London-based author Sarah Bakewell is notorious for the deep research she puts into creating all-encompassing intellectual histories. Her previous work, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, was the recipient of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle award for biography, and Bakewell’s work has since arrived at a new critical plateau: she masterfully combines storytelling with highly theoretical ideas, which she distills into tangible concepts. Kirkus Reviews awarded her latest book, At the Existentialist Café, a star for concocting “a fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.” In fact, Bakewell revels in existentialist thinking, particularly that of its most prominent theorists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and many more. We spoke with her about dead pigeons, philosophical quarrels, and Paris.
The thinkers, artists, and writers you write about constituted a community that relied heavily on certain meeting places to exchange ideas. What is your relationship to these locations?
Parisian cafés come to mind with the French existentialists—the Café Flore, the Deux Magots, the Bar Napoléon. There were lots of less famous ones, too, such as the now-vanished Bec-de-Gaz bar where a young Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had the conversation that first sparked their interest in trying a new kind of philosophy. I loved retracing their steps while writing the book. But I also did my best to remember that they sought out cafés not for the atmosphere but mostly because they were places to keep warm, at a time when everyone was living in cheap, horrible rented rooms. It just happened that cafés and nightclubs also opened up a great social realm where you could make friends, argue, and flirt, as well as read and write. These days, perhaps the “existentialist cafés” are to be found online, where we spend so much time connecting with others and maybe arguing with them. It’s certainly a different forum, and it’s flawed of course, but at its best it opens up great worlds of thought and conversation.
You describe an aging Jean-Paul Sartre as “self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered,” yet you still have a lot of affection for him. What sparked that affection?
Ha, and not only an aging Sartre—he was like that when he was young too! He can be overwhelming on the page, and he was often weird. He had obsessions with lobsters, jellyfish, trees, viscous fluids and fruit, and he brought all this into his philosophy as if he expected everyone to recognize themselves in it. His politics were all over the place. He changed his views every few years and never settled on beliefs that really satisfied himself or anyone else. But these are also the qualities that intrigue me about him. He never let himself rest with easy solutions, but tried to pursue each new thought as far as it would go. He battled with everyone, but also had a great generosity. He wrote reams of material, often to help other people or to support their cause; he and Simone de Beauvoir were still going out on marches in old age, and they supported several friends financially for years. Sartre was famous for his “engagement” with others’ lives in general. Although I don’t always find him a good example to follow in life, I always find him an interesting thinker, and this attracts me more than one who is purely admirable and right all the time.
Of all the heavyweight writers and philosophers discussed here—Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch, James Baldwin, Martin Heidegger, etc.—Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tend to loom the largest. What led you to focus on them?
I was determined not to let them take over completely, and I brought in as many other thinkers as I could. My aim was to explore how they all affected each other. One of my favourites was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an outstanding philosopher of the body and the senses. He gets a whole chapter to himself, and is the only one to do so. Yet, in the end, both Sartre and Beauvoir are just such rich subjects: they wrote so much, had so much to say about the events of their time. I especially love Simone de Beauvoir’s multivolume autobiography, which I return to again and again. She writes about their quarrels, their ideas, but also her travels, her experience of everyday life, and just the sheer stunning amazement of finding herself alive in the world.
What was the most surprising piece of information you uncovered while researching post–World War II Parisian intellectual life?
Well, I was amazed to learn how close France came to revolution at times (notably in 1947), and just how terrifying were the Cold War fears—of uprisings, of persecution, or of a new world war or an atomic conflagration. An example of an incident completely new to me was France’s “pigeon plot” of 1952, which was what radicalized Sartre to the extent of being pro-Soviet for a while. On the night of May 28 that year, a police squad stopped the French Communist Party leader Jacques Duclos in his car, searched it, and found two pigeons in a basket. They arrested him on suspicion of using carrier pigeons to take messages to the Soviets. Duclos pointed out that the pigeons were dead and therefore not much use for that purpose. He said he was taking them to his wife to cook for dinner. They took him in, and the next day conducted an autopsy on the pigeons to search for microfilm—which wasn’t there. Despite a lack of further evidence, Duclos was kept in jail for a month, with artists and writers campaigning for him—Louis Aragon wrote a poem about the pigeon plot. Sartre said that the harassment of Duclos changed his mind about communism entirely. “This was my conversion,” he said. “After years of ruminating, I had come to the breaking point.” Anyway, it was all new to me, and I loved digging up this story—partly because it helped me to understand what made Sartre so extreme during this period.
What are you currently working on?
It’s early days yet, and I’m full of curiosity about lots of things. So far, I’m loving the process of throwing out nets and seeing what they trawl in. But there will bea new project, and it’s the one I’m most excited about so far. Mind you, I feel that way every time.
Michael Valinsky is the Indie editorial assistant.