Existentialist moods by Sarah Bakewell
3rd May 2016
If you’ve read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea or Albert Camus’s The Stranger you’ll know that Paris’s famous existentialists did not just write philosophical treatises: they liked conveying their ideas through stories. Perhaps the best novelist among them was Simone de Beauvoir, whose dramatic She Came to Stay and panoramic The Mandarins revolve around her existentialist notions of political and personal life. Other writers sprinkled existentialist spices into their fiction too, if only through Parisian settings or anguished moods. For existentialists, “mood” is itself a philosophical principle: it is through moods that we perceive and experience the world.
While researching At the Existentialist Café, I became fascinated by this network of influences in fiction, especially when it stretched across the Atlantic. Camus and Sartre modelled their work on earlier hard-boiled American detective fiction by writers like James M. Cain, or Horace McCoy – whose bleak, horrifying They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? gripped me so much that I couldn’t get back to the writing till I’d finished it. Later American writers then returned the favour by writing their own existentialist novels – like Richard Wright’s existentialist take on the black American experience, The Outsider. On the excuse of “doing research”, I came across a few novels so readable and moving that I’ve been urging them on people ever since – novels such as Patricia Highsmith’s Camus-esque The Tremor of Forgery, or Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a classic example of the 1950s tale of alienation and authenticity.
Here’s my selection of a few of these, plus some of the more famous existentialist novels and a few that are “in the mood”. For a wilfully perverse take on Liberation-era Paris, try Funeral Rites by Sartre’s friend Jean Genet; for sheer fun, try Mood Indigo by Boris Vian. Embrace the Angst - and enjoy!