Existentialist Novels

The summer months are ideal for making forays into neglected intellectual territories. Existentialist novels are traditionally reduced to two major works: Sartre’s Nausea (1938), a rich study of a character in search of historical as well as ‘existential’ truth and Camus’ The Outsider (1942), whose non-hero finds himself tragically involved in a murder case. But what characterises an ‘existentialist novel’ if not the quest for fundamental answers to perennial questions? In this respect, all of Dostoevsky’s works fit this description and the tormented souls of Raskolnikov or the Karamazov brothers are perfect examples of a certain state of abysmal anxiety coupled with an acute sense of personal responsibility. Great novels necessarily deserve to be called ‘existentialist’ since they encourage their reader to look at the world in a radically new perspective, far from the mountains of light, superfluous ‘reads’ chosen for long flights and lounging beach holidays.

Miguel Unamuno
Source: National Library of France, via Wikimedia Commons

A Spanish forerunner of modern existentialism, i.e. post Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Miguel Unamuno (1864–1936) explored what he called ‘the tragic sense of life’ in his essays but also in his plays and in a novel published in 1914, entitled Niebla (English: Mist). Like his contemporary, the Sicilian playwright, Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936), Unamuno questioned the tenuous links between reality and fiction. In Mist, his character Augusto Pérez rebels against his creator when the latter reveals to him that he is nothing but a fictitious entity. His dilettante’s life is spent in the mist of cigars’ smoke while he elaborates one arcane philosophical theory after another. Camus, whose Spanish origins, forged his Mediterranean temperament, certainly shared Unamuno’s disillusion at the loss of the divine. A new tragic dimension awaited man, turned both innocent and guilty in a world abandoned to the unpredictable vagaries of human nature. Where Unamuno rediscovered faith as the ultimate saviour, Camus advocated a positive resignation based on simple human decency.  

Another novel, The Indifferent (1929) by the Italian Alberto Moravia heralds the post-war Existentialist Era. The first novel of a most prolific writer and traveller, ‘The Indifferent Ones’ was completed by the young Moravia while convalescing from tuberculosis in an Alpine sanatorium. Casting a cruel eye at the hypocrisy of his upper middle-class background, Moravia shared Sartre’s detestation of bourgeois mentality. In his novel The Conformist (1951), adapted for the screen by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1970, Moravia’s Fascist protagonist, Marcello Clerici, undertakes a honeymoon trip 1930’s Paris, intent on assassinating his former Philosophy mentor, on the run from Mussolini’s henchmen. A cowardly man with no genuine political beliefs, Marcello accepts this inglorious mission, with the hope of gaining a modicum of self-esteem and the respect of his young wife. Torn between his perverse impulses and his desperate hankering after social conformity, Marcello cuts a pathetic figure enhanced by Moravia’s clinical, detached prose.

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