Novels for Your Existential Crisis

THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel that parallels Plath’s own life after the death of her father. The plot follows Esther Greenwood, a young student from Massachusets who ends up in New York interning for a large magazine. She is showered with gifts and lives in an all-girls hostel. However, she seems quite numb to the life she leads. Following her internship, Esther is faced with more than a few of life’s hardships. She is almost raped on her last night in NYC, and she soon finds out that her former boyfriend had slept with a waitress during their relationship. Afterwards, she finds out that she has failed to take a place at her chosen writing class and ends up living with her mother for the summer. Soon, the depressive and numbing episodes, which Plath describes as The Bell Jar, that descended upon her in NYC come creeping back – and Esther attempts suicide multiple times after receiving electroshock therapy. From here, we see what it’s like living in and out of The Bell Jar. The metaphor is something I really agree on and have felt from time to time. I first read this novel in High School, and I’ve had a copy ever since. If you’re trying to cope with depression and its effects on your life, this book is a real gem. It’s also a great read if you’re struggling with your career and what you actually want to do in your life.

NAUSEA BY JEAN-PAUL SARTRE

This novel is from 1938, but in many ways, it can be likened to life events today. I read this book last year, and although it’s a tough one to get through, it’s really good at tackling the issues of disassociation and mental health.

Sartre was an influential philosopher at the time of publication, and his novels had previously explored nature, freedom, time and responsibility in one’s life. He helped to develop the theory of existentialism itself, and his novel Nausea is one of the most captivating novels to do with the theory.

The plot of the novel follows Antoine, who starts a diary in order to explain his Nausea. His experience with sickening sensations has been affecting him for a number of days, and he is unsure about the cause of such an affliction. It affects him so much, that after days of the feeling, he notes down every insignificant detail and thought that he has about the world around him in order to find the cause.

Soon after this, Antoine starts to see things. When he looks in the mirror, he sees the face of the man he is studying instead of himself and soon loses interest in studying altogether. After a while, Antoine starts to question the origin of his Nausea and understands that it is to do with his existence and his feelings of the world around him.
“I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realising happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together. ”

JUST KIDS BY PATTI SMITH

If you’ve ever experienced a relationship where you’ve known you’re not the one for them, but have carried on in the hopes of salvaging it, then this is the novel for you.

Just Kids explores Patti’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is one of my favourite photographers, and the work featured in his Polaroids Exhibition are among my all-time fave photographs in the world. It was such a great experience reading about him through Patti that I had to include this book on the list.

The narrative follows Patti as a young poet from New Jersey who ends up in New York without a penny to her name. Set pre “Before the Night” Patti is such an inspiration that it really helped when I was deciding what I wanted to do with my career. She was ballsy and out there and everything I wanted to be in a woman.

After meeting Robert in a bookstore, the duo rented a Brooklyn apartment and had a wild intimate relationship, fuelled by ambition.

“We were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it and I to save it.”

The rest is history, the two became famous and parted ways. The novel also charts Robert’s realisation of his sexuality, which only added to their painful love affair. During their years together, Mapplethorpe became a rent boy for extra income, and soon had a horde of men around him constantly. Despite this, Patti became upset with his social ascent. She couldn’t handle the views of those he associated himself with, and eventually, the relationship broke down.

On top of this dynamic, the novel charts Patti’s way to success and the overall outlook of NYC in the 70’s. It’s a great novel to escape into if you’re dealing with existential dread right now.

BONJOUR TRISTESSE BY FRANCOISE SAGAN

Translated to “Hello Sadness”, Bonjour Tristesse was published by 1954. It was written when the author was 18, and it became a huge hit around the world. So much so that the book was made into a film in 1958.

The plot follows Cecile, a young girl spending her summer in the French Riviera with her father, Raymond, and his mistress, Elsa. Elsa and Cecile get on relatively well, despite her father’s philandering on the side. Raymond excuses his ways by quoting Oscar Wilde:

“Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world. I believed that I could base my life on it”

Cecile follows in her father’s footsteps, and with her good looks, she woos older men before falling in love with Cyril, who occupies the villa next door.

Everything is going well until Anne arrives. Anne, a former lover of Raymond, wins him back and demands that Cecile takes up her studying again. In a bid to stop the marriage, Cecile embarks on a journey to end the marriage.

This isn’t completely a book that will help your impending dread in regards to the world, but it’s a really good read. I finished this novel in one night, it’s really well written and can really take you away from the shitstorm that is your life.

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