12 classic French novels you should read


From Voltaire to Zola, France has produced some of the world’s finest writers. Here is our pick of classic French novels you should read


By Jules Verne

First published in 1864, Verne’s extraordinary novel tells the story of German professor Otto Lidenbrock, who discovers a strange code inside a manuscript that points to a series of volcanic tunnels leading to the centre of the Earth. Lidenbrock sets off on a journey of discovery, and encounters strange prehistoric beasts and natural hazards on his search for the Earth’s core. This thrilling adventure is testament to the power of the imagination and the public’s fascination with scientific advance at that time.


By Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

First published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the fairy tale is best known in this abridged version made 16 years later, which omits the back stories of the main characters and the sub-plots. A prince is turned into a beast by an evil fairy, but a young woman he meets treats him with care and kindness, despite his ugliness. Beauty finally accepts his marriage proposal and the handsome prince re-emerges. The ideas of romantic love and not judging people on their looks have an enduring appeal, but in the 18th century the story also addressed issues surrounding women’s lack of marriage rights.


By Honoré de Balzac

First published in 1846, La Cousine Bette marks the culmination of Balzac’s novel sequence La Comédie Humaine. The protagonist is a middle-aged spinster who blames her wealthier relatives for her unhappiness, and plots their downfall with the help of a younger woman. This gripping portrayal of bourgeois society in 1840s Paris also shows the different ways in which the French language can be manipulated to trick and deceive others.


By Céline

This classic novel, published in 1932, charts the experiences of Ferdinand Bardamu, who finds himself accidentally caught up in World War I and goes on to travel through Africa and the United States before becoming a doctor back in Paris. The complex plot and use of slang provide plenty of challenges for those seeking complete fluency in French.


By Voltaire

First published in 1759, the philosopher Voltaire’s satire tells of a young man leading a sheltered life in the home of a baron. Indoctrinated with optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, Candide is thrown out after falling in love with the baron’s daughter and soon discovers that the world is not what he believed it to be, as he encounters a series of disasters. With its fast-moving plot and sarcastic tone, the story provides an enlightening portrayal of the human condition.


By Émile Zola

This early work from Émile Zola, first published in serial form in 1867, is a torrid tale of adultery and murder in a working-class Parisian neighbourhood. Set in a dingy haberdasher’s shop near the Pont-Neuf, the plot focuses on an affair between Thérèse and a friend of her husband’s. The adulterous pair drown the shopkeeper, but are haunted by visions of the dead man and are pushed into madness. On its release, the work was denounced by many as obscene, and one critic went so far as to describe it as ‘putrid’. For modern readers, the novel remains compelling thanks to its densely plotted narrative and rich vocabulary.


By Victor Hugo

Referred to as ‘Les Mis’ by its many fans, Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel, turned smash-hit musical, focuses on the plight of ‘les misérables’ – the poor, desperate souls of 19th-century Paris – and focuses in particular on the trials and tribulations of the hero Jean Valjean. The novel, which at 1,200 pages is one of the longest literary works ever produced, is a powerful story of redemption, human kindness and empathy. It is justly famed for its richness of style, host of complex characters and dense plotting.


By Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s 1835 novel follows the intertwined lives of three men – Goriot, Vautrin and Eugène de Rastignac – all of whom live in a decrepit boarding house in Paris. The story focuses on a series of mysteries surrounding the lodgers, which the young Rastignac tries to solve by fulfilling his ambition of penetrating Parisian high society. Balzac allows his story to unfold step by step (it was originally published in serial form) as he sets out to expose the corruption and greed of French society after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte.


By Émile Zola

Zola’s 1877 novel, the seventh in his 20-volume Rougon-Macquart chronicle, is a powerful study of the wretched conditions endured by the urban poor in 19th-century Paris. The main character, Gervaise, who appeared briefly in a previous novel, runs away to the capital with her lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman. Despite being abandoned, she makes enough money to open her own laundry, but a series of misfortunes leads down the dangerous path to alcoholism.


By Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel is better-known in English as The Hunchback of Notre- Dame, but the original title shows the author’s desire to put the Gothic cathedral and medieval Paris centre-stage. Against this backdrop unfolds the tragic tale of Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer whom everybody derides, and the beautiful Esmeralda, a gypsy street dancer who takes pity on him. The besotted Quasimodo tries to protect her from the lecherous archdeacon Claude Frollo, whose failed attempt to seduce the dancer leads him to devise a murderous plot.


By André Breton

The writer and poet André Breton was one of the founders of Surrealism and his 1928 novel is considered a key work in the movement. Not surprisingly, the narrative structure is unconventional as we follow a man’s ten-day relationship with a beautiful and intriguing young woman named Nadja. Breton weaves together personal experience and elements of magical realism to show that reality represents everything that is wrong with mankind.


By Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre’s philosophical novel, published in 1938, centres on dejected historian Antoine Roquentin, who becomes increasingly convinced that inanimate objects and situations are encroaching on his intellectual and spiritual freedom. This feeling experienced by the protagonist leads to a sense of nausea, with the rest of the work focusing on his breakdown and sickness. Sartre’s first novel is an intriguing work that shows the indifference of the physical world to man’s aspirations.

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