At the Existentialist Café is 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.
...[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.
This latest book is a skillful history of the existentialist milieu. Fascinating and well written, it will help many readers discover the likes of Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. Unfortunately, its biggest claim, that these writers are once again relevant, remains seriously underdeveloped...Nonetheless, the liveliness and force of Bakewell’s book constitutes an argument of its own.
Bakewell writes with a sunny disposition and light touch that are sometimes at odds with the fact that many of these thinkers suffered from severe poverty and illness (both physical and mental) and that their works were written in response not only to personal suffering but to horrors such as the Holocaust, gulags and Algerian War. With that said, she 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.
Sarah Bakewell’s previous book was an engaging biography of Montaigne that was also a subtle exposition of Montaigne’s writings. Its audacious title was 'How to Live,' and her new book deserves to be read as a further study in the same enlivening theme.
At the Existentialist Café is in fact much more than an 'existentialism light' primer. It is also a sensitive analysis of individuals and of the interplay of personalities against the backdrop of intense and fraught intellectual times ... The story of Heidegger’s trip to Greece in At the Existential Café is just one of many telling anecdotes Bakewell recounts that capture a fundamental, or perhaps touching, aspect of the personality or limitations of one of her protagonists ... As readable and stimulating as it is, At the Existential Café does have its occasional flaws. These are due primarily to the vast sweep of Bakewell’s narrative. The need to summarize quickly and succinctly does lead on occasion to oversimplifications ... Occasional shortcomings such as this are negligible given the extraordinarily rich tapestry of thinkers, ideas, historical events, and the play of personalities Bakewell brings (back) to life.
For the most part, Bakewell deftly juggles multiple, often conflicting philosophies and personalities over a span of more than seven decades, even if at times she tries to squeeze too many people around a jam-packed table...[A] rousing call to robust intellectual engagement.
[Bakewell] is here at once a neighborly presence and scarily in command of cerebral magnitudes. She consumes with ease a vast menu of some of the most undigestible theory ever served up (so we don’t have to) — Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heidegger — then delivers elegantly compressed postprandial recaps. Many readers will identify with her admission of scholarly failure, though not with her subsequent mastery of a dizzying amount of literary, political, historical, and philosophical knowledge.
This lively history of the existentialist movement makes a strong, if sometimes disorienting, case for the inextricability of philosophy and biography, embedding dense concepts—such as 'being,' 'nothingness,' and 'bad faith'—in the colorful lives and milieus of those who debated them.
Like the Parisian cafés it is modeled on, Ms. Bakewell’s book is sometimes overcrowded and hectic. But for those who have time to sit and think, it is crammed with interest and rich in atmosphere. At its heart is a clear understanding of the relation between philosophy and biography...By the end of her book, it is clear that an understanding of philosophy cannot be separated from the lives that defined it.
While other biographies have been written about these characters Bakewell’s book weaves together an ambitious number of stories and complicated concepts in an unusually vibrant, erudite, and compulsively readable manner.