My French Fiction Favorites

Me in front of Alexandre Dumas’ crypt at the Pantheon in Paris in 2018. (Photo by Laurel Cummins.)

Today is the birthday of my wife, Laurel Cummins, who’s a French professor. One way I decided to mark the occasion was by ranking my favorite novels by French authors. Thirty-three made the list (chosen from among the 50 or so I’ve read), meaning some great works I’ve never gotten to are of course missing. 😦 Here goes…

33. Nausea (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre: A thought-provoking, philosophical novel that stars a self-loathing protagonist, but the near-total lack of plot makes it a tough read.

32. Therese Raquin (1868) by Emile Zola: This early EZ novel is a potboiler nowhere near as good as the author’s more mature later work, but its depiction of scandalous behavior holds one’s interest.

31. Alien Hearts (1890) by Guy de Maupassant: About a young aristocratic “nobody” infatuated with a popular, conceited, wealthy young widow.

30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne: In which we’re “finding Nemo” (Captain Nemo) and a Nautilus that’s a submarine rather than an exercise machine. Great science fiction.

29. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne: Not about the travels of the rock band Journey. More great sci-fi.

28. The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) by Stendhal: The memorable saga of an Italian nobleman in the Napoleonic era.

27. Nana (1880) by Emile Zola: This sexually frank-for-its-time novel chronicles the life of an initially impoverished woman who becomes a “high-class prostitute.”

26. Cesar Birotteau (1837) by Honore de Balzac: The struggles of an honest middle-class merchant who’s lured into financially overextending himself.

25. The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A heartwarming, partly sad book ostensibly for younger readers that’s more a book for adults.

24. Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) by Jules Verne: The classic adventure novel about a trip for the ages.

23. Swann’s Way (1913) by Marcel Proust: The first volume of In Search of Lost Time is gorgeously written but not exactly a page-turner. (I haven’t read the later volumes.)

22. The Masterpiece (1886) by Emile Zola: A compelling look at an intense, unhappy artist.

21. The Magic Skin (1831) by Honore de Balzac: Mixes the fantastical with the debauched.

20. The Black Tulip (1850) by Alexandre Dumas: Flower contest! (Actually, there’s other stuff, too.)

19. The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: As existential as the aforementioned Nausea, but a more gripping read.

18. The Ladies’ Delight (1883) by Emile Zola: A huge department store wreaks havoc on mom-and-pop retailers in Paris. The novel co-stars an admirable shopgirl.

17. Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac: About the sympathetic daughter of a rich, miserly man.

16. Desert (1980) by J.M.G. Le Clezio: This fascinating take on colonialism and more focuses on a young North African woman who travels to France.

15. Lelia (1833) by George Sand: A richly written work starring an intellectual woman.

14. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: Delightful swashbuckler that was followed by a number of pretty good sequels.

13. The Beast in Man (1890) by Emile Zola: About a train and a tempestuous romance.

12. Georges (1843) by Alexandre Dumas: The only novel the biracial Dumas wrote featuring a Black protagonist, and it’s terrific.

11. Claudine at School (1900) by Colette: The funniest book on this list. (Colette would go on to write a number of other excellent novels in a more serious vein.)

10. Old Goriot (1835) by Honore de Balzac: Features the once-wealthy title character, an ambitious young law student, and plenty of intrigue.

9. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert: One of literature’s most famous stories of adultery.

8. Candide (1759) by Voltaire: There are few pre-1800 novels more readable than this satirical work.

7. The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus: A riveting saga of characters living through an epidemic that feels both real and metaphorical.

6. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo: The Broadway hit that was a pre-Broadway classic novel.

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo: The iconic tale of Quasimodo and the iconic Parisian cathedral.

4. The Vagabond (1910) by Colette: A semi-autobiographical work about an independent woman dancer resisting a pull toward conventionality.

3. The Drinking Den (1877) by Emile Zola: An unforgettable look at the devastating alcoholic decline of a couple. (The parents of the aforementioned Nana.)

2. Germinal (1885) by Emile Zola: Miners in one of the major novels of the 19th century.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: A sweeping revenge tale that might boast the best payback plot ever.

Your favorite novels by French authors?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town getting a high LGBTQ+ rating and other topics — is here.

