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Young girl reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Boring French Classics...Think again

By Deborah Berlioz and Agnes Joffre

New Year has come and brought its stream of good resolutions. Reading classics is definitely a standard one. I have to confess that, every year, in January, I read the thirty first pages of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and every year, I’m deeply convinced I will have done with it. And with all Jane Austen’s novels. No less.

True, this is a laudable intention: do you know a better way to sparkle in society and to blossom personally at the same time? I don’t.  But, I’m certainly not that sparkling nor blossomed since, concerning Tolstoy, I always get stuck at page 42. Here is the truth: I’d love to read classics but when I begin, I just don’t want to anymore!

Am I a hopeless case? Maybe  I should just set myself lower expectations? Tolstoy may be jumping in at the deep end slightly if you are not an experienced reader. But, how can we then make good choices in this ocean of books? There are so many  which can be read without boring you to death, you just have to find them!

FranceinLondon is here to help, as far as French literature is concerned. Oh please, come on!  Don’t flee away as soon as French literature is mentioned! You are no longer those little children who haven’t done their French homework ! I understand that your French teacher was a sadist who picked the most boring lines of French literature. If you were really unlucky, he/she probably also forced you to learn them off by heart. But pull yourself together! Your school days are far behind you: It’s time for a reconciliation.

And you are lucky: no embittered and vicious French teacher works at FranceinLondon. That’s why our selection is absolutely not boring or academic. Actually, each journalist has picked five books she regards as accessible classics of French literature and explained why. Moreover, as we are all very very nice, you don’t have to revamp your old French dictionary. We found English translations for you! However if you feel like reading it in French… you still can!

Deborah’s selection

“Au Bonheur des Dames”, Emile Zola

Au Bonheur des Dames
Au Bonheur des Dames

When I was fourteen, my French teacher forced us to read “Germinal”. It was a very painful experience and I thought I could never be reconciled with Emile Zola. But one day, my sister gave me “Au bonheur des dames”, ensuring me it was a much lighter read than Zola’s dark story about Northern miners. And she was right! The novel is the story of a young orphan, Denise, coming to Paris and working in a department store. Zola fuses a traditional romantic plot (will Denise fall in love with her boss Oscar Mouret?), with the description of sensual pleasures of 19th-century Parisian shopping. But those pleasures are linked with the cost of big retail. Just as a giant beast, the huge retailer consumes everything on its path, killing all the traditional little retail stores one by one. The genius writer manages to anticipate almost every economic and social critique that later generations could make about big stores. Just amazing.

English version: £6.49 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop 

“Le Horla”, Guy de Maupassant

Le Horla (Cover: Autoportrait by Gustave Courbet)
Le Horla (Cover: Autoportrait by Gustave Courbet)

The only Maupassant’s book you've ever read is “A Woman’s life” (Une Vie)? Poor you! I sympathise that this book is quite long and really rather depressing and I would not be surprised if you never tried to discover more of this famous 19th century author. But have a look at “The Horla”. In the form of a journal, the narrator conveys his troubled thoughts and feelings of anguish. All around him, he senses the presence of a being that he calls the "Horla”), which progressively dominates his thoughts. Its presence becomes so intolerable to the protagonist, that he is ready to kill either the Horla, or himself. A real classic tale of the fantastic, which has a lot in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

The Horla: £10.95 on Amazon 

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop

“Le Père Goriot”, Honoré de Balzac

Père Goriot
Père Goriot

“Le Père Goriot” is one of the most widely read books written by Balzac. The novel is set in Paris in 1819, during the Bourbon Restoration. A young provincial man, Rastignac, is determined to succeed and to get place amongst the Parisian aristocracy at any cost. On his way, he meets Goriot, a father who sacrificed everything for his two daughters. Through this story, Balzac analyses the nature of family and marriage, providing a pessimistic view on these institutions. “Le Père Goriot” is actually the first book of an enormous series, “La Comédie humaine”, that paints a panoramic portrait of almost all aspects of society. The conclusions are not often cheerful, but always amazingly interesting.

