At the Existentialist Café

  • by Sarah Bakewell
  • Narrated by Antonia Beamish
  • 14 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, 'You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'
From this moment of inspiration, Sartre will create his own extraordinary philosophy of real, experienced life - of love and desire, of freedom and being, of cafés and waiters, of friendships and revolutionary fervour. It is a philosophy that will enthral Paris and sweep through the world, leaving its mark on post-war liberation movements, from the student uprisings of 1968 to civil rights pioneers.
At the Existentialist Café tells the story of modern existentialism as one of passionate encounters between people, minds and ideas. From the 'king and queen of existentialism' - Sartre and de Beauvoir - to their wider circle of friends and adversaries including Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Iris Murdoch, this audiobook is an enjoyable and original journey through a captivating intellectual movement.
Weaving biography and thought, Sarah Bakewell takes us to the heart of a philosophy about life that also changed lives, and that tackled the biggest questions of all: what we are and how we are to live.

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What the Critics Say

"At the Existentialist Café takes us back to...when philosophers and philosophy itself were sexy, glamorous, outrageous; when sensuality and erudition were entwined.... [Bakewell] shows how fascinating were some of the existentialists’ ideas and how fascinating, often frightful, were their lives. Vivid, humorous anecdotes are interwoven with a lucid and unpatronising exposition of their complex philosophy.... Tender, incisive and fair." (Jane O’Grady, Daily Telegraph)
"This lucid study of the existentialists picks out some overlooked figures and exposes the sexual hypocrisies of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre." (Jane O’Grady, Sunday Telegraph)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Existentialism and Phenomenology

I came to this knowing a little about Sartre from 35 years ago, and thinking that it might be a fairly light recounting of him and his times (including the famous relationship with de Beauvoir). It does cover those topics, but much, much more. Bakewell's work gives a wider view of Existentialism and it's roots in Phenomenology. So if you have an interest in these things (and perhaps that is a given, if you're reading this review) I can highly recommend this book.
The sections can be quite long (my attention span is not what it was) so may need judicious choices about when to have that cup of coffee (or perhaps the apricot cocktail). Bakewell is clear about differences between the proponents and why they fell out when they did. Her summaries are from her own opinions, and not always quite how I expected her to feel. De Beauvoir, in particular, is given good coverage in what is otherwise a very male domain.
Antonia Beamish does an excellent job of the narration, helping to maintain the clarity that I'm sure Bakewell put there.
So if you might like to know how Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Murdoch and all the other Names interacted and influenced one another, this is an excellent book to come to.
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- Liz... Bristol

Who was Merleau-Ponty again?

What made the experience of listening to At the Existentialist Café the most enjoyable?

Just when you were about to give up on understanding what EXACTLY Existentialism was again, and who is who, and whether it is a proper -ism in its own right, anyway; and what ticks the boxes to still qualify as Existentialist and not fall to Mindfulness or Zen, you might get lucky and have Sarah Bakewell's book fall on your foot. I happened to be wrestling with Kierkegaard and not to mention Heidegger when this book came to my rescue. I knew zilch about Beauvoir, but Sartre had once been my first love/hate. The book helped ground everybody in their successive seat, favorite beverage in hand, SO THAT they could flow forth all the better as authentic and original sources, pooling together into something more free than philosophy might be able to fathom for you! All this the book did for me, sweeping out the cobwebs of my mind during my 1,5 hr morning walk every day, for a little under two weeks.

The narration is sublime! But also, what made it fun for me was how the author seemed to have gone down a similar path to mine, discovering Sartre in her late teens, relating to his neuroses as a Weltbild one could easily become subjected to, and then meandering (boldy) off course to discover (all) the other Existentialists; often struggling to decide on those who are even properly Existentialist (Shall we include Kierkegaard? Can we forget Jaspers?)... then ending up with the notion that Existentialism may be the one philosophy that cures you of all philosophising and returns you to living life. Long live Merleau-Ponty in that sense! Who's that?! I barely knew but was most charmed to make his acquaintance. By no means a "dark horse", but a white knight who comes out trumps in the end! Needless to say, we must give an honorable mention to the noble effort of Beauvoir - but she doesn't quite get my cigar. I understand better why I had never read anything by her, and also why my mother (a woman wishing to be like Audrey Hepburn, but stuck in suburbia) could not afford to like her: I wholeheartedly second almost everything she said! So by the time I, a free-floating northen European, was ready for her in the eighties, she seemed too dated (when it comes to the feminist issues).

