

If you would like to purchase a copy of The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails to read along with us, you can find a copy here.

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