Reading for the Conflicted: 11 Existential Classics

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.”