Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were “king and queen of existentialism.” (Associated Press)

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.

‘At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” may come dressed in a seductive title, but Sarah Bakewell’s book about the people and ideas behind the existentialist movement is both breezy and brainy.

Bakewell demonstrated her ability to plumb big ideas for real-life relevance in “How to Live,” her 2010 biography of Michel de Montaigne, which won a National Book Critics Circle award. She brings the same lively intelligence to her latest work.

Here Bakewell traces a fascinating sort of philosophical relay of ever-mutating concepts — perception, being, authenticity, responsibility — against a backdrop of political upheavals. Her book explores the roots of existentialism and its impact in the 20th century in much the way Carl Schorske’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fin de Siècle Vienna” explored the birth of modern art and culture in late-19th-century Vienna.

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.

"At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others" by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)

We see the torch passed from Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard to Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers — and on to Bakewell’s three principal players, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. “Their philosophies remain of interest” she comments, “not because they are right or wrong, but because they concern life, and because they take on the two biggest questions: what are we? and what should we do?

Bakewell lucidly breaks down dense philosophical texts while avoiding the pitfalls of over-simplification. Discussing phenomonology, she explains clearly how Husserl laid the groundwork for Sartre and others: “If we are nothing but what we think about, then no predefined ‘inner nature’ can hold us back. We are protean.” From there it was but a short leap to existentialism’s enticing freedom of self-definition.

Bakewell is critical of both Heidegger and Sartre. She is understandably harsher on the former; even if you’re willing to ignore his refusal to explain or apologize for his Nazi sympathies, there is still the issue of his impenetrable prose and heartless personality. She offers a lively and frank discussion of her ambivalent feelings toward “the magician from Messkirch,” noting that in her 20s, she was so taken by him that he was the subject of a doctoral dissertation, later abandoned. Her reevaluation 30 years later is far more disapproving and colored by his Nazism.

Of Sartre, she notes his self-indulgence, slapdash writing, serial seductions and cavalier attitude toward fractured friendships. What she admires most about him is his character. (Character is precisely what Hannah Arendt, Heidegger’s onetime student and lover, said Heidegger lacked.) Bakewell extols Sartre’s goodness, courage, profound humanism and work ethic, adding these amusing tidbits: Fun-loving Sartre crooned jazz hits and did a mean Donald Duck imitation. Bakewell also lauds Merleau-Ponty, the cheerful phenomenologist who combined philosophy with studies of perception, psychology and childhood, noting his “instinct for the ambiguity and complexity of human experience” — an ability shared by Beauvoir, about whom she offers unstinting praise.

Bakewell calls Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” “the most transformative existentialist work of all.” She contends that this “pioneering feminist study” not only deserves to stand beside Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness,” but “in the canon as one of the great cultural re-evaluations of modern times,” right up there with Darwin, Marx and Freud. Why, then, was Beauvoir’s masterpiece never “elevated into the pantheon”? Bakewell’s answer is not altogether satisfying: She blames a hatchet job by Beauvoir’s first translator and insultingly sexist covers in English-language editions that made it “look like a work of soft porn.”

As for Sartre and Beauvoir’s unconventional 50-year open partnership , Bakewell argues — contrary to many biographers — that Beauvoir benefited at least as much as Sartre from the arrangement. Readers will find a more intimate portrait of the “king and queen of existentialism” in Hazel Rowley’s more gossipy “Tête-à-Tête.” Similarly, Elizabeth Hawes’s “Camus: A Romance” offers a more vivid account of the friendship and fallout between Sartre and Albert Camus.

“At the Existentialist Cafe” is most riveting in its report of the World War II years. During the occupation, existentialists — who believed above all in freedom and responsibility — were engaged and committed to the Resistance in their actions and their literature. But after the war, they were often at loggerheads politically. Torn between Marxist ideals and the realities of Soviet dictatorship, they were divided on an appropriate response to communism.

Among a panoply of riches, Bakewell offers fascinating anecdotes, including the heroics involved in saving Husserl’s papers during the war. Her chronicle of many lives cut short reveals an astonishing number of fatal heart attacks among existentialists — including Boris Vian, Richard Wright, Merleau-Ponty and Arendt — leaving readers to wonder if philosophy isn’t a heartbreaking enterprise after all.

Bakewell surely doesn’t think so. “Even when existentialists reached too far, wrote too much, revised too little, made grandiose claims, or otherwise disgraced themselves, it must be said that they remained in touch with the density of life, and that they asked the important questions. Give me that any day,” she declares in this rousing call to robust intellectual engagement.

At the Existentialist Cafe
Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

By Sarah Bakewell

Other Press. 424 pp. $25