"Pere Goriot" (English translation): £7.95 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop

“Candide, or optimism”, Voltaire


Candide is the young son of a count, living a sheltered life in Westphalia. He ‘s indoctrinated with Optimism, the philosophy of his tutor Pangloss, who keeps repeating that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. But his existence will abruptly cease and be followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world. This funny and satirical novel, written in 1759 was a huge scandal at the time. What, at first glance, seems to be an innocent tale, soon turns out to be a brutal assault on government, society, religion, education, and so on. A real revolutionary pamphlet! Choose a commentated version if you want to appreciate the whole subtleties of this masterpiece.

"Candide, or optimism": £4.49 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop

“The Outsider” (l'Etranger), Albert Camus

The Outsider
The Outsider

The novel begins with the death of the narrator’s mother: 'Aujourd'hui maman est morte.' Meursault, a French man living in Alger. His inability to manifest any sadness shocks everyone. So imagine the reaction of society when, later on, this seemingly law-abiding bachelor commits a random act of violence and does not show any remorse at his trial… Soon, Meursault discovers that he is being tried more for his lack of emotions than for his crime; this reaction condemning him for being an Outsider. This novel is a very interesting exhibition of the absurdity of human existence in an indifferent universe. Real food for thought.

The Outsider: £5.99 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop


Agnès's selection

- " Promise at Dawn" ("La Promesse de l'Aube"), Romain Gary 

"La Promesse de l'Aube" on stage

Romain Gary’s « Promise at Dawn » was published in 1960 and was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece in the whole world. And how could it be otherwise? This fictionalised autobiography is simply a marvel of poetry, aptness, verity, humour and reserve. Romain Gary reflects on his childhood and youth in the light of his relation with his mother. And what a mother!  Touching and admirable, she loves and believes in him so much that she made huge sacrifices and urged him towards goals he had never even dreamed of. It is the story of two promises. One he made to himself that he would be worthy of her sacrifices. He kept it. The other, however,he betrayed:  the love given by his mother was so pure, so strong and so sincere that he thought that it was what life was about. And yet, he could never fill the gap of her loss and find such a love again. Actually he was condemned to feel abandoned.

One of the most beautiful and perceptive tribute to one’s mother and one of my favourite books ever. 

Promise at Dawn: £15.30 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop


- "The Last Day of a Condemned Man" ("Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné"), Victor Hugo

"Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné"

How could we speak about French literature without mentioning Victor Hugo?  Don't worry, I decided to be nice and not recommend one of his long books that may have previously left you traumatized. I have picked a short novel, "The Last Day of a Condemned Man", which shows all Victor Hugo’s genius in a much reduced number of pages. Published anonymously in 1829, this novel imitates the diary of a young man who has been condemned to death by guillotine. whoever he is or how he looks like or even what he did, we never really know- the point is to get under his skin, to feel the way he feels. And it works. Victor Hugo displays all his talents carrying out one of the most powerful advocacies against the death penalty  and signing a text with a great romantic intensity and an incredibly accurate analysis. A must-read.  

The Last Day of a Condemned Man: £8.89 on Amazon 

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop


- "Foam of the Daze" ("L'Ecume des Jours"), Boris Vian

"L'Ecume des Jours"

A symphony of love, dreams, music and imagination. Don’t try to read it if you are a fan of Realism, this is just the contrary. The action is set in an absurd universe and is totally absurd itself. Or, to be more accurate, metaphorical and poetic. Moreover, this amazing novel is not as crazy and harmless as it seems. It includes a major critique of  society, its superficiality, its hypocritical religious morals, its stupid alienation by crazes, the difficulties of working life… Eventually it may not be just Boris Vian’s story which is totally absurd!