96 thoughts on “My French Fiction Favorites

    • Thank you, Maggie! Definitely an excellent Verne novel. It was years ago that I read a number of his books, so, who knows, I might rate “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” higher if I reread it. πŸ™‚

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  1. Happy birthday to your wife, Dave!
    Wow, I’ve read 7 of these books, all when I was younger.
    I had no idea Jules Verne was French. I loved his adventures.
    I even read Les Miserables many years ago. They’ll make a musical out of the saddest stories. I know there are a couple of good outcomes, but I always think musicals should be happy.
    Anyway, it’s a great list!
    Oh, I even read 1 John Paul Sartre book, about 25 years ago. Actually, it was a book on existentialism…I think Being and Nothingness. Some intellectual friends made me think I had to read it or???
    Well, it took me months…months to read it.
    Some pages I read 4 or 5 times.
    Honestly, I didn’t understand much, and it flew from my mind as fast as the wind.
    The main thing is, I read it. Never will I read another of his books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Favourites already there, though Germinal’s not exactly a favourite – A level set book, years ago. Keep meaning to read Claudine, named, with Antonia White’s sinister Frost in May as one of the greatest school based novels.
    Still has to be Candide though, even if not officially a novel, or any Asterix. ,
    ,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! I realize “Germinal” is not everyone’s favorite, but it had a big impact on me — the vivid characters, the mining conditions, the strike, that poor horse in the mine, etc. “Claudine at School” (and, to a lesser extent, its sequels) IS a really great school-based novel. Thanks for the other mentions, too — “Candide” is indeed a fantastic work.

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  3. My recent and current fave is Stendhal, but in the past I have read, happily, a number of French fiction writers, including: Charles Nodier (“Smarra, or The Demons of the Night”), Theophile Gauthier (“Clarimonde”), Gustave Flaubert (“Salammbo”), Arthur Rimbaud (“Illuminations”)Andre Gide (“The Immoralist”), Albert Camus (“The Stranger”) Jean Genet (“Our Lady of the Flowers”), Honore Balzac (“Old Goriot”), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (“Journey to the End of the Night”) Jean Cocteau (Les Enfants Terribles”), Raymond Radiguet (The Ball of Count Orgel”), Jean-Paul Sartre(“Nausea”) Simenon (the Maigret mysteries), Jean-Patrick Manchette (“Nada”).

    Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” is a series of prose-poems, but as the words go all the way to the end of the right-hand margin, I’m throwing it in. Also, Celine was an awful man who happened to write compellingly, and Jean Genet was a career criminal who wrote, once he landed on this line of work, like a twisted angel. These last two are not be taken on without some caution.

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    • I should add: all I’ve read of French authors have come to me by way of translations into English, and of course, I’ve read a few other books by some of these authors, and a few other French authors.

      I had hoped to make a list of books unlisted by you, Dave, but I see now that “Nausea” is a repeat, and I’m sick about it.

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        • Thank you, jhNY! I appreciate all the works and authors you mentioned, almost all of which I didn’t mention. (Clever references by you to the two novels we both cited. πŸ™‚ ) You are VERY widely read in French literature — and of course in other literature.

          And, yes, some authors are not very good people. Still worth reading, in many cases.

          I was at the library Monday and looked for Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black,” among other novels by French authors, but alas it wasn’t there. Maybe next time.

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  4. My mother-in-law had an MA in French literature and used to teach extension courses on it at Berkeley. Proust was her favorite, but she also admired a seventeenth-century novel by Madame de Lafayette called “The Princess of Cleves.” As for me, I like Simenon and don’t consider it a guilty pleasure. And to add a few more women authors to the mix, I’ve enjoyed novels by Simone de Beavoir, Marguerite Duras, and Irene Nemi
    rovsky.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jean!

      Glad you added more French women authors to the mix; I felt bad that my list included so few, even as I probably read more female writers than male writers from various countries other than France — including the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia. Will see if my local library has at least one of the French writers you mentioned.

      As for Proust — your mother-in-law’s favorite — I acknowledge his genius but found him tough going and abandoned “In Search of Lost Time” after “Swann’s Way.”

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  5. Dave, last night my mind was revolving aroud Novels by the French author Françoise Sagan.
    I`ve read so many of her Novels in my teens and of course in English.
    Bonjour Tristesse, A Certain Smile, Aimez-vous Brahms? and so on.
    They were very adult readings, but she wrote them in her teens. I don`t remember how I got hold of those novels, perhaps my Brother had them or from the Library.

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  6. A truly great selection! I love the fact that Victor Hugo is so high on your list and you included both The Hunchback and Les MisΓ©rables. I have recently read his novella The Last Day of a Condemned Man and it would be included in my list of top reads of 2022. My childhood was full of Dumas and Verne, and I completely agree on your Camus and Balzac choices. I would have picked the same books (and maybe added Balzac’s The Black Sheep & Lost Illusions). The French also produced great mysteries. Gaston Leroux is the name here, as well as books my Boileau-Narcejac.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much, Diana!

