We know that French literature is not the simplest literature in the world, but it is full of masterpieces, and if you take a literature course at the university, there is a good chance that you will hear about these 5 books. And let’s face it, it is always impressive when someone is able to quote Proust or Zola…
#1 Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Le Petit Prince is one of the best-selling French books in the world! It has been translated into more than 250 languages, so you will certainly find it in your own language. But if you want to practice your French, you can read it in its “native language”, because it is presented as a children book so the vocabulary is not that complicated. The story is about an aviator (Saint-Exupery himself, which is probably why the airport of Lyon, his hometown, was named after him), who crashes into the Sahara desert. When he wakes up, he meets a young boy who asks him to draw him a sheep. Readers then discover the story of the Little Prince, who left his planet to come to earth. The book may seem childish but it is considered as an allegory, and Saint-Exupery brings about a criticism of the society of his time, and of adults in general. You can also follow the story thanks to the drawings of the author, and you will discover some famous French quotes such as “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
#2 Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Yes, you have probably already seen the very good American musical film with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway on the matter. But it is impossible to concentrate 5 volumes by one of the greatest French writers into a two-hour movie. Les Misérables was written in 1862 by Victor Hugo. It is a social, historical, and political book about the unfortunate in Paris during the 19th century. Hugo depicts several characters, including the now famous Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Gavroche or Javert. The book is punctuated by two major events of the French history: the battle of Waterloo, and the riot of 1832. It is impossible, to sum up, the entire story without forgetting something or giving too much away so you will have to read it to know what it is talking about. It is the most important work of Victor Hugo’s life, and it shaped the literary movement of the French Romantics. If you are afraid in front of these massive 5 volumes (and we will understand you, it is quite frightening!), you can read other works of Victor Hugo, like Notre-Dame de Paris, or if you are more into short books, you can read his plays (like Hernani) or one of his numerous poems.
#3 L’étranger by Albert Camus
The advantage of this book is that it is pretty easy to understand as Mr. Camus use quite a simple vocabulary to illustrate the absurdity of the world he lives in. Indeed, Albert Camus is one of the founders of absurd fiction, and this book is a masterpiece in this genre. The story is about Meursault, a French guy living in Alger, who is completely indifferent his own life. He seems to put up with his daily routine without being affected by it or trying to change it. The book begins with one of the most famous sentences of French literature which is “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte”. Meursault is therefore obliged to go to her funeral and once he gets there, he shows no emotions at all, which will make him look suspicious at the end of the story. L’étranger is a book that you can often find in the literature program in high school as it is almost a philosophical work. Meursault is someone who can not fit into the moral conventions of society. He is a lonely character, whose existence makes no sense. Not a very cheerful book, but a must-have to understand French literature of the 20th century.
#4 Les Fleurs du Mal de Charles Baudelaire
If you are into poetry, you must read Charles Baudelaire! This collection of 100 poems is the work of Baudelaire’s entire life. Les Fleurs du Mal was first published in 1857 and then re-edited in 1861, in 1866 and in 1868. The collection is divided into six parts: « Spleen & idéal », « Tableau Parisien », « Le vin », « Fleurs du Mal », « Révolte » and « La Mort ». There was a time when it was believed that the spleen was responsible for melancholy, so Baudelaire, who was fluent in English, borrowed the word and forced it into the French language to designate his feelings of despair, loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. Once again, you may think that this is not a very cheerful reading, but there are also very beautiful poems about love, travels, nature, women… By the way, the collection was censored when it was first published because it was considered as pornography, and so, as an insult to the good moral standards. His poems are usually texts that pupils study for the literature test of the Baccalauréat. Baudelaire is also well-known for the translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.
#5 Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published in 1782, is a masterpiece in the epistolary genre. Laclos narrates the story of two main characters, representative of the bourgeoisie of the 18th century: La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont. They are both libertines and are in constant competition with one another. They want to dominate one another, and by doing so, they are hurting several people with their manipulations. The book is very interesting and original because readers discover each character in the course of their letters: they have access to their every thought and the book is never boring as the style is constantly changing, depending on which character is writing. This is a beautifully written drama which keeps the reader on tenterhooks until the very end. If you are a little lazy, and you absolutely want to know how the story is ending, you should know that there is a movie adaptation with famous actors, such as John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves.
There you go! Keep in mind that this is a very subjective list and that there are, of course, many more wonderful books in the French heritage.
If you are more into more recent and mainstream stuff, you can go to the library, and buy Katherine Pancol or Marc Lévy, or Frédéric Beigbeder.
If you want to stay quiet at your Chez Nestor flatshares, you have some ideas for a book!
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