An Introduction to French Literature

This is turning into a frantic end of the week. My husband has a school reunion party on Saturday and one of his friends is bringing his wife to stay with us over the weekend (we don’t live far from the people hosting the party). I wish I could say I was a laid-back hostess, but I’m not. I worry about the meals that need preparing and the state of the house. I first met this particular group of friends at a Christmas party back in 1987. I had just started dating my husband and we had returned to our respective homes (by chance 10 mins drive apart) after our first university term. When he invited me to meet his schoolfriends, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. He’d been to an all boys school, and I met 15 or so charming young men who, once we’d all had something to eat, sat down around a piano (expertly played by one member of the group) and sang Christmas carols (with the bass and the descant parts finely represented). I tried not to leave my mouth hanging open. Now it’s not like I ran around with a group that was heavily into drinking and trashing their parent’s houses, but the most we could manage for sophistication was some feeble in-joking. I mean, I’d heard of Stepford wives, but Stepford teenage boys? ‘What I like about my friends,’ my husband sighed happily, ‘is that we’re all so different.’ Different? Which one was the anarchist? Anyhow, almost twenty years on (and how old that makes me feel!) those charming boys have developed into fine men, and they are meeting up with their families.

Being congenitally scared of parties, even with people I know at them, I would much rather think about French literature than the prospect of the reunion. In fact there are very few times when I wouldn’t rather be thinking of literature than just about anything else, but that’s peculiar so we won’t go there. I did say I’d do a little introductory guide for anyone interested in reading something French. To begin with I thought I could identify the Frenchness of French lit, and pick up on various authors and novels as I did so, but then I thought that was beyond my powers of convergence, and so I decided instead to mimic the first year introductory course that I teach to my new students, and pick out a book or two in each century from the 17th onwards that might be of interest.

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette. I don’t tend to go this far back in history myself, so my knowledge of the 17th century is sketchy at best, but I taught this novel for many years and loved it more every time I read it. It’s the story of a very young woman whose beauty takes the French court by storm when she arrives in it. Her mother marries her off to the best suitor she can find – such is the custom of the times – and then dies, making her daughter promise to maintain her virtue above all else. Now this is quite a deathbed legacy; marriage is a political alliance, not a love match, and so it is quite understood that intrigue and liaisons will abound. Her mother has essentially decreed that she should be exceptional, not least since, having married her to the dull but worthy Prince of Cleves, she then falls in love with the dashing Prince of Nemours. How will the young Princess manage this situation without her mother to guide her? Her responses are profoundly surprising. I’d love to write more on this book, and will gladly do so if anyone decides to read it.

Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. One of the great epistolary novels and a fascinating portrait of the aristocratic society that brought the wrath of the great Revolution down upon its bewigged heads (literally). Machiavellian schemers, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont used to be lovers, and now they are rivals and partners in crime in a secretive and menacing game of libertinage. At stake is Valmont’s ability to seduce a woman of extreme virtue, Madame de Tourvel, and his first and possibly worst mistake, is to fall in love with her. Ah the seductive power of being bad in a clever way, and describing terrible exploits in polished, elegantly philosophical prose. Love, sex, revenge, wit, and those really nice brocade chaise longues.

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac. I wasn’t sure which Balzac novel to pick – there are quite a lot of them, and academics like to talk about their hypertext dimension. To you and me it means that Balzac envisaged a whole society, written like an immense family tree across three walls of a room in his house (over 5,000 characters if you include the animals) and some of his famous characters crop up in more than one novel. Balzac didn’t invent realism in France, he didn’t even perfect it, he was it. In this novel, ideology is shifting away from the stranglehold of patriarchy, and so this is a tale of flawed men and ferocious women. The cousin Bette of the title is an ugly and vicious old maid who has suffered neglect and disrespect in a society ruled by beauty and money because she has neither. She vows revenge on the family who charitably took her in (this being something they have never let her forget), and teaming up with the new breed of management-style courtesan (a very scary type in 19th century fiction, which was mostly written by scared men), one Valerie Marneffe, they set to work destroying the family fortunes. This is more than just a novel, it’s a detailed social history of how people loved, lived, ate, entertained themselves and made art. Very accessible and lots of fun.

