Books

Books in Brief

From portraits of French existentialists to thoughts on loneliness

AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

By Sarah Bakewell

Other, 439 pp., illustrated, $25

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These days, the word “existentialism” brings to mind black turtlenecks, French cigarettes, and a distinctly European sense of despair. But as Sarah Bakewell describes them in this vivid, vital group biography, existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, and Albert Camus were courageous free thinkers in an age of fascism, totalitarianism, and conformity. If the ideas they put forward no longer sound radical to us, it’s because of how thoroughly their worldview has triumphed; existentialism, she writes, played a role in almost all the great liberation movements of the period: “feminism, gay rights, the breaking down of class barriers, and the
anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles.”

Bakewell is a lover of philosophy but not a philosopher herself, which may explain why her prose remains lucid and warm no matter how challenging the ideas she’s dissecting. She brings wry humor to her subjects’ foibles, such as how Sartre, despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, actually found sex repellent (“a nightmarish process of struggling not to drown in slime and gloop”), but is clear-eyed in describing their more substantive failings (Heidegger’s Nazism, most notably, but also Sartre and Beauvoir’s postwar political misadventures). Despite their stumbles, the Paris-based existentialists strike Bakewell as good-hearted, even valiant, particularly Beauvoir, whose trailblazing feminist writing ranked her as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest intellectual chroniclers,” a voice of rare authenticity in an era that demanded one. When first reading the existentialists, Bakewell recalls that she was less attracted to their individual biographies than their theories; now, she writes, she’s changed her mind: “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.” Much to the great fortune of her readers, this book is richly populated with both.

THE LONELY CITY: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

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By Olivia Laing


Picador, 315 pp., illustrated, $26

“What does it feel like to be lonely?” writes Olivia Laing. “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Having moved from England to New York to be with a man who then ended their relationship, Laing recalls the embarrassment she felt about her aloneness — something much sadder than solitude, more like shame. Painfully aware that her neighbors could see into her lonely apartment, Laing comes to a realization — “I look like a woman in a Hopper painting.” Edward Hopper is one of the artists whose work and life Laing ponders in this thoughtful, meditative book, a blend of memoir and criticism that takes on the question of what loneliness means, and what it is for, and why we so often feel it so acutely when surrounded by others.

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Hopper (who apparently wasn’t crazy about being seen as the great painter of loneliness) portrayed it better than anyone, partly through the use of glass windows, which both reveal and separate the city’s solitary souls in his work. In subsequent chapters, Laing looks at the life and work of Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, among others, to probe the aesthetic, political, and psychological aspects of loneliness. Laing, who used group biography to examine the connections between alcoholism and literature in “The Trip to Echo Spring” (2014), here performs an almost magical trick: Reminding us of how it feels to be lonely, this book gently affirms our connectedness.

STRANGE GODS: A Secular History of Conversion

By Susan Jacoby

Pantheon, 512 pp., $29.95

Like many children in Catholic school, Susan Jacoby learned the story of Saul on the road to Damascus as a parable of religious conversion — a process of spiritual awakening, a transition from blindness to sight. It wasn’t until years later that she learned her father had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, a personal transition undertaken partly for the purpose of family harmony, partly to help him conquer a gambling addiction. Mid-century America, Jacoby notes, sustained a “civic assumption that choosing one’s religion is as much an American right as choosing one’s place of residence.” As for Jacoby, she ceased believing in her childhood God by her early teens (a choice somewhat less widely embraced in a country that remains wary of atheism).

In “Strange Gods,” Jacoby turns a respectful yet skeptical eye on a series of conversion dramas. For much of human history, she argues, converts switched religion under social or political pressure; more recently, it’s nearly always a result of intermarriage. Among the most fascinating stories are those that don’t fit either narrative: that of Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosophy student who became a Catholic nun in 1933, which didn’t save her from being killed at Auschwitz; or Muhammad Ali, whose 1964 decision to join the Nation of Islam confused and even enraged white sportswriters and boxing fans. Half a century later, Jacoby points out, Ali is beloved — in part, she argues, because of a choice that represented “our most cherished traditions exalting freedom of conscience.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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