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After falling in love with French literature, I went on to study French at Oxford University for a total of four years.
The French course at Oxford is heavily literature-based so I was able to read hundreds of French books, which includes most of the great French classics from the 16th through the 20th centuries.
Although it’s difficult to choose my favourites among all the works I read, here are 13 French classics you should definitely pick up. They are the crème de la crème of French literature.
Most of them are French novels that were published in the 19th Century, which I consider the golden age for French literature.
It was an interesting period in French history. There were many social, cultural, and political changes. Below are my top picks.
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The Best French Novels Ever
Best French Books – Marguerite Duras, one of France’s most respected and beloved female writers, is Marguerite Duras. Her novels are so beloved by me that I wrote my dissertation about them!
Lover Duras’ most renowned work is It is, (rather disturbingly), autobiographical. This story is set in French colonial Vietnam. It tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who falls for a Chinese businessman.
It has been often compared to Nabokov’s Lolita, and even called the Anti-Lolita.
The protagonist is the single mother’s daughter who is obsessed about money, status, and her place in society. She exploits her daughter’s relationship with the weatherman to her advantage.
Although it’s a bit messy, it’s a fascinating read.
Duras is my favourite French author and is a great place for you to begin if you are looking to explore modern French literature.
This list includes a majority of classic French novels, so this novel stands out from the rest.
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Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary was one of the most famous French novel ever written. It was Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel and was published in 1850s.
Madame Bovary is the main character. She’s a woman who wants more.
She is always striving to achieve a higher social standing, grand romantic gestures, beautiful objects, and more. Although she hopes this is what Charles Bovary’s marriage will bring her, he fails to live up to her expectations and so does her whole life.
As Emma Bovary tries to live up to her unrealistic expectations of herself, we watch her character grow. Although I found her unlikable, she is a typical type of character that was popular in the past and still is today.
This novel is one of the most important French novels, and should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about French literature. Flaubert is considered to be one the most influential French novelists and one of the most important writers . His novel offers fascinating insights into nineteenth-century French society.
This novel combines romanticism and realistism. It may appeal to readers who are more interested in literary style than plot.
Candide looks a lot like the adult edition of The Little Prince. Voltaire, one of France’s most important philosophers, wrote this picaresque novel.
It may seem like a story of romance and discovery, but it’s really a serious commentary about French society in the 18th century.
Candide was a short tale that became a serious literary genre. This is because the writers disguised their philosophical and didactic intentions behind the short story format.
Voltaire used a traveller to show two worlds, and allows for innocent questioning about unknown ideas.
This story is available in two versions: readers can enjoy it as a short story or dig deeper to discover Voltaire’s harsh criticisms of society. These are still funny and relevant today.
This book is the shortest on the list, and it’s a great place for beginners to learn about classic French literature.
The Stranger is a staple of French education and is considered one of the greatest modern French novels. It is also one of the most well-known French books in English.
Camus’s short story is a tale of a man whose life is interrupted by the loss of his mother.
He doesn’t seem particularly affected by her passing, he doesn’t even cry. However, society later judges him for his lack of emotion and decides his fate.
Camus’s best example of philosophy of absurdity is in this. Camus says that the hero in the book is punished because he doesn’t play the game.
Camus calls him a “stranger” in society, and he uses Camus to criticise social norms as well as those members of society who discredit those who don’t follow them.
This is the kind of novel that you need to read multiple times in order to fully grasp all the details. However, it is absolutely worth the effort. Although it is short, the book is full of questions that will change your view of justice and society.
Dangerous Liaisons by Choderos de Laclos
You may have seen the 1988 movie of the same title and know Dangerous Loisions. Stars include Uma Thurman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Capaldi.
Another popular 1999 adaptation, Cruel Thoughts, starred Sarah Michelle Gellar & Reese Witherspoon. The movie is still better than the ebook!
Dangerous Liaisons tells the story of debauchery and decadence amongst the French aristocracy. It’s set in the years prior to the French Revolution. It is about seduction and playing games with their boredom.
Two former lovers are the main characters. They pick innocent targets and challenge one another to seduce them. The game that started as a manipulation game soon leads to more serious consequences than either of them could have imagined.
Best French Books – The Second Sexe and Le Deuxieme Sexe are considered the bible of Western feminism. Although translations are fraught with problems, The Second Sex is still read by generations of women in the UK and USA.