The Plague by Albert Camus. The 20th century is my playground, so it’s almost impossible to pick just the one book out of it. I’m a big fan of Camus, but if you read him, you really ought to read either Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre too, just to keep it all even handed. These three authors produced the work that drove the Existentialist movement in France, and it was a huge watershed in literary and philosophical thought. They also loved one another, and fell out publicly with one another, and hung out in the Café des Flores in Paris, and were extremely cool. Anyhow, to get back to the book, I put off reading this for years, thinking that a novel about a nasty plague was going to be too queasy and depressing for words. In the end I was obliged to teach it, and so started off with gritted teeth. But then I found a work of haunting sensitivity, of extraordinary characters battling in different ways against the inexplicable threat of sudden death, the beauty of companionship forged in extreme circumstances, and profound questions on religion, meaning, history and suffering. Camus is one of those writers who works quietly and subtly on the souls of his readers. I don’t think you can read his work and not be changed, or at least moved, by what he does. His is an enigmatic and ambivalent literary sensibility; he will spend his time posing questions rather than answering them, but I find him perpetually engaging and a worthy standard bearer for the preoccupations of art in the modern world.

Hannah’s Diary by Louise Lambrichs. I’m cheating rather by slipping this novel into the 21st century (it was published in 1999). It’s the tale of a woman who is forced to abort a much wanted second child in war-torn France because she is Jewish and afraid of being captured via the bureaucracy of childbirth. It’s a decision forced upon her by her Resistance-fighter husband, and one that torments her subsequently. But strangely enough, the unborn child, Louise, starts to live and grow in real time in the vivid dreams Hannah keeps having. Not only is she reunited in her dreams with her lost child, but also with the rest of her family who have been murdered in the Holocaust. This is a moving, gentle, subtle tale of a breakdown that almost happens, and of the bizarre contortions our minds will perform in the effort to solve insurmountable traumas. Louise Lambrichs isn’t known very well anywhere; not in her native France, nor abroad, but she is a wonderful writer who deserves recognition. I’m hoping more of her books will be translated because this is not her best by any means. French contemporary writing is very interesting at the moment because it’s strongly experimental; but that does mean that books are often odd and eccentric. One of my most intriguing reads of late was Rosie Carpe by Marie Ndiaye. It’s the strangest novel; Rosie Carpe is pregnant, and rootless, encumbered by a child she neglects and parents growing younger by the day. In an attempt to change her life she flies to Guadeloupe in search of her brother, only to meet up instead with Lagrand, a strong, capable black man who seems to have his life under control. Only once he’s met Rosie, the inexplicable seems to happen and it’s as if they’re changing places. It’s a book that captured my imagination but it’s only for those who like their fiction off-beat and enigmatic. However, it did win France’s equivalent of the Orange Prize.

I love my French literature dearly and will talk at length about these and indeed any books that arouse the slightest interests amongst the litbloggers. If anyone decides to have a try at one of these – let me know how you get on!

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26 thoughts on “An Introduction to French Literature

  1. I have, more or less, a superficial knowledge of French prose, having studied carefully only the surrealist, Bataille and Sade. I never really got into Balzac, and even though I found Stendhal extremely appealing at first, it turned out that his work gave me way too little food for thought to study them more carefully.

    Nevertheless, I have been influenced by Bataille in my writing, and my reading of his essays, as well as the Histoire de l’oei, was love at first sight (or first read) – he had achieved what I have been trying to do for over a year now, that is, create a microcosm of symbols and concepts and then entangle them entangle them in the web of what we are told is immoral. I also share his views on pleasure, decay and the mighty forces of heterogenism that shape the world and our perceptions of it.

