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.