It is a non-fiction title written in two volumes in which Beauvoir examines the history of women’s treatment.
Although it is quite large, the book is well worth the effort for its vast range of historical perspectives and periods. She covers everything from Ancient Greece to Rome, and then explores the role of women in history, literature, and the home.
While some parts may be abstract, others result from de Beauvoir’s research into science and biology as well as the female body.
While there has been some progress over the past century, the fact that a text like this is still relevant and current today shows how far we have come.
Anyone who is a feminist or is interested in gender equality should read this.
The Immoralist looks at the case of a husband and wife with children, means, and careers. It examines how they are caught up in a complex web of interrelated relationships and responsibilities.
He sees his entire life as a hypocritical sham, and he abandons everything in pursuit of his authentic, homosexual self.
This was at most the main drama in Gide’s life, so it is not surprising that many readers associate him with his hero.
The Immoralist is a simple but profoundly ironic tale where the first-person narrator uncovers the moral ambiguities in life through seemingly innocent reminiscences. It tells the story of Michel’s journey to self-discovery, which he does at once in thoughtful and foolish ways, and it costs him his wife and his marriage.
This story is important because it examines the relations between French Algerian citizens and French France, an essential part of French recent history.
Gide also considers the style important. He uses the first-person short story to distract from his own life. He states that he is writing his mind and not his own.
This was important in the early years of the 20th century, when homosexuality was still taboo.
The Flowers of Evil by Charleas Budelaire
Best French Books – T.S. Eliot is a favorite of yours. Baudelaire, a poet by Eliot, is another one you should add to your collection. Baudelaire was a French poet who had a huge influence on Verlaine and Rimbaud.
His most well-known work is Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil. It’s a collection of poems that describes the changes Paris experienced due to industrialization in the nineteenth century.
Baudelaire maintained that The Flowers of Evil wasn’t a collection of poems, but rather a carefully arranged sequence.
His collection is a three-fold movement. It involves reaching for a long-awaited ecstasy, the pain of failing to find perfection, then finally, the affirmation of bitter, limited, but intense value that remains.
His work is a beautiful and honest portrayal of the banality in society. It’s well worth the effort.
The Red and the Black of Stendhal
Best French Books – Stendhal’s novels address many social issues, including politics and French provincial life.
These themes were addressed by many popular writers at the time. But Stendhal is different from his contemporaries because he focuses on the psychology behind his protagonists.
Many consider him the author of the psychological novel.
We follow Julien Sorel’s life as a young man from humble beginnings who tries to rise above his circumstances. He dreams big but soon realizes that the only way to rise up the social ranks is by adopting the hypocrisy of the materialistic aristocracy.
He ends up being a pawn for the powerful men around him, even though he is trying to be important. This humorous portrayal of French society is a novel in its own right and should be on your TBR pile.
Stendhal’s treatment of women is what I find most interesting about his work. Stendhal was a vocal critic of the emotional and social subjugation women experience. His novels show that he had genuine empathy for women.
The Red and the Black is a sharp criticism of the subordinate status of women in society. Simone de Beauvoir, feminist writer and Simone de Beauvoir, spoke highly of Stendhal’s work, The Second Sex (above).
PereGoriot by Honore De Balzac
The nineteenth century saw political turmoil in France. Therefore, historical and political change played a significant role in most of the important literary works written in France during this period.
Honore de Balzac, a notable writer of that time, is often called one of the founders literary realism. His portrayal of society following the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1815 has been repeatedly praised.
PereGoriot is considered Balzac’s most important novel. The story combines three distinct stories. This includes Eugene de Rastignac who is a young man just starting to navigate Parisian society.
Vautrin is a forty-year old criminal. The title character is Pere Goriot. He’s an elderly man who has lost everything and is living in poverty.
This is not a happy tale. Balzac paints an bleak portrait of French society, and Old Goriot’s miserable life. It’s worth reading for the detailed social criticism, descriptions of French life, and French history.
HTML3_ La Bete Humaine HTML3_ or The Beast Within is set in the nineteenth-century, like other novels on this page, but Zola’s style and approach set this psychological thriller apart.
It is part of the 20-novel Rougon Macquart series, which also includes Zola’s other masterpieces Germinal or L’Assommoir.