Foam of the Daze: £12.14 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop


- "The Count of Monte Cristo" ("Le Comte de Monte Cristo"), Alexandre Dumas

"Le Comte de Monte Cristo"

If you have never read “The Count of Monte Cristo”, you must have read“The three Musketeers”. Alexandre Dumas is such a giant of French literature that you could not have missed his work. Moreover, reading one of this book is as entertaining as watching an action movie. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is my favourite. Some mocking people would say it’s because it partly deals with love… However the main theme remains revenge. Portraits are sublime and the story is captivating and leads to a deeper reflection on justice and society. The hero Edmond Dantès has without a doubt become the character of revenge in French literature. A classic to be read and reread.  

The Count of Monte Cristo: £1.99 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop

- "Les Belles Images", Simone de Beauvoir

"Les Belles Images"

Finding Simone de Beauvoir in a short selection of classics is not that common,  and finding « Les Belles Images » must be even more unusual. Actually, I read it a few weeks ago and I was so moved that I couldn’t write something about literature without recommending it. And yet, I’m not such a fan of Simone de Beauvoir’s style. But it is so beautiful, subtle and brilliant that everyone should definitely read it. The main character Laurence seems to be an accomplished woman who seems unnable to be happy. Actually it’s as if she cannot feel anything, as if society and its codes, its obsession with image have made her a monster of coldness and indifference. Simone de Beauvoir must have felt quite the same way and so may many women in the 60’s. She emphasizes the muffling flipside of in the “right-thinking” and hypocrite petty bourgeoisie, wondering how could anybody be happy and blossom in such circumstances. This book deals with the fight of a woman for happiness both for herself and for her children. Simply outstanding while quite depressing.  

Les Belles Images: £13.00 on Amazon

And to get the French version, go to the French Bookshop


The experts’ opinion

To complete its selection, France in London asked some books experts to pick their favourite French classics up. Here is their selection.

Geraldine d’Amico’s selection

Geraldine D’Amico was the Book Attaché of the French Embassy during six years, and now, she organizes the Jewish Book Week.


Le Voyageur sans bagages
Le Voyageur sans bagages

 “Le Voyageur sans bagages” (Traveller without luggage), by Jean Anouilh: it's a beautiful play about family, the one we'd love, the one we have... and drama might be easier to read than novels.


   “Ensemble c'est tout” (Hunting and Gathering), by Anna Gavalda: it looks enormous but is actually a very quick read because it is mostly dialogues. A wonderful and uplifting novel, the fiction equivalent to Amelie in a way. And what a satisfaction when you've read a 600-page novel!


   “L'homme qui plantait des arbres” (The man who planted trees), by Jean Giono: a short but urgent ecological tale. Must read. 



Asterix the Gaul
Asterix the Gaul

“Asterix le Gaulois” (Asterix the Gaul), by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo:  because this is the best and fastest way to understand the French mentality. And if it proves difficult to understand with all its wonderful play on word, read it along Anthea Bell award winning translation.


   “Paroles”, by Jacques Prevert: pure and simple magic with words


For more advanced readers:



La Chartreuse de Parme
La Chartreuse de Parme

“La Chartreuse de Parme”(The Charterhouse of Parma), by Stendhal: the French War and Peace but shorter and more fun. He dictated and you can feel it when you read it, never a boring moment!


   “Cannibales” (English translation: Welcome to Paradise), by Mahi Benibine: because so much good French language literature now comes from outside the Hexagone. Written by a Moroccan, this is a heartbreaking novel about desperate immigration, which gives back their dignity and humanity to the supposed "invaders".


Don't forget to tell us below which French Classics you would strongly recommend.


11/12/2011 - wayne.seymour said :

This free sharing of information seems too good to be true. Like communism.

08/04/2010 - annelriou said :

belles du seigneur albert cohen is not to be missed too...

07/04/2010 - jacki.kilbourne said :

Interesting article - would like a book section every newsletter
Maybe reader's recommended read. e.g. Sac des Billes par M Joffo, which I read and enjoyed lately.


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