Reading for the Conflicted: 11 Existential Classics

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Alexander Maksik’s new novel, You Deserve Nothing, is set in Paris and involves a dashing, charismatic teacher of romantic and existentialist authors who ends up starting a forbidden affair with one of his students. We thought he would be the perfect candidate to curate a list of 10 existential novels and one easily guessable play.

Maksik writes, “In the popular imagination, Existentialism is inextricable from left bank Paris café life – black turtlenecks, Les Deux Magots, Jean-Paul Sartre – but what I think of as the first great work of Existentialist fiction was written before Paris was even an idea. The Book of Job, the story of a man who suffers endlessly for no reason other than God’s whim. When Job has had enough and finally demands some explanation, God arrives and says, I’m paraphrasing here, Hey, did you make the world? No? Then sit down and shut up. Which is the biblical version of ‘because I’m the adult, I make the rules.’ So, in one way or another, the following novels all have their protagonists moving through similarly chaotic and unjust worlds, where there is no perfect logic, where there is no absolute morality, or reason and they are left to determine their own meaning in absurd and meaningless universes.”

If you’re in New York on September 10th, head over to Bar 82 for a round of Existentialist Trivia with Maksik. As always, send us your thoughts on classic existentialist texts in the comments section below.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

Cover by Olle Eksell

Port and Kit Moresby voyage from their home in New York to the North African desert, with Tunner, their friend and troublesome traveling companion. The novel unravels as Kit explores the area on her own, pushing herself to extremes. In his review in The New York Times, Tennessee Williams writes, “There is a curiously double level to this novel.” He continues, “The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura … intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.”

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

Faulkner uses multiple narratives to describe a prismatic view of life and fate in a small Southern town while Addie Bundren, the matriarch of the Bundren clan, lies on her deathbed. In his interview with the Paris Review, Faulkner says of the novel: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.”

The Immoralist by André Gide

“I have reached a point in my life where I can’t go on. It’s not a question of weariness — I no longer understand anything… Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is how to live with that freedom.” In the opening pages of the novel, Gide gives us the anguished voice of Michel, who searches for happiness in a past that cannot be found again.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1953)

As the narrator explains, “A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me.”

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

Josef K. is our humble protagonist who is arrested on the first page of Kafka’s unfinished novel; we never know his crime, and neither does he. When he asks at the station, the officers say, “We don’t answer questions like that.” What is a man to do but surrender to his fate?

Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1599-1601?)

The skull. The soliloquy. Death, despair, and fate. You know the story. It’s an existentialist classic.

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)

Jumpei Niki is a Tokyo entomologist who is on a mission to collect insects near a village by the sea. When he misses the last bus back, some locals invite him to stay the night, and when he agrees, he finds himself in a sandpit. He is not alone, however, because there is a woman there who is trying to shovel out sand in the Sisyphean task of keeping it at bay. He joins her in this hopeless mission, and eventually succumbs to his fate. (Note: fate is easier to succumb to when you find yourself living with an attractive woman.)

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.” Meursault is a Frenchman living in Algeria. He kills an Arab man in the first half of the novel, then discusses his arrest and imprisonment in the second half. In the afterword to the 1955 edition, Camus writes, “A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical. ‘In our society, any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game … He refuses to lie.”

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

The novel begins with the opening lines: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing of at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.” What could be troubling with our unnamed narrator, our Underground Man? Existence, of course!

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Antoine Roquentin cannot complete his research because he is vanquished by a sickness that envelops him, and its name is existential angst. He writes, “I must be sick: there is no other way of explaining this terrible rage which suddenly overwhelms me. Yes, the rage of a sick man: my hands were shaking, the blood has rushed to my face, and my lips began to tremble.”

The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Became Real by Margery Williams (1922)

This book ruined childhoods. Do you remember how horribly depressing this story is, or have you already forgotten? The story goes: a child loves his stuffed rabbit so much, but when he recovers, the rabbit must be thrown out and then burned because it was exposed to whatever the illness was afflicting the child, although it is able to escape its fate by shedding a salty tear, and thus becoming “real.” The rabbit is then released into the wild and the boy moves on. In the end: meaning is meaningless, eh?