All this I discovered in the large nutshell Bakewell creates for us. Even Colin Wilson and the Matrix (very briefly!) gets put into context, and CONTEXT here is the big, unique word. Sarah Bakewell enables retention of the Existential material by letting us witness its birth - or non-birth..... Then it dawns on you, are not all philosophies BIRTHED? And is the rest not just TRUTH? Thereby quite accessible to any FREE thinker? And so you too become an Existentialist (hopefully minus the fascist or communist or neurotic traits it also connotes). At that point, you enter the gap between Phenomenology and Existentialism, into a very Taoist non-doing sweet spot. Thinking must be taken out of the doing-realm. From this point onwards you will best know who you are and what you are meant to DO. Indeed, such birthing and eternally elusive non-birithing not infequently takes place in a café (be it over coffee or cocktails depending on the place and time in history). Somewhere, where even the least carnal incarnates CONNECT. Subsequently the philosophies go on to live their own (literary) lives and develop along as many paths as there are books, essays articles dedicated to them. This book takes care to remind us that philosophy as a thinking-art is never abstract (although some of it deals in abstractions). It lends it a human head and never severs it from its feeding ground: the Zeitgeist.

In short, it never feels like you are reading a book ON philosophy but rather on what goes into making philosophers, who then go on to propound philosophies. This becomes very much a critical point for Heidegger -whose thinking finally became transparent to me and to whom I found myself developing a very similar relationship as did the author; not quite love-hate but problematically respectful, until half-way through utterly scornful, to now re-negotiably purposeful to resetting robotic minds. Above all, from reading Bakewell I had to label Heidegger with Autism, which gave me much food for thought, since it shows how no mean philosophy (mode of thinking) might go on to live a life of its own in some kind of "miasmic" manner (of collective-unconscious becoming conscious of what you think...). Much of Heidegger's last work is now echoed in conservative spiritual science circles. Some of it sounds valid, but sophisticated interpretation and elegant presentation will be key! I am not sure Heidegger's "turning" came from best-faith (see Sartre), either....


What other book might you compare At the Existentialist Café to, and why?

It is nothing like Plato and Platypus who walked into a bar! Some of Gary Lachman's books help contextualise spiritual thinkers (borderline philosophers) and offer thereby access to deeper insights. I mention him, and not any irritating populist philosophers (I won't mention any names) because Bakewell does not read as a populist philosopher - I generally steer clear of them. She made me wonder, how better to write about Existentialism as LIVED by a woman, than in this manner?

Make no mistake however, this book never becomes a "popular read" which might make you feel talked down to on the "thinking for yourself" front. On the contrary. The book leaves you very FREE to think exactly as you please, merely reminding you, in the meantime, not to slip into handy philosophical maxims: keep their subjective contexts in mind first and foremost. This book does not aim to reach temporary solutions or propose meanings of life. Life, in the end, as far as thinking is concerned, is all about people and their relationships determine life's net. I might even mention Iris Murdoch, here, who seems sympathetic to (or was exposed to, at least) the Existentialist matter. (In any case, I was prompted to re-read her, curious since she is one of Bakewell's favorite fictional authors.)

There are other authors who have (probably) a life-long passion for their subject matter who just WRITE, regardless of category or specialist qualifications. You might just as well think of Anthony Beevor or Dave Galgut, who take a part of (real) history or narrative tradition (fiction) and present l it through the persepective of either specific events or a (number of) person(s). In the end, these are very competent writers with something very specific to tell about specific individuals (Beevor tries to keep us aware of the fact wars are fought by individuals; likewise Bakewell introduces peripheral individuals who turn out to be crucial to the WHOLE of Existentialism.)


What does Antonia Beamish bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

After all, this is still a philosophical book, of some substance (and many pages) and to help you return to it every morning anew, you have the excellent narration of Antonia! Great, friendly voice, but above all perfect intonation, making it effortless to remain concentrated and otherwise emotionally engaged with the characters.


If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

First watch the films Sarah mentions at the end of her book.


Any additional comments?

By the way, one ends up feeling less guilty about not having read all of Sartre: he sounds excessively long in the tooth and one cannot help wonder if he might have been unbearably neurotic by our modern standards. It must be said, that I remain a Camus fan, and I still don't get what the anti-Camus sentiment OR anti-Sartre sentiment, for that matter, was all about....One might have to be more politically interested to get these finer points. The tiff between Camus and Sartre was finally clarified for me, the one between Koestler and Sartre/Beauvoir less so. Bear in mind philosophers are seldom chirpy and frivolous...

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- Aquilina Christophorus

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-06-2016
  • Publisher: Audible Studios