French literature must reads: our 5 favourite French books
French literature boasts a broad range of timeless classics, most of which discuss thought-provoking ideas and intellectual themes. French books are often of a philosophical nature and use brilliant writing to puzzle over the human condition and societal values.
This can be intimidating, but please, do not let yourself be put off. Many of the most evocative, intelligent narratives are French and not to be missed.
Here is a list of some of my favourite French books.
1. ‘Sagan, Paris 1954’ by Anne Berest
This intimate narrative charts the months leading up to the publication of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, the novel that made Francoise Sagan a literary icon at just 18 years old. The story alternates between the life of Francoise in 1954 and the life of the author and narrator in the present day.
Francoise is a girl who defies the social constrictions of her day and through her research, Berest is inspired by Francoise’s approach to life. Written at the request of Francoise’s son, Denis Westhoff, this book examines the early life of one of France’s most successful writers.
Why should you read it? This is a beautifully written account of Sagan’s path to fame and enchants the reader with the spirit of a woman who was well ahead of her time.
2. ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery
In an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris, Renée, the concierge, conforms to social stereotypes while hiding her love for art, philosophy, music and Japanese culture. Paloma, who lives in the same building, is a 12 year old genius who pretends to be a mediocre pre-teen and plans to end her life on her 13th birthday. It is not until the arrival of a cultured, Japanese man that the pair discover each other and their similarities.
This novel is a best-seller in France, and a great a philosophical read. It is an exploration of the human condition, from the point of view of two individuals who suspect that they live in a world that cannot appreciate them.
Why should you read it? A challenging but thought provoking and funny novel that explores everything from French social class to the idea that we are all masters of our own fate.
3. ‘My Father’s Glory’ by Marcel Pagnol
This books captures the childhood of Marcel Pagnol, spent in rural Provence. The sensual language and evocative setting conjure up the chirping of the leafhoppers, the baking sun and the smell of wild garlic and thyme. It’s the story of an endless summer which captures the rawness of a rural childhood and expresses how important it is to allow children to savour their insouciance before adulthood approaches.
Why should you read it? One of the best French books that will transport you to the hills of Provence and invite you to soak up the language of the rural south in the early 1900s. I recommend you read this in French if you can!
4. ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert
When self-obsessed Emma marries Charles Bovary she expects a life of passion and luxury, but provincial life as the wife of a country doctor is far from what she imagined. Forever discontented, Emma begins an affair which plunges her into even worse dissatisfaction and self-destruction.
Through Emma, Flaubert portrays the pretentious morality of the French bourgeoisie. The book causes readers to reflect on the flaws of humanity and why we often feel there is something ‘missing’, despite having everything we need.
Why should you read it? A French classic that is beautiful in spite of the ugliness of its themes, this novel gives an objective depiction of upper-class French society in the mid-1800s and offers vivid descriptions of the Normandy countryside.
5. ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Francoise Sagan
A tale of adolescence and betrayal on the French Rivera, this bold novel with scandalous sex scenes was the making of its author, 18 year old Francoise Sagan. The books tells the story of Cécile, a wayward 17 year old who lives with her rich father and his string of mistresses. None of these relationships come between father and daughter until he meets a woman who is unlike those he usually frequents, and proposes to her.
Cecile, afraid that her future step-mother’s sober personality will have a negative effect on her father and the spontaneous, frivolous life Cecile shares with him, decides she must prevent the marriage.
Why should you read it? A coming of age novel that touched the hearts of its many French readers, it captures the vulnerability and melodrama present in most teenagers’ lives. ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ shines in its characterisation and the interaction between the protagonists, definitely worth a read.
Have you read any of these books? Which French books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below!
1. ‘French Literature’, Phil Roeder, via Flickr
2. ‘Sagan 1954’, Stock
3. ‘Elégance du hérisson’, so long see you tomorrow via Flickr
4. ‘La gloire de mon pere’ via Amazon
5. ‘Madame Bovary’, Chris Drumm via Flickr
6. ‘Jean Seberg, “Bonjour Tristesse”, 1958’, Laura Loveday via Flickr