Right on the outskirt of Central Park’s fifth avenue at 79th street you will find the Albertine bookstore, where you can browse through a vast selection of French and Francophone literary works, original and translated, including the latest publications to come out in France.
Albertine is quite young as it came to be in 2014 sharing the building with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. As you might expect, Albertine is host to cultural events throughout the year, namely the Albertine Festival, running from November 5th to the 9th.
So seeing how I actively advertise events on Twitter and routinely update the calendar, yours truly finally managed to attend one of said events. And although I had not read the book in question, I had a pleasant time learning about the work and life of one of France’s most revered–or pedantic, we can differ on opinions–thinkers of the last century.
The book club took place in the marvelous Marcel Proust reading room–whose ceiling is pictured above–where about 30 people of all ages were in attendance. The discussion was moderated by Antonin Baudry, who I was surprised to find out is not just a former diplomat, but the graphic novel scenarist of the politically themed Quai d’Orsay (the commonly referred euphemism of the diplomatic wing of the French government). That’s cool, I’ll have to investigate on that later.
The subject of discussion was Jean-Paul Sartre Les Mots, The Words, an autobiography described by some as an « anti-memoir », partly because the veracity of the events presented in the book are disputed and because the book is a thematic deconstruction of Sartre’s psyche starting from his childhood throughout the self-described imposture of adulthood. Interestingly enough some French readers felt that the piece was an analogy of France, or rather of the perception of the French archetype as self-aggrandizing and yet self-deprecating, as non-French readers did not draw on this idea. Debatable.
Sartre’s most recognizable contribution to intellectual thought is the concept of « existentialism », and most of his literary works are devoted on expanding this brand of philosophy. Existentialism is, in very layman terms, existence which precedes essence and not the opposite. So what does that mean? Well, the way I understood it, is that there’s no inherent ascribed status, beside the one(s) we create for ourselves. A chair exists to be used as a chair, that is the essence of a chair because it is designed to be so. But a person? A person has to create his or her own meanings and values throughout life. Thus by this idea, there is no such thing as fate and we are slave to free will in tandem with the hazards of existence, there is no greater meaning but those we make for ourselves. Is this the basis of Sartre’s famous quote: « l’enfer, c’est les autres » (Hell is other people)? Well feel free to send your complains about possible and probable misinterpretations at email@example.com.
Les Mots is apparently different, since it is a less abstract and more personal, humanizing piece of literature, in which Sartre poses himself as both patient and therapist. If I followed the discussion attentively enough, Sartre’s influence of his worldviews came from his experience of World War II–notably the Nazi occupation of France–and his familial structure and history. He also did a bunch of speed, met Che Guevara and refused the Nobel Prize for literature ’cause that’s what being a total badass was like back in 1970s France.
Yea, I learned all that without even reading a page, how d’ya like that? So join the club, read a book, and come experience a one hour and a half of fruitful and interesting open conversation with interesting people who know a lot more than I do (and whom, by the way, might debate your points). The conversation was mostly in English, you can both read the book and participate in English or French, and no RSVP are required.
Oh! And refreshments are offered afterward.