Bonjour! Not just famous for their wine, garlic and baguettes, the French have some pretty good novels (even if they do print the text upside-down on the spine), so I thought this week I’d take a look at six of the best (all from my bookshelf!) Let’s crack open the Beaujolais and get started!
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803)
Regarded as scandalous when it was first published in the 18th century, this is a story of seduction and revenge. It’s an epistolary novel (written entirely in letters) in which the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont hatch a plot to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel and the young Cécile de Volanges. Still has the power to shock. Great story.
Le Rouge et Le Noir (The Scarlet and The Black) by Stendhal (1783-1842)
OK, let me say straight up that if you’re only going to read one French novel then you should read this one. Following the fortunes of its protagonist, Julien Sorel, as he attempts to better himself in society, Le Rouge et Le Noir has it all – ambition, sex, lies, adultery, politics, religion and murder. Sounds a bit like modern French politics today (apart from the murder.)
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
This is probably the most famous French novel of all time, but a word of warning – not a lot happens in it. Emma Bovary is a hopeless romantic who is bored with her provincial life and plodding husband. She seeks diversions in adulterous affairs and material finery. She kills herself. Read it for the language and descriptions, not the plot.
Germinal by Émile Zola (1840-1902)
I remember my French tutor at Oxford was a bit sniffy about Zola, so that in itself should be enough to recommend him. Academics have a way of sneering at anything with a good story. Set in a poor coal mining community, this is a harrowing and, at times, heart-breaking tale that isn’t afraid to lurch into the melodramatic. In other words, a page turner. Go for it.
L’Étranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus (1913-1960)
The Outsider opens with the words: “Today, mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” This sums up Meursault’s indifference to life and his refusal to express any of the emotions expected of him by society. The Outsider is one of those books you should read as a teenager. It’s mercifully short and not too difficult to read in the original if your French is up to it.
La Nausée (Nausea) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Nausea is an epistolary novel (zut alors! we’re back where we started) written as a series of diary extracts. This is not for the faint-hearted. Wikipedia sums it up perfectly: “it concerns a dejected historian, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea.” I think I’ll have another glass of Beaujolais!