    Since you mentioned that the 20th century was your playfield, I was wondering if you were going to discuss Bataille in your posts.

  2. Oh, thank you for the list and descriptions! I’ve now got some things to add to the TBR list — wonderful. I love The Princess of Cleves — the ending is so extraordinary and strange. And I must re-read Dangerous Liaisons (I love epistolary novels), and the others I’ve haven’t read yet, although I do own the Balzac.

  3. Orlinator – I certainly could talk about Bataille; I’ll have a think about a good angle to consider his work from. Bikeprof and Dorothy – all book lists remind you just how many books are out there still waiting to be read! But I’m impressed you’ve read/possess so many, Dorothy!

  4. Hope that party went okay: please let us know if the dashing young men, now of course only slightly older, clustered round a piano to entertain you! I love the picture you created; it’s very Bertie Wooster … As to the French lit, I’ve read Sartre, de Beauvoir and Houellebecq, but now I’m tempted to give Balzac a try. Of course I saw Dangerous Liaisons on film (there were two versions, non?), but now think I should read the book. I will let you know how it proceeds. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Ooh, now I have some new TBR books! These look great. (I’m also interested in Bataille). What are some other strange/experimental late 20th c/early 21st c books that have been translated? I feel like I’m missing out on so much by being monolingual!

  6. I’m like you – I loathe parties – I’m usually the person standing in the corner having a deep meaningful conversation with the rubber plant.

    Of the books on your list, I have only read Les Liasons Dangereuses, and I loved it, despite not having any great affinity for epistolary novels. I have one Balzac in Mount TBR, but it’s Nana, not Cousin Bette. I will get to it eventually.

  7. These sound intriguing, especially for one who doesn’t read much “high” lit 😉

    I do hope they are available in translation, mind you. I’m currently learning German (after promising myself for 15 years that I’d get round it it), and having had nearly 2 years of lessons, I thought I’d try reading some novels. So went to Foyles to see what they had.

    For those of you abroad, Foyles is a huge 5-story labarynthine cave of books in London; some time fire-trap but lately refurbished, and much improved. They have recently started stacking their shelves sensibly too – I went there a few years ago to browse for novels, and they had them arranged alphabetically BY PUBLISHER on the shelves. I mean, how stupid is that? I’ve no idea who publishes most books… Anyway, I’m digressing.

    Foyle’s German lit section had stacks of Kafka and the like, but I really didn’t think my comprehension was up to that (in English, never mind German!). So I ended up with Roald Dahl’s “Charlie und die Schokoladenfabrik” – which I’m gamely working my way through. Certainly, my French is better than my German, but I still find it’s a pain in the butt having to look up more than a couple of words per sentance…

    Maybe I’ll dip my toe into the choppy waters of French lit; for the moment, I think I’m tempted by more Richard Russo, having enjoyed your “Straight Man” recommendation 😀

  8. I’ve read some Satre (probably just Nausea) and the Second Sex as well as some volumes of Simone De Beavoir’s memoirs. I agree they were very cool especially Simone. In fact I wanted to name my daughter Simone after her but apparently my husband went to school with someone of that name who he intensely disliked so that was vetoed. (As, for the same reason, was Imogen and a number of other perfectly good girls names). Dare I say “le sigh”

    I’ve been intermittently chuckling all day thinking about the Stepford Teenage Boys. We must be quite close in age. I first went to University in 1987 too.

  9. I’m very impressed by how much people have read – French lit is pretty esoteric in the global view of things. The party went off well, thank you, but sadly no more singing, although I did remind them of the incident to much general hilarity. There must have been more than 30 people there in a small room of the restaurant and the noise level was incredible (quite a few small children as well). I ought to have reached some degree of self-possession by now, but I feel far more comfortable lecturing to large groups of people than mingling with them… AC, I see you’ve been reading the Jacques Roubaud, so I know you to be a woman of extremely civilised taste. You might also like Dai Sijie’s novel ‘Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch’ and Jean Echenoz’s afterlife fantasy ‘Piano’. Charlotte, there were two versions of the film – you’re quite right and I look forward to hearing how you get on with Balzac. Nana is a fantastic book, Cas, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, and Caz, let me know how you get on with the German – very courageous to tackle reading in the language! Napfisk, I hope you post on the Houellebecq, and Ms Make Tea, I do believe we are exact contemporaries.

