10 French Classics: Books to Read


 

If I had to choose one favorite pastime, it would have to be reading. I’ve loved to read ever since I was a young child, and I have so many great memories of curling up with a book, and getting swept away by the stories. I love to read so much that I got my Masters degree in Literature!

The French are known all over the world for many things: the food, the wine, their style, and of course, their literature. There are so many French classics to choose from, that it was actually very difficult for me to narrow down my list to just 10.

But, I think I’ve come up with a great assortment of books that you should add to your “to be read” lists. Get ready to take notes…here are my favorite 10 French classics that you need to read!

1. The Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault

Tales

Cover of The Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault; translated and edited by Charles Welsh, 1901 – WikiCommons

I’ll be honest and admit that I had no ideas that The Tales of Mother Goose was originally in French! It’s one of those books of fairy tales that I think you all have read, and if not…you’ve probably heard a story or two from the collection anyways!

The book was originally published in 1696, so if this isn’t a classic I’m not sure what is. Stories inside include Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

The author, Charles Perrault, is known as one of the very first to write down folk tales that had been passed down over the years, and turn them into a new genre called “fairy tales.” In French, the book is called Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (Stories or tales from the past, with moralities) or Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of my mother the Goose).

My favorite quote: “To sleep a century of peaceful dreams, And then, to better dreams, awake again! Such wait is joy, however long it seems. A long delay brings even greater bliss; The greatest bliss must suffer long delays.” – Sleeping Beauty, The Tales of Mother Goose

2. The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

The first edition of Les Fleurs du mal with author's notes

The first edition of The Flowers of Evil with Baudelaire’s notes – WikiCommons

Charles Baudelaire is a household name across France, and in many places all over the world. He is known for translating Edgar Allen Poe’s writings into French, and for being fairly morbid and dark in his own right.

The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal) is a book of poems that focus on themes such as sex, death and morality. Baudelaire lived and worked in Paris in the middle to late 19th century, and at the time, these sort of themes were taboo. The French government went so far as to label the book “obscene.”

When the book was first published, most of society rejected Baudelaire and his poetry. That being said, other writers and artists immediately loved his work, and he gained a small following. Today, it is studied in schools across France and in other countries!

My favorite quote: “My heart is lost; the beasts have eaten it.”

3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Christie's

First galley proof of À la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann with handwritten revision notes by Marcel Proust which was auctioned by Christie’s – WikiCommons

In one of the most epic novels in history, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), Marcel Proust shares stories of his childhood and adolescence while growing up in the aristocratic world of Paris. This novel stretches out over 7 volumes, and is the longest novel ever published. The longest sentence ever published is also included, at 847 words!

This French classic was an instant hit as soon as it was published, however, when Proust sought a publishing company to release it, he was turned down multiple times. Eventually he decided to publish the book himself.

This novel is so widely read, that a French expression came out of it. “La madeleine de Proust” (Proust’s madeleine) references a section in the novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way, in which Proust reminisces about the times in his childhood that his mother would serve him madeleines (a small French cake) and tea. Every time he eats a madeleine, he is transported back to these moments. Do you have a “madeleine” of your own?

My favorite quote: “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.”

4. Indiana by George Sand

George Sand

The cover of Indiana by George Sand – WikiCommons

George Sand is actually the pen name for a woman named Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Sand was born in 1804, and at the time women just didn’t become respected writers. There were of course some women who had their work published, but it wasn’t taken seriously. That’s why Sand decided to go by a man’s name.

Indiana is widely considered her masterpiece. It was the first novel she ever published under the name George Sand, and it tells the story of a woman who is unhappily married. Life imitates art, or should I say, art imitates life, as Sand herself was stuck in an unhappy marriage herself.

The novel isn’t technically autobiographical, but it’s clear that Sand drew inspiration from her own life.

My favorite quote: “I was born to love – but none of you wanted to believe it, and that misunderstanding was crucial in forming my character. It’s true that nature was strangely inconsistent in giving me a warm heart, but also a face that was like a stone mask and a tongue that was heavy and slow. She refused me what she bestowed freely on even the most loutish of my fellow men. . . . People judged my inner character by my outer covering, and like a sterile fruit, I withered under the rough husk I couldn’t slough off.”

5. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Cosette

Young Cosette sweeping: 1886 engraving for Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables by Émile Bayard – WikiCommons

If you haven’t recognized any of the author’s that I’ve referenced so far, I’m almost positive that you’ve heard of Victor Hugo! In addition to writing Les Misérables, Hugo also penned the now turned Disney classic, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Do the names Esmeralda and Quasimodo ring any bells?!

Les Misérables was first published in 1862, and Hugo spends most of the novel talking about social injustices in France, specifically in Paris, at the time. Hugo was passionate about raising awareness of the working class conditions in Paris, as at the time most poor people in the city were barely surviving in the crowded slums.

