Here is the second instalment of my 2-part series about top French novels – my own personal favourites, I hasten to add. For numbers 1 to 5 click here.
See also my post about French country novels.
I’ve had to be ruthless in my selection and have left out many that also merit a place in the top 10. But these are the ones I keep coming back to. All available in English if required (Amazon stocks them).
6. Eugénie Grandet – Honoré de Balzac (1833)
Part of Balzac’s monumental Comédie Humaine series. Another sad story of a young woman whose dreams are blighted by a cad. Eugénie Grandet is brought up by a strict, autocratic and mean father and a compliant mother in a provincial backwater around the 1830s. Her penniless cousin, Charles, whose ruined father has committed suicide comes to live with them. Naturally, Eugénie falls in love with him and he appears to reciprocate. He then pushes off abroad to seek his fortune, while she nurtures hopes of marrying him on his return, but he marries someone else who can advance him in his career.
7. All the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon
Phenomenally successful series of books by Simenon written mostly in the 50s and 60s, filmed and dramatised numerous times. The character of Commissaire Jules Maigret (although he hated his first name and even his wife calls him Maigret) looms large in every sense of the word in the books. I can’t single out one for recommendation because they are all good. Since I wrote this, I’ve changed my mind and have now posted my top 10 Maigret novels (click here).
Well before the time of Internet crime and international terrorism, the villains and the policing methods are traditional, almost homely. The value of these books lies not only in the character of Maigret himself but also in their depiction of postwar French society. They are not difficult in a literary or language sense (and some of the slang is pretty old-fashioned now), but they are excellent reading for anyone who is at intermediate level in French.
8. Colomba – Prosper Mérimée (1840)
Prosper Merimée was inspector of public monuments and single-handedly managed to save many important sites in France. He also wrote novels. Colomba deals with the murky subject of vendetta in Corsica. Colomba’s father, head of one of two warring clans, is murdered in nefarious circumstances. She considers that her brother, away fighting in the Napoleonic Wars but now the head of the family, must exact vengeance. On his return, he is reluctant to do so, but Columba sees to it that he eventually does. She is plainly deranged, but is an interesting example of a young woman who is extremely independent minded while ostensibly bowing to the mores of time and place. Very valuable for the light it sheds on early 19th-century Corsican society.
9. Le Capitaine Fracasse – Théophile Gautier (1863)
Set in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIII. The young Baron de Sigognac is the last of a once resplendent family. He lives in a decaying castle in the Landes south of Bordeaux with his faithful retainer and decrepit horse, dog and cat. His life changes radically when a travelling troupe of actors fetches up, looking for board and lodging. Sigognac is immediately attracted to the beautiful and chaste actress Isabelle and decides to join the actors on their journey to Paris, where he hopes to win fame and fortune at the court and restore his family’s name. A series of adventures follows, against the backdrop of attempts by a villainous young Duke to kidnap Isabelle, who turns out to be the Duke’s sister. It all ends happily and the castle is restored to its former glory. Descriptions a bit long at times (Gautier was a fan of Victor Hugo, who was similarly afflicted), but a good rollicking story.
10. La Princesse de Clèves – Mme de La Fayette (1678)
A rare early French novel by a woman. At least I think it’s rare. Before the 20th century the only one I can think of is George Sand, but of course I don’t know French literature as well as I do its English counterpart. Do any of my readers know of any more? I’d be pleased to be put right. La Princesse de Clèves is a story of courtly manners at the court of Henri II (1547-1559). The eponymous Princess is beautiful and innocent (a bit too good to be true, really). She marries a man she respects but does not love and then falls hopelessly in love with a dazzling Duke who has numerous conquests to his name. Their love is never consummated, however, although the husband realises what’s afoot. All ends sadly, naturally…
For numbers 1 to 5 click here.
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