  10. I like Camus, have read both The Stranger (twice) and The Plague and now feel like revisiting The Plague. I loved the movie of Dangerous Liasons and I don’t know why it didn’t inspire me to read the book. I’ve added all the other books to my TBR list. What fun! I picked up two books by Zola–Nana and Germinal yesterday. My husband likes Bataille and Houellebecq and has been trying to get me to read them but I have resisted so I will be very interested to see what you have to say about them.

  11. Thanks! I still remember your post about “Piano” — I think it’s been on my TBR list ever since!

    And I’m definitely not used to this new posting schedule. 😦

  12. More for the TBR list…I’ve read Camus, both The Plague and The Stranger, when S. and I were first dating and found it very romantic and meaningful to exchange books – he gave me translations of the above, which he originally read in French. I found them haunting and unforgettable, and have promised myself to reread them during my 30th year reading project, which I will be blogging about well, in my 30th year. Several months away, that is. Anyway, I appreciate the introduction and look forward to tackling the above – you haven’t led me astray yet!

  13. I don’t think it’s the least bit odd to want to spend all your time thinking about literature (most especially when faced with a party). Thank you for the wonderful list of books. Can’t wait to get started.

  14. Great list… sometimes I think it’s “too bad” (how else to put it?–regrettable?) that neither Victor Hugo nor Alexandre Dumas lend themselves very easily to use in the classroom. But some of those novels really are genres unto themselves–Victor Hugo’s _Toilers of the Sea_, _The Man who Laughs_, and _Ninety-Three_ are all neglected classics in my humble estimation… And the first 100-or-so pages of _The Count of Monte Cristo_–so enjoyable.

  15. (sorry to double-comment)–Also, have you ever encountered a novel called Hell, by Henri Barbusse? It’s pretty decadent, but also full of lucid and lyric prose and bold proclamations of the new truths of modernism. Fun to read. Something like 1907-ish, I think?

  16. Quillhill – I was that close to putting Nana on the list – fantastic novel (Germinal too). I’ve never read any Louys, but I ought to. Similarly, Casey, I’ve not read Barbusse, but I have another friend who tells me I should (and the novel you mention sounds very intriguing). Hugo is an excellent suggestion, and I heartily agree with the novels you’ve suggested.

  17. I’m a little late in commenting, but I realized that I never did tell you that I bookmarked this post because I liked it so much. I was a French Lit major but feel like an imposter, like I know nothing. I plan to tackle this list before long. Thank you for writing this!

  18. I guess French literature is not my fort. I have only read one book on your list. I have read of some earlier French poetry that really interested me, but forget and lost place of where I read about it. The First Man by Albert Camus is nevertheless a favorite. Marcel proust has interested me for some time, but I have only spent quality time with some of his travel letters to his mother – and Proust comics out there in the world, they were fun. Proustian concepts of time do interest me very much. I am also familiar with Flaubert and Stendhal, but have only read one novel by each. Thank you for your introduction, maybe it will help me explore French literature.

  19. What a nice list and what an introduction ! It’s the first time I’ve come across your blog but I really enjoyed reading this post about French literature. I would also really recommend the Laclos. Here are some books you might also like to read (I’m not sure they’re available in English) : Cécile Ladjali “Les Vies d’Emily Pearl”, Jean-Pierre Ohl “Les Maîtres de Glenmarkie”, Sylvie Germain “Tobie des Marais”.

  20. Lou and Kenneth – thank you and welcome! And Lou – what fab suggestions. I am already a Sylvie Germain fan but the other authors are new to me and I will most certainly be checking them out.

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