Le Mot Juste: 25 Classic French Novels

France has consistently maintained its place as one of the most active hotbeds of literature. Like many other countries, its cultural sphere is devoted to understanding and challenging social mores, and novelists like Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Camus and Sartre have blended their art with politics, philosophy, sociology. Here is a list of some of the most influential French novels from the past 350 years:

1. Madame de La Fayette  - The Princess of Cleves (1678)

One of the very first novels published in France, La Fayette’s exploration of courtly French life during l’Ancien Regime is as remarkable today as it was back then. Deeply psychological and painfully tragic, it follows a young french woman from her entry into court  to her inevitable disgracing at the hands of gossiping aristocracy.

2. Voltaire – Candide (1759)

Voltaire wrote this philosophical novella after a series of cataclysms, including the Lisbon Earthquake and the Seven Years War, wracked Europe. Several other events put a damper on his personal life, too, and as the adventures of the title character suggest, finding happiness in blind optimism is a harmful way of thinking, as we are just as often the subject of cruel events as we are of good ones.

3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Julie, or The New Heloise (1762)

At first cynical of the emerging novel form in England and France, Rousseau sought to modify the philosophical and didactic approach to fiction by suggesting that our human impulses were just as if not more important than our virtuous character. Julie, having chosen to act upon her passions instead of preventing their release, would end up influencing Romanticism and the Novel form for the 19th century and beyond.

4. Pierre Chardelos de Laclos – Dangerous Liaisons (1782)

Dangerous Liasons is an epistolary novel written at the height of the form, but the parallel rise of libertinism in France gives this work its particular flavor and lasting qualities. Following the relationship between the seductive Mme de Merteuil and the libertine Valmont, Laclos places us in a time period where the regular conventions of morality and sexuality were, for a brief time, thrown out the window.

5. Marquis de Sade – Justine (1791)

The Marquis de Sade is often misinterpreted today as a licentious and pornographic author who defied the boundaries of censorship time and again with graphic descriptions of sex and violence at the hands of libertines and aristocrats. While Justine’s fight to find virtue in a world of vice is tragic and hard to stomach, Sade’s work would end up being read as a precursor to Europe’s defiance toward the Enlightenment’s supposed amorality.

6. Victor Hugo – Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) (1831)

Victor Hugo brought the streets of Paris to life with this epic novel about finding love and compassion in the oddest of places while the rest of the world tries to prevent its very existence. While Hugo’s work is encyclopedic in its descriptions of Gothic architecture and Parisian culture, it is his Romantic outlook of “love overcoming all” that makes Quasimodo’s plight to save Esmeralda all that more memorable.

5. Stendhal – The Charterhouse of Parma (1839)

From the battlefield of Waterloo to the aristocratic courts of Milan, Stendhal captured the Zeitgeist of post-Napoleonic Europe from the point of view of its youth, many of whom had trouble finding themselves in such a turbulent world. Stendhal’s biggest innovation, however, was not his subject matter, but rather how he explored it; instead of focusing on the specifics of era and location, he instead sought the internal pressures of forging one’s identity in the performative societies of upper-class Europe.

6. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

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The Count of Monte-Cristo was originally written to capture the romantic fever of Napoleonic France that became popular in the 1840′s, but the novel ended up surpassing expectations to become the great revenge novel. When Edmund Dantes escapes from prison after he gets betrayed by the evil Villefort, he commits himself to exact revenge on those who have wronged him.

7. Honore de Balzac – The Human Comedy (1832-1854)

Honore de Balzac’s 16-volume work known as The Human Comedy is still seen as one of the landmarks of realist literature, but the exhaustive catalog of Parisian life that is this collection is in itself a marvel worth enjoying. Following the rise and fall of hundreds of varying characters in the French capital, Balzac’s economic approach to man’s internal motivations would end up influencing authors like Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, as well as philosophers like Karl Marx.

8. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary (1856)

Arguably the masterpiece of the entire realist genre, Madame Bovary was one of the most finely-wrought pieces of literature of its time, but that didn’t stop it from nearly getting banned for its salacious content. Following Emma Bovary’s tragic need to escape her rural ennui, the novel is both a cautionary tale and an ode to romanticized, forbidden love.

9. Emile Zola – Germinal (1885)

Just like Balzac, Emile Zola connected the majority of his novels into one generation-spanning piece of literature. Germinal, probably the most powerful selection from his series The Rougon-Macquart, depicts the brutal strife of the French mining industry during the rise of the Industrial revolution. Following a familiar pattern in French literature, Germinal is graphic, violent and ultimately tragic.

10. Guy de Maupassant – Bel Ami (1885)

Although he is more commonly known as a writer of short stories, Maupassant’s Roman-a-clef about the life of a Parisian journalist in the bawdy world of late-nineteenth century France revisits the joys and repulsion of anti-heroic libertinism. The protagonist Duroy was both admired and hated at the time of the novel’s publication, but it is his indifference to common social mores that makes him so unforgettable.

11. Anatole France – The Gods are Athirst (1912)

Set at the height of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, Anatole France’s The Gods are Athirst is historical fiction at its best, sublimely describing the conditions of a country at a standstill without turning it into a documentary. What is surprising about this novel is its place among others of its time; far from examining current social conditions, Anatole France is doing what many other European authors would do in the coming decades: look back towards the individual for answers.

12. Alain-Fournier – Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

A book that famed novelist John Fowles claims has “haunted” him all of his life, this mysterious novel from this even more mysterious novelist has shown up in the oddest of places, appearing in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and even being the supposed influence for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s naming of The Great Gatsby. When a 15 year-old boy arrives at a school in the countryside, his adventures to a lost mansion filled with aristocratic extravagance enamors the narrator to no end, yet it marks the pivotal turning point of his youth, where the mysteries of love and the unknown painfully fade away before his eyes.

13. Roger Martin du Gard – Jean Barois (1913)

Martin du Gard is seldom read these days in the English-speaking world, but his novel Jean Barois presents us with a strikingly deep meditation upon free will in an era that seems subject to the vicissitudes of history. Jean Barois looks back at the “liberated” figures of bygone France and tries to find his own freedom, but when he chooses to give up his ideals for comfort, it results in his dramatic fall from grace.

14. Andre Gide – The Vatican Cellars (1914)

Today’s critics may consider Gide an experimenter of genre and style, but as a man of many a literary medium, it is his mock-epics that are the most memorable and accessible. The Vatican Cellars is about a man who pushes someone from a train and must subsequently suffer the consequences thereof. A satire of the church and common morality, the work would push Gide further towards the fringes, but it is his subversion that now prompts contemporary revisiting of his work.

15.  Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Thing’s Past (1913-1927)

Marcel Proust’s seven-book masterpiece redefined European literature in ways only Kafka, Joyce and TS Eliot could do. By breaking all conventions of novelistic ‘time’, Remembrance of Things Past is a introspective look at the life of an imaginative and authorial narrator who frequently loses himself in sensory experience and memory. Such séances layer the novel, but within Proust’s impressionist approach to fiction can be found an endless trove of wisdom that has not since been matched.

16. Andre Breton – Nadja (1928)

Andre Breton was one of the leading voices in the burgeoning surrealist movement of the 1920′s, and Nadja was one of its most exemplary works. A metafictional story about a man’s ten-day relationship with a woman named Nadja, the novel weaves between experience and fantasy to create confusing but unique work of art.

17. Antoine de Saint Exupery – Southern Mail (1929)

While Antoine de Saint-Exupery is better known today for his children’s book The Little Prince, his aviation-themed adventure novels were nevertheless quite popular in the 1930′s. Night Flight is one such example of this; Set in the snowy and mountainous Patagonia region of Argentina, it tells the story of a pilot’s daring attempt to get a piece of mail sent at night during a thunderstorm. One part action and one part philosophical reflection, Saint-Exupery uses the subject matter he knows to create a beautifully cerebral experience.

18. Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea (1938)

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher, essayist, critic, playwright and of course, novelist, and his 1944 work about a man in the throes of his own existential crisis helped him reinforce his literary reputation as he rose in popularity. Fortunately, Sartre treats the troubling breakdown and sickness of his character with the slight addition of humor, reminding us that there is little to confirm our existence but the nauseating realization of our own emptiness.

19. Albert Camus – The Stranger (1942)

Albert Camus’ short novel about a character coming to terms with the absurdity of his existence while remaining curiously indifferent to his own actions is today regarded as one of great 20th century works of fiction. The anti hero Mersault does not seem to have a care in the world–he’s not sure when his mother died, and also vague about a brazen murder he committed. The Stranger, though, trudges through this “meaningless” world and actually manages to find a positive silver lining to the absurdist conditions of living.

20. Colette – Gigi (1944)

Colette had been well-established on the French literary scene for quite some time, but her short novella about a young and naive Parisian woman coerced into the courtship games of her grandmother and great-aunt is a testament to the most prevalent themes in her fiction. Not only does she discuss the superficial vagaries of modern-day courtship, but her lighthearted prose cleverly conceals the biting satire of French society hidden beneath the glossy prose.

21. Alain Robbe-Grillet – The Erasers (1953)

Alain Robbe-Grillet would reinvigorate the French literary scene with what he called the “Nouveau Roman”, or novels that use the architecture of fiction to confuse, deceive and force the reader to make close readings of the material. The Erasers is one of the hallmarks of the subgenre. As a detective begins his quest to find the culprit of a series of brazen killings, he soon realizes that not is all as it seems, and that perhaps his oedipal inquiry into the murders will lead him right back to where he began.

22. George Perec – W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975)

Following in the footsteps of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Perec crafted his own type of novel using what he called the “Oulipo” method, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of potential literature). W is one of his more personal efforts, where his exploration of the past comes in direct conflict with historical narratives that may subsume his own story into oblivion. Drawing on several of the French theorists of the 1960′s and 70′s, his work confronts esoteric topics in a surprisingly playful manner.

23. Marguerite Duras – The Lover (1984)

Marguerite Duras achieved high praise and even greater popularity for The Lover, but it was her revelations of the autobiographical nature of the novel that gave it its notoriety. About a 15 year-old girl who engages in an affair with a 27 year-old Chinese magnate, the novel replicates many of Duras’ most common themes–sexuality, desire and the discovery of identity in a world where transcendence is seemingly impossible.

24. Caroline Lamarche – The Day of the Dog (1996)

Belgian-born author Caroline Lamarche used the simple image of a dog running through traffic to create an ambitiously-crafted work of fiction. The dog’s movement through a rush-hour traffic jam leads the reader through the stories of the driver who must interminably wait. However, as many other French novels execute so well, the most despairing moments conceal within them the possibility of redemption.

25. Michel Houllebecq – The Map and the Territory

Houellebecq’s fiction is without argument some of the most divisive in the world. Harsh but lucid, encyclopedic but humorous, many have berated him in the same places some have championed him. It is difficult to argue against his latest effort, however, as this critique of artistic commercialism explores today’s cynical view of “culture” with a unique, tactful wit few authors in the world can match

7 thoughts on “Le Mot Juste: 25 Classic French Novels

  1. I found your blog while I was looking for the names of two characters from one of the earliest French novels. Lovers. I have a contemporary vase of the female character, but I cannot recall the name! :-) If you know, please share with me! I love this blog.

  2. Jeffrey Dubyk says:

    Journey to the end of the Night? Death on Credit (the installment plan)? How can you forget Celine? Because of his questionable politics?

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