Julian Baggini at The Financial Times:
When a 26-year-old Iris Murdoch first read Jean-Paul Sartre, she marvelled at the excitement she felt: “I remember nothing like it since the days of discovering Keats and Shelley and Coleridge when I was very young!” Many have experienced a similar thrill on encountering existentialist philosophy, with its intoxicating mix of continental sophistication, intellectual angst and rousing calls to freedom. Sarah Bakewell was one of them but, like so many others, she found in time that the works she once devoured “remained on the far reaches of my bookcase, making it look like a spice shelf in a demiurge’s kitchen: Being and Nothingness, Being and Time, Of Time and Being, Totality and Infinity.”
Existentialism has come to be seen as something of a young person’s game, intoxicating and fresh in spirited youth but shallow and pretentious in sober maturity. Historically it also seems past its prime, having gone from being a radical new philosophy to just another movement in the history of ideas. No wonder, then, that Bakewell says: “It has become harder to revive that initial thrill.” Yet that is exactly what she has managed to do in a book that is a kind of collaboration between her exhilarated younger self and the more measured, adult writer she has become. These co-authors are as generous with each other as they are with their subjects, resulting in a work that is both warm and intellectually rigorous.