      I will look for “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” during my next library trip. Somehow I’ve only read two Victor Hugo novels.

      A childhood full of Dumas and Verne is a great reading childhood. πŸ™‚

      Your mention of Balzac’s “The Black Sheep” made me realize I read it years ago and forgot to include it in my list. Oops. πŸ™‚ It IS an excellent novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I read Candide, Le Petit Prince, L’Etranger, and Huis Clos in my high school French class in French. It was a struggle; the experience turned me off to French literature. I had to read Pere Goriot and Madame Bovary in college. Again, a big turnoff.
    The only novel by a French author that I really enjoyed (and understood) was Planet of the Apes which I read in junior high. In English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, vanaltman! That was quite a high school class you had! Sorry that you haven’t enjoyed French literature a lot. Some novels — French or otherwise — that I read while a student I liked better when I reread them years later. (Including “Moby-Dick,” “Middlemarch,” and “The Scarlet Letter.”)

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  8. My fave, Pierre Boulle’s “Planet of the Apes” In addition, not so much a novel, but a brilliant little fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, “La Belle et La Bete”. As an aside, I must say I disliked Madame Bovary by Flaubert, yet it was required reading, in my Lit class. Since reading it, I’ve always looked upon Flaubert as a real misogynist. In fact, as histrionic as Flaubert portrayed her, I think Madame Ovary would have been a better nom de plume or maybe Karen, ha. Read Sarte when I was studying philosophy yet could never really wrap my mind around existentialism nor could I re: Descartes Cogito Erso Sum in other words when it comes to these two philosphers: No exit, I think not. I very much like Andre Breton’s poems, although a lot of individuals consider him a bad poet; however, it is his take on surrealism especially re: Magritte’s art that I really enjoy. Anyhoo, very happy birthday to your sweetie and many more. Wonderful theme, Dave. Susi

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    • Thank you, Susi, for the birthday wishes and wide-ranging comment! I agree that there’s definitely some misogyny in “Madame Bovary” — unfortunately, also often the case with many other male authors of the 19th century, whether from France or elsewhere.

      And, yes, Sartre is not the easiest writer to wrap one’s head around. “No exit, I think not” — ha ha! πŸ™‚

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  9. Happy Birthday to your wife, Dave. I am so glad you included “The Little Prince” – It is certainly a book for adults. I have read almost everything by Jules Verne but I must say, I never considered that I was reading French Literature. I have read other books on your list, more books than authors, but I agree with your choices.

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    • Thank you, Dan! I totally agree about “The Little Prince” being a book for grown-ups (sort of in the disguise of a book for younger readers). And I hear you about Jules Verne — it feels like one is reading general early sci-fi rather than French literature with him, though he was more than decent with his writing craft.

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  10. Happy Birthday to Laurel , the awesome Lady !

    Dave, all the books you just listed , I have read so many of then in English !

    In my teens I started taking French classes , sadly more to have a statement to show off, instead of sticking by it.

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      • Yes Dave, started going after school with some friends to a place in Park Street,where they were teaching French in ” Alliance Francaise ” in my home town.
        Just google it and surprised to see that it still exists.
        For me and some friends it was more like a fashion statement than taking it seriously.

        So later, I ended up reading well known French literature in English .

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  11. Of this list I’ve only read “Therese Raquin”, “Around the World in 80 Days”, “Madame Bovary”, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. I found that French authors of the 19th Century on the whole were more cynical (many of their endings were completely bleak) and less moralistic than British and Russian authors of the same period. Also Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were more profound than any French authors that I’ve read. Probably my favorite work of French literature is Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” which is a masterpiece of concision.

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    • I’ve read part of “Les Miserables”, maybe the rather old fashioned English translation that I read on the net did not hold my interest, the dialogue came out as very stilted.

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      • Thank you, Anonymous! Nineteenth-century French novels were certainly more candid about sexual matters than their English and Russian counterparts. You might be right that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were more profound than any author from France (or other country), but there were certainly some pretty profound authors from France and other non-Russia nations. And, yes, “The Necklace” is an incredible short story.

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  12. Best birthday wishes for your wife, Dave πŸ™‚ Quite an impressive list! With the exception of J.M.G. Le Clezio, I’m familiar with these great French novelists but have read little of their work. While living in Brazil, I bought a collection of the works of Jules Verne for my sons to practice their English. I’ve also read The Three Musketeers and The Little Prince. The latter is one of those simple stories with big lessons about life.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene! From what I remember, J.M.G. Le Clezio was little known outside of France until he won the Nobel Prize in 2008. His work then became more available (including in English) and I read “Desert” soon after. It’s a mesmerizing novel.