Hugo’s work was so powerful, and so widely read, that the issues he brings up in the novel (over crowded housing, poor working conditions and high crime rates in the slums) were discussed at the National Assembly the year Les Misérables was published.

My favorite quote: “Not being heard is no reason for silence.”

6. The Stranger by Albert Camus

L’Étranger

L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus – WikiCommons

The Stranger (sometimes called The Outside, L’Étranger in French), is arguably Albert Camus’ most well-known novels. It tells the story of the main character Meursault, who is  a French man living in Algeria. Camus clearly drew inspiration from his own life, as he was  French, but grew up in Algeria.

Oddly enough, the book almost didn’t get published. Camus finished the oeuvre in 1941, during World War II. In addition to food shortages, France was also experiencing a shortage of something very necessary for publishing a book: paper.

In the end, Camus’ publisher was able to find enough paper to print 4,000 copies of The Stranger. Today, over 10 million copies of Camus’ masterpiece have been sold!

My favorite quote: “I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”

7. The Lover by Marguerite Duras

L'Amant

Book cover for L’Amant (1984) by Marguerite Duras – WikiCommons

Marguerite Duras is another French writer that grew up in what used to be a French colony: Vietnam (at the time, French Indochina). When Duras was 17 years old, she decided to move to France in order to go to university. She earned her degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.

The Lover (L’Amant) was published in 1984, and is one of Duras’ most successful novels. It one the Prix Goncourt in 1984 as well, which is a prestigious honor given to French literature. 

It tells the story of a French woman who falls in love with a much younger Chinese man. If you know anything about Duras’ personal life, you will recognize that it is semi-autobiographical. Duras had several relationships with men that were much younger than her over the course of her life.

My favorite quote: “Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn’t understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness. And that he can never move fast enough to catch her.”

8. The Beast Within by Émile Zola

The Beast Within

Lithography announcing the publication of La Bête humaine in the newspaper La Vie populaire, Champenois, 1889 – WikiCommons

Much like the other authors on my list, Émile Zola is a household name in France. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902, and he penned the now famous J’accuse…!, an open letter to the French president denouncing the fact that he had wrongly accused a Jewish man named Alfred Dreyfus for collaborating with the Germans in 1894.

In addition to his involvement in this famous case, he also penned a 20 volume series that follows the lives of two French families in the 19th century. The series is called Les Rougon-Macquart, and the 17th volume is called The Beast Within (La Bête humaine).

The volume is centered around the main character, a man named Lantier. Lantier has long struggled with mental illness, and has even wanted to murder different women on several different occasions. The story is a commentary on an evil that can exist within the most unlikely of people. 

My favorite quote: “Don’t go looking at me like that because you’ll wear your eyes out.”

9. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Le Père Goriot

Title page engraving from an 1897 edition of Le Père Goriot, by an unknown artist – WikiCommons

Honoré de Balzac was a French writer and playwright who is known for his volume of novels called La Comédie Humaine. Inside, he examines life in France post-Napoleon Bonaparte. Balzac is generally considered as one of the founders of realism in French literature.

Le Père Goriot is one of the novels featured in La Comédie Humaine. It is centered around three main characters: Goriot, an elderly man, Vautrin, a criminal, and Eugène de Rastignac, a law student. All three characters appear in other novels in the series.

Many critics and scholars consider Le Père Goriot to be one of Balzac’s best works. The main theme of the book is the advancement of the three characters within French society during the Bourbon Restoration, which is the period in French history after the fall of Napoleon in 1814.

My favorite quote: “I’m a great poet. I don’t put my poems on paper: they consist of actions and feelings.”

10. Candide by Voltaire

Voltaire Candide

An excerpt from Candide by Voltaire – WikiCommons

Voltaire is one of the most important French writers in history. “Voltaire” is actually the pen name for François-Marie Arouet, and interestingly enough, no one really knows where the pen name came from.

Voltaire is also known for his involvement in the Enlightenment movement in Paris, his obsession with coffee (he reportedly drank 40 cups a day), and his love of animals (he was a vegetarian before it became a “thing”).

He is also known for his novella Candide. In English, it is sometimes translated as Candide: Optimism. The novella tells the story of the main character, Candide, a man who is living what seems to be the perfect life. He removes himself from his idyllic situation in order to experience “real life,” and is shocked to learn of the suffering and pain other people can feel. The novella offers an interesting perspective of the human condition.

My favorite quote: “Let us cultivate our garden.”

Conclusion

I hope you’ve got some new books to add to your reading lists, or maybe you’ve already read all of the books on my list! Lucky you, if that’s the case. You’ve officially read all of my favorite French classics!

Get comfortable, and get to work. You should have enough titles to satisfy you for at least a few months.

If you are in Paris and are interested in learning more about famous French authors, artists and personalities, I encourage you to join one of our walking tours! Click here to learn more and make your booking. Until then…happy reading!

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