10 Francophone Books
International travel may be off the cards for a while, but there is a tried-and-tested substitute that is always available. These books from French-speaking authors will allow you to escape to foreign shores without leaving your living room.
Francophone countries have some of the richest and most varied literatures in the world. This makes it incredibly hard to compile a list of only ten.
My focus therefore is on readability. There is great variety in the time periods and styles of my selections, but all the works chosen are engaging and enjoyable for any reader.
Of course, there are thousands of Francophone writers who deserve to be read. Notable omissions from my list include Proust, Duras, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Balzac, Sand and Stendhal to name but a few. Raymond Queneau was in until the final revision.
I’ve steered clear of some of the more obvious choices that are already very well-known in the English-speaking world. That means there’s no place for Camus’s Stranger, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince.
Through these ten outstanding works of literature, you will be able to explore three continents from your armchair. C’est parti!
10 Francophone Books that are better than travelling
- Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1816): Constant’s romantic masterpiece is a loosely autobiographical account of an all-consuming love. Unsurprisingly, the emotional turmoil is unrelenting: the plight of the tormented first-person narrator is crushingly tragic.
- Huis clos (No Exit) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944): The concept of Sartre’s existentialist classic may seem familiar to many readers forced to remain inside during this coronavirus pandemic. Its three deceased protagonists are condemned to spend all eternity together, giving rise to the famous line: L’enfer, c’est les autres (‘Hell is other people’). This may not be escapist reading, but it is a compelling play and will be a timely reminder that a few months locked inside now is not all that bad.
- Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Return to my native land) by Aimé Césaire (1939): The father of “négritude” coined that term in this free-verse lyrical voyage. The return to Martinique allows Césaire to question the inherent racism of colonialism through some of the most beautiful verses written in the French language.
- La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678): As well as being one of the earliest examples of a psychological novel, this classic work offers unrivalled access to the court of Henri II. An intriguing love story and highly readable tale of self-representation and disguise, La Princesse de Clèves deals with questions of identity in a strikingly modern way.
- Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) by Simone de Beauvoir (1949): An eye-opening feminist treaty that started the second wave, Le Deuxième Sexe remains a must-read today. The existentialist writer shows the devastating effects of a society that continues to present “man” as the default and “woman” as its variant.
- Candide, ou l’optimisme by Voltaire (1759): This is the most well-known of the prolific eighteenth-century writer’s diverse output. Voltaire’s novella is a parody of the bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) and strikes a decidedly satirical tone, which provoked controversy at the book’s publication.
- Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, Julia Deck (2012): The contemporary writer’s debut novel is a psychological drama that puts the reader in the place of a murderer. The title character is a forty-two year old woman who has just killed her psychiatrist. Deck’s prose is terse and quirky, and the central character is believable. This is a fascinating insight into the pressures placed on many in our modern societies.
- Le Misanthrope by Molière (1666): Occupying a liminal space between comedy and tragedy, this is Molière’s greatest achievement. Alceste is the eponymous miser, the sworn enemy of all mankind who falls in love with the coquette, Célimène. As always, Molière ridicules sections of his society that take themselves too seriously, but here the derision is more subtle and nuanced.
- La Belle Bête (Mad Shadows) by Marie-Claire Blais (1959): The Québécois writer’s debut novel shocks the reader with its representation of a highly dysfunctional family. The disturbing world that Blais creates will have a lasting impact on the reader.
- Essais by Michel de Montaigne (1570–92): Montaigne isolated himself in a castle in the Dordogne and spent the last twenty years of his life reading and writing. His Essais are the result of this: an epic collection of reflections on numerous philosophical issues with scepticism, humanism and stoicism being the three major strands that structure his thinking. It may be more than four-hundred years old, but his words remain relevant and enthralling.
What do you think of my choices? And what are your all-time favourite Francophone books?
This is my post for Day 3 of the Illumination 30-Day Challenge. Here is my writer profile:
And if you need some encouragement to get reading again: