A Beginner’s Guide to French Literature {day thirteen}

{day thirteen} A beginner's guide to French Literature

I love books and I will read most things but I suffered through a French education that pretty much destroyed my enjoyment of classic French literature by making me read and critique Really Depressing Books (in capitals because omg the hopelessness).


There are so many French authors though, both classic and modern, covering pretty much every subject matter and style, that you can be sure to find something you like. Where to start is another matter, so I have put together a short(ish) list of books by well-known authors in a wide range of subjects, which I hope will inspire people to give French authors a go.


My French bookshelf


Medieval Literature: Chrétien de Troyes is one of the great writers of the 12th century. He was a poet who wrote Arthurian Romances about Percival and Lancelot.


A small selection of Classic Novels:



Philosophy: the influence of French philosophers in shaping Western culture cannot be denied and I will be writing further about French culture and the importance of ‘reason’ later this month. Philosophers address all manners of things from religion to science and some of it can be pretty academic. A good starting point would be Candide, by Voltaire (who lived during the Age of the Enlightenment), as it is storied philosophy rather than a treatise. You could, of course, throw yourself off the cliff by going straight for Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.

Plays: Jean Racine is one of France’s most well-known playwrights of the 17th century. One of his most famous work, Phaedra, is a Greek tragedy (Wikipedia says that the effects of his poetry are thought to be nearly untranslatable, which is a bit of a bummer). If that doesn’t appeal, you may want to try The Misanthrope. It was written by Molière, one of France’s most popular and influential dramatists, who lived during the reign of Louis XIV.


Poetry: I don’t know much about poetry as it is not my reading of choice but France has produced a huge number of poets. Most novelists were also poets, like Victor Hugo who was as prolific as he was gifted. Arthur Rimbaud is well-known for his wild life and huge success when he was still a teenager when he wrote his most famous works (see Selected Poems). Also popular is Charles Baudelaire, with The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal). Poetry is incredibly hard to translate faithfully without losing some of the intent or beauty of the piece so it’s difficult for me to recommend anything when I have not read the translations.

But maybe you want something a bit more modern, in which case, you should take a look at these:


A popular book in France in the last few years: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
(L’Elégance du Hérisson) by Muriel Barbery. You will see from my Goodreads review that I didn’t like it, but it is So French and a must-read for that reason alone. Irène Némirovski’s Suite Française is an excellent novel about WWII, written as the events enfolded, and sadly unfinished when the author was arrested and later succumbed in Auschwitz.


A historical fiction/romance: we can’t all be into high-brow literature, and I have always enjoyed Juliette Benzoni’s books, in particular her Marianne series set during the reign of Napoleon 1st. I also quite like the fun historical romp that is Angélique, by Anne & Serge Golon, which is set during the reign of Louis XIV and is really quite atmospheric. The first few books were made into films in the 1960s and they are so cheesy and romantic, they are basically the embodiment of ‘guilty pleasure’.


Classic Sci-Fi:The Ice People, by René Barjavel (La Nuit des Temps) is about a scientific discovery deep under the ices of Antartica, an extinct civilisation and a love that transcends space and time. Cannot recommend highly enough.

Classic comics: Comics are a big deal in France, for adults as for children. If you want to learn French, comics are actually a great way to get into a language as they are easier to understand and entertaining. I’m slowly growing a collection of what I would deem to be timeless classics, such as AsterixTintinBoule & Bill (this last one has not been translated that I can tell) and The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs). There are other great and maybe lesser-known comics: Iznogoud (set in Baghdad of all places), Johan et Pirlouit (set in medieval times – only available in French), Gaston LagaffeLucky Luke (in the Wild West), The Bluecoats (Les Tuniques Bleues), Titeuf (about the troubles of being a kid – in French), and Marsupilami (about some sort of jungle animal – in French), amongst many others.


Happy reading!


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French Literature Hurts My Head

The other day, my husband was wondering out loud if our four-months-old daughter would become an avid reader like her mother. I am responsible for the three-quarters of our bookshelves’ content at home and I always have a book on the go so I suppose he might be right about me. I have always loved reading. I love stories and I love words; I love being able to escape into another world. However being an avid reader has not led me to become a more discerning one by French standards.