The novel follows Lantier, the “human beast”, who suffers from a hereditary madness. It is dark and tense. His long-held desire to kill women is what makes him feel aroused.
This novel is Zola’s most violent and he drew a lot of inspiration from Jack the Ripper. If you love dark, twisted stories then this book will be a delight.
You will be drawn in by Zola’s portrayal of the criminal mind. There are many other topics, including French politics, industrialization and the legal system.
Although George Sand isn’t a name I often hear when English readers refer to French literature, she was one of the most beloved writers of her time in the 19th Century. She was more popular in England than Victor Hugo or Balzac!
George Sand is, naturally, a male name. She wrote under this pen name. Amantine Lucile Aurore dupin was her real name. She was an extraordinary lady who refused social restrictions placed on women in her lifetime.
At a time when women required a permit to wear male clothes, she wore men’s clothing without permission (! She smoked tobacco in public places and wrote subversive novels.
Indiana was her first novel under the pseudonym of “George Sand”, and it was this name that she gained notoriety.
It addresses many of the most common themes of nineteenth-century literature: a critique on social norms, a desire for romance, adultery and class, as well as a longing to be loved.
It is important to note that she writes from a female perspective. This is significant as not many women voices were heard at the time.
Although her work is characterized by idealism, she was also romantic, realistic, pragmatic, and a feminist writer. This is my favorite of her works, and it’s one you should read if your interest in feminist literature.
Moliere is essentially French Shakespeare. Moliere was a French Shakespearean who wrote many plays in the seventeenth-century. These plays are still very popular in France today.
Although he is best known for his humor about society, alarmingly many character assessments that he made are as relevant and funny today as they were 400 year ago.
His character assessments were so shrewd that many people found it hard to believe. Many of his plays were also banned.
Misanthrope is one his most famous plays. It pokes fun at humankind’s flaws. It is about the French aristocracy. Our main character, Alceste (a misanthrope), avoids and hates human society.
He is extremely unpopular because he refuses to be nice to society and conform to its meaningless social conventions. Moliere criticizes him for pointing out the many problems in society, but also criticises him. Moliere’s critical eye is a constant companion.
It’s not the same experience as watching a play, and it won’t suit everyone. Moliere’s hilarious plays are a joy to read and you will love his work if satire is your thing.
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
In search of Lost Time Proust’s is one of the most renowned works of French literature. The New York Review of Books called it “the most revered novel of the 20th century”.
Marcel Proust wrote this story in seven volumes. It’s quite heavy! It focuses on the theme of memory and the passing of time.
This is Proust’s story as it begins with the narrator chomping on a madeleine, instantly reminiscing about his happy childhood. If there’s one thing you can learn about Proust’s work today it’s that it all began with a madeleine. Most people don’t seem to recall that!
The story is told in many volumes, with themes such as romance, corruption, war and most importantly, the search for truth during the passage of time.
It is a daunting task to choose to read Les Miserables Victor Hugo. This is the only book I haven’t finished yet, I will be honest.
Victor Hugo is a must-read for any list of the top French books. It’s possible that Les Miserables was your first thought when you saw this post.
The plot is probably well-known to most people, whether they have seen the musical or the movie. But here it goes: Jean Valjean, our main character, is released after 19 years in prison. He was there for stealing bread.
He violates parole and reinvents his self as a successful mayor and factory owner, but Javert, a prison guard, pursues him relentlessly.
This novel reveals the deplorable French political and judicial system in the 19th century, as well as the constant struggle between good and evil and the desperate lives of the French underworld.
You will find romance, dramas, social criticisms, emotion, history and revolt. You’ll be rewarded if you are determined to read this 1200+ page book.
Are you a lover of French classics and novels? Comment below to tell me about your favorite classic novels!
It is so easy to read books in French!
It’s not easy to read a French book. One thing is certain: every author has their own style. This can make it difficult to read a book in French. Some works speak to us better than others.
However, reading in French can be difficult. A dictionary or a dictionary app is always handy. It will become easier over time, just as with any other skill. You will feel more comfortable with different grammatical structures, expressions, and reading more.
Remember that eventually you will become comfortable reading French. It will be difficult at times, as even native speakers may find certain authors difficult to understand. You will improve your skills. You’ll still be entertained if you choose books that you are interested in. This is the best part about reading French
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