      Wonderful for your sons to have practiced English with the novels of Jules Verne! Talk about making learning fun and interesting. πŸ™‚ And your description of “The Little Prince” is spot-on.

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  13. As I read you countdown, Dave, I kept hoping that β€œThe Count of Monte Conte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas would be you # 1 choice. As you know, I read this book behind a math text in grade 8. I couldn’t put it down.

    Happy Birthday Laurel. Celebrating your special day on my side of the world.

    The French novel that most influenced me over the years (besides The Count) – well actually it is a novella – was The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry. I understand that it was first published in both English and French in the U.S. The year was 1943 and it was banned by the Vichy Regime. It was published posthumously in France after the liberation. Regrettably the author died on a reconnaissance mission from Corsica over the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944. He was part of the Free French Air Force in North Africa.

    I give you this background because the story has more depth for me, given Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry’s courage and determination to combat darkness.

    I often wonder what he would think if he knew The Little Prince would inspire the world. I have read that it has been translated in hundreds of languages and dialects and has sold millions of copies.

    Its themes of love, friendship, and adventure have captivated generations. I believe that The Little Prince is a symbol of the power of the written word to bring people together and spread love and understanding.

    β€œThe most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry,

    Thank you for another brilliant post and follow-up conversation.

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    • Thank you, Rebecca, for the birthday wishes and for your comment! I’m glad the end of my countdown didn’t disappoint. πŸ™‚ “The Count of Monte Cristo” IS about as riveting as a novel can get. Beats looking at a math textbook eight days a week. πŸ™‚ (My math might be one day off there…)

      I appreciate that interesting information you provided about “The Little Prince” and its author. A humanistic novella that really sticks in one’s mind. Such a shame he didn’t have decades to enjoy the success of his sublime creation. 😦 And, as always, you cited a wonderful quote.

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  14. So many great French works I’ve yet to read! I recommend Camus’ “The Fall” which is his best IMHO. The also mentioned “The Red and the Black,” was a great read (and strangely in retrospect, reminds me of Pushkin’s prose novel “Eugene Onegin.”) Two plays come to mind: Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”

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  15. You give us here a long list of excellent books, the last one, which I have read approximately a year ago is LELIA by AndrΓ© Maurois and the courageous life of George Sand.
    At the moment I’m devouring β€œL’ANOMALIE” by HervΓ© Le Tellier, the winner of
    The Prix Goncourt 2020. This masterful novel, which is also full of humour, encounters logic as well as magic. This great novel investigates the part of us, that is unknown to us.
    Many thanks, Dave, for your reading proposals for Christmas.

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    • Thank you, Michael! Wonderful that your wife adapted two Zola works! πŸ™‚ I haven’t gotten to “Earth” yet, but found “The Ladies’ Delight” really engrossing.

      I unfortunately haven’t read “The Red and the Black,” but will at some point. I’m sure it would have made my list.

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  16. A nice little trip down memory lane for me. I too visited that chamber in recent years but I was there for Zola primarily.
    So many brilliant books on this list. Some I’ve read and some yet to finish…Zola is by far my favourite and I’ve read a number of the books you mentioned. One not here that i really enjoyed is Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant. I appreciate you can’t mention them all of course – bit like picking a favourite child πŸ˜‰
    Anyway, I do hope your wife has a fabulous birthday and she has a very special day.

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    • Thank you, Sarah! Glad you’re also a big fan of Zola’s work! When I visited the Pantheon, I saw his tomb, too. (If I’m remembering right, the resting place of him, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo were all in the same room.) Many of Zola’s novels are really compelling.

      “Alien Hearts” is the only de Maupassant novel I’ve read; I will look for “Bel-Ami.” I’ve also read a number of his short stories, including of course his often-anthologized “The Necklace.”

      Thank you for the birthday wishes for my wife!

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      • You’re very welcome – I’m sure you have a lovely day ahead…maybe planning your next trip to Europe!
        Yes, that’s correct, all 3 are together. The Pantheon is a very special place really.
        ‘The Necklace’ by de Maupassant is a toe-curlingly great story. He is a very good author. I haven’t read ‘Alien Hearts’ but I too have read a number of his short stories and I’ve even had a go at reading one or two in French. I’m not sure how successful I was and probably overlooked much of the nuance! I’ll stick to English in future…

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        • The Pantheon IS incredible, Sarah. As you know, also there are Voltaire, Marie Curie, and many others.

          And I agree that “The Necklace” is an ultra-memorable tale — with that shocking conclusion, of course.

          Impressive that you tried reading de Maupassant in French!

          I’ll get back to Europe one of these days… (Been there seven times. πŸ™‚ )

          Liked by 2 people

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