Let’s start at the beginning. I knew how to read before I started primary school at age 6, and I was showed off by my teacher to other classes with the introduction ‘This is how to read properly’. I have no recollection of this, which is probably a good thing. I was a shy little thing in those days and it’s a wonder I wasn’t bullied at the time for being the teacher’s pet. In any case I have not stopped reading ever since those early days, and a lifelong love of books and reading is definitely a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter. I am planning to read to her and teach her, just like my mother did with me. Another reason I am keen to do this is to help her with grammar, punctuation and spelling; if there is something that winds me up, it is poor spelling in adults, and I believe this is partly due to a lack of exposure to books during the childhood years.

La Nuit Des Temps - by Barjavel

I found high school very dispiriting however when it came to introducing me to new reading material. I am not a fan of French literature and find it pompous, obscure, uninspiring and hopeless. At college, we were introduced to what felt like the most boring books I have ever come across and having to dissect and write essays on them did not endear them to me. One year we had to read a book by Emile Zola called l’Assommoir; I was ill and not sleeping well at the time and I remember the ending being so bleak that it made me cry. Maybe it’s a good book; it depicts the life of working class people and it is meant to be very realistic, which is fine but I do question the wisdom of giving it to hormonal and occasionally depressed teenagers. I found it so horrific that I nearly lost the will to live reading it.

France is proud of its literature and the masters of words it has produced, and is keen to force them down our throats through the school curriculum. I don’t know who decides what goes in and what stays out but they appear to go out of their way to find the most depressing books. It’s the relentlessness of the bleak subject matters, complicated sentences and obscure subtext passing for intellectualism of French novels that kills my spirit. When it doesn’t put French teens off reading altogether, it stops them ever wanting to read anything else by the authors that they have studied.

I don’t understand the kind of snobbery at work here but it is highly noticeable in book shops where there is a clear separation between ‘serious works’ and popular books such as, say, Harry Potter. For one thing, serious works have serious covers i.e. no picture, just a plain cover with embossed writing or whatever. Someone out there wants you to know you are about to read a serious book, one you can proudly show off to your intellectual friends. I personally think a book can be fun without selling out to the most common denominator. I am not going to argue that books like Harry Potter are a masterpiece writing-wise because they are not but they do not lack in heart and depth and there is a wealth of imagination to be enjoyed.

When I was a teenager, my favourite book was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was funny and full of life, and basically a very cheerful read. It was a helpful reminder that not everything in the world is grim and tainted, because life at 14 was awkward, dark and oppressive for me, and I was in dire need of cheering up. It looks to me, and do correct me if I’m wrong, that the English-speaking world has a type of writing that does not exist in France, where misery is acknowledged but there is also hope and a happy ending is not a cop-out.

French authors and books I like

I cannot recommend this enough

Les Fables de La Fontaine, very clever stuff indeed

Pierre Gripari’s La Sorcière de la Rue Mouffetard et autres contes de la Rue Broca – a fantastic children’s book

Les Contes de Charles Perrault (classic fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc)

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française

Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical retelling of her experience working in Japan in Stupeur et Tremblements is funny and chilling in equal measures.

Jean Racine, whose plays I prefer to Molière’s. Still it’s not Shakespeare.

Le Petit Prince d’Antoine St Exupéry is one of the few children’s book I can recommend

Victor Hugo gave us Notre Dame de Paris and Les Misérables – great stories

Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers

Most hated French authors, mostly because their stories are rubbish and everything is depressing and hopeless – a non-exhaustive list

Emile Zola – argh

André Malraux – hate hate hate

Gustave Flaubert – mon dieu but who cares

Fab and oh so accurate

A few non French-speaking authors and books I like (in which there is a lot of science fiction and fantasy)

Juliet Marillier, great re-workings of Celtic fairy tales

Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, possibly my favourite science-fiction/fantasy series

Madeleine L’Engle has a great way with words

J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis

Anything by Bill Bryson (his History of Nearly Everything is fantastic and almost makes me wish I could go back to school to study biology again) and Stephen Clarke (of the Year in the Merde fame)

The 13 and a half lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, completely crazy and possibly for kids apart from the fact that it is enormous.



You are welcome to try to change my mind, and to introduce me to new authors.