Today is Bastille Day, the French National Day! It celebrates the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789, as well as la Fête de la Fédération (Federation’s Party I guess?) celebrated on July 14th 1790, which celebrated the unity of the French people.
Happy Bastille Day!
While I’m French, I mostly read in English, because there are so many books I want to discover that were written in that language and that’s also why I’m always speaking in English on social media. However, I have many French classics that I adore and I thought today would be the perfect excuse to share that with you all!
Side note: all the Goodreads links are of course, for the translations in English! I’m not completely sure whether the Marcel Pagnol books I recommended were translated, but they can be a good place to start if you want to try to read in French. *wink* The first three recommendations are my ultimate favourites, then I put the books in publication order!
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)
I couldn’t start this post with any other book, because Les Misérables is my favourite book ever. It is set through different time periods and places, but mainly follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who tries to put his past behind him. His path crosses many times with memorable characters, such as Fantine, Javert, the Thénardiers, Cosette, Gavroche or Marius. It is such a masterpiece, depicting history so closely (a lot of it is set in 1832 during the barricades), crafting such fleshed-out characters, with a gripping plot, even though it’s more than a thousand pages long. I won’t even get started on Marius and Cosette, but I adore them so much. I dedicated an entire blog post to Les Misérables last year, as it’s both my favourite book and my favourite musical, so if you’re interested in that, it’s here. Please, whether it’s the abridged version or the musical, give it a chance, it’s so worth it.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839)
Many readers know Stendhal thanks to his novel The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), but my personal favourite is The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme), set in Italy during the Napoleonic Wars. It follows the young aristocrat Fabrizio del Dongo, who wants to go to war to fight for Napoléon. He stumbles on the Battle of Waterloo, ill-prepared, yet filled with enthusiasm for war and glory. He goes back to Milan and is entangled in a series of amorous exploits, fuelled by his impetuous nature and the political chicanery of his aunt Gina and her lover. According to Balzac, it is the most important French novel of its time, a compelling novel of extravagance and daring, blending the intrigues of the Italian court with the romance and excitement of youth. I read this one for a literature class four years ago and I absolutely fell in love with it. Fabrizio and Clélia are my ridiculous babies and I love them so much.
The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola (1883)
Ever since we had to read The Ladies’ Paradise at the end of middle school, I’ve been obsessed with Emile Zola and one of my life goals is to read his entire Rougon-Macquart series, which follows the fates of an entire family during the Second Empire in France (from 1851 to 1870) and is made of twenty novels. The Ladies’ Paradise is by far my favourite novel by Zola and the first I have ever read. The novel recounts the rise of the modern department store in late nineteenth-century Paris. Its main character, Denise Baudu, is particularly interesting, because she’s such an independent and hard-working woman, very different from Zola’s usual female characters. She wasn’t even supposed to be the heroine of this novel at first, as it also follows Octave Mouret, founder and owner of the store, and I love her even more knowing that. The store itself is a character, it’s a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family: it is emblematic of changes in consumer culture, in sexual attitudes and in class relations taking place at the end of the century.
Interesting fact: The BBC period drama series The Paradise was inspired by this novel. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m planning to, at some point!
Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1862)
Gustave Flaubert’s most famous works are Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, but plot twist, I haven’t read any of them just yet, but fell in love with this historical novel, Salammbô. This one is an epic story of lust, cruelty, and sensuality set in Carthage in the days following the First Punic War with Rome, with such historical details that there aren’t many French historical novels that can compare to it. I’m fascinated by this novel, because I studied history and adore understanding what people knew of history during their time, how they viewed it, how they studied it and Salammbô is a great example of that.
A Love Story by Emile Zola (1879)
My second favourite novel by Emile Zola is A Love Story (Une Page d’Amour), it’s also translated as A Love Episode sometimes. It follows Helene, a young widow who lives a secluded life with her only child, Jeanne, a delicate and nervous girl who jealously guards her mother’s affections. When Jeanne falls ill, she is attended by a doctor, who falls in love with Helene. Jeanne realizes she has a rival for Helene’s devotion in the doctor, and begins to exercise a tyrannous hold over her mother. This novel is an intense psychological and nuanced portrayal of love’s different forms. Zola’s study extends most notably to the city of Paris itself, whose shifting moods reflect Helene’s emotional turmoil in passages of extraordinary lyrical description.
Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)
Bel-Ami is fairly well-known outside of France, especially since there was a movie adaptation with Robert Pattinson a few years ago (I don’t think I ever watched it, though). This book is the scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power. George Duroy, the main character, is offered a job as a journalist in La Vie Française and soon makes a great success of his new career. He learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. It also describes very accurately the life of Paris in the Belle Epoque very accurately and I’ve read it several times, I really love this one.
Swann’s Way (1913) and In the Shadow of Young
Girls in Flowers (1919) by Marcel Proust
Swann’s Way (Du Côté de Chez Swann) and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) are the first two books in Marcel Proust’s In Search for Lost Time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) series, which is set at the beginning of the 20th century in France. I love reading about society at that time and the author portrayed it so well. In this seven book series, Proust attempted the perfect rendering of life in art, of the past recreated through memory. It is both a portrait of the artist and a discovery of the aesthetic by which the portrait is painted, and it was to have an immense influence on the literature of the twentieth century. The first two books follow the narrator as a child and as a young man, there are a bit hard to read at times because they don’t have many chapters, but I enjoyed them so much. I’m so glad I got motivated to read them three years ago, thanks to one of my literature professors, and I’m finally going to continue with Guermantes’ Way soon enough, as I want to have read the entire series by the time I turn twenty-five!
Marius (1929), Fanny (1931) and César (1936) by Marcel Pagnol
Marcel Proust is a French author I adore, I’ve read most of his plays when I was a teenager and I have such a fond memory of it. My favourites are a trilogy set in Marseilles in the 1920s, namely Marius, Fanny and César (the names of the three main characters). To sum it up, it follows Marius – the son of César, owner of the local bar on the port – who is torn between his love for Fanny, who sells shells for a living, and his desire to travel the world. I adore these characters and relate so much to them, to the point that reading the plays made me cry, when I still haven’t seen them on stage (it’s going to be so much worse). Anyway, it’s my dream to see them on stage one day. Marcel Pagnol usually writes about the south of France and I really enjoy that, because I don’t know that part of my country very well.
Antigone by Jean Anouilh (1946)
I read this play for a class when I was younger and adored it. This play in one act is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and Sophocles’ own play about Antigone. She is the daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta and the main character in this story, in which she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices. Oedipus’ s
ons, Eteocles and Polynices, had shared the rule jointly until they quarrelled and Eteocles expelled his brother. When Polynices came back, he attacked the city of Thebes with his army and both brothers were killed in battle; Polynices is considered a traitor and can’t get a proper burial, but his sister Antigone defies this rule. This play was originally produced in Paris during the Occupation and was published after the Second World War. What’s interesting about it is that it depicts an authoritarian regime and the play’s central character, the young Antigone, mirrored the predicament of the French people in the grips of tyranny. I’m fascinated by Greek mythology, so of course I’m always interested to learn more about it, but seeing it reflected in French history is so clever and what makes this play great to read and see.
There are still so many French classics I want to get to and writing this blog post motivated me even more to finally get to them. Who knows? I might have more recommendations next year!
French classics I want to get to as soon as possible:
If English isn’t your first language, what are your favourite books in your language? Can you read in another language? Have you ever read French classics? If so, which ones?
Lots of love,