When learning the French language, reading French literature is a wonderful way to improve your comprehension and vocabulary. While obviously, beginners should start with works of fiction written in a simple language, such as children’s books, here are some famous writers to put on your book list to practise advanced French and improve in your French lessons.

A French Romance Writer: Chrétien de Troyes

Born in the city of Troyes in Champagne around 1130, Chrétien de Troyes revolutionised French literature. He wrote Romance stories - stories in the Romance language of Old French, as opposed to Latin. In those days, the vernacular was called Roman which has given the French word for novel (le roman). While he was not the first to do so, he was one of the first, and what is more took one of the popular themes of medieval European literature - the Matter of Britain, or Arthurian stories - and spun them into full tales. Later on in the Middle Ages, the Matter of Britain was re-told as the Prose Lancelot, the Romance of the Holy Grail, Tristan and Parzival; but Chrétien was the first to make it truly popular.

While the originals may not be a good read for those not studying the history of the French language, you might enjoy modern French translations of:

  • Érec et Énide
  • Le Chevalier de la Charette (the story of Lancelot and Guinevere)
  • Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion
  • Perceval ou le conte du Graal (sadly unfinished, but there are several continuations by other medieval novelists).

A French Author from the Enlightenment: Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, better known under his pen name Voltaire, was an eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer from the French Enlightenment. Authoring more than 2000 published books and pamphlets, he was not only ridiculously prolific, but also extremely witty, with a gift for the mot juste.

Voltaire was a French philosopher
Voltaire's Candide and Zadig are witty and fairly easy reads.
Photo credit: Renaud Camus on VisualHunt.com

In his best-known words, Zadig and Candide, he explores the stupidity of the human race, morality, and optimism (Professor Pangloss from Candide believes we live in “the best of all possible worlds”). Despite being from the 17th century, the language is easy to follow and the stories fairly short and entertaining, making them ideal for intermediate-level French reading.

You can find and take good French lessons online.

The Grand Master of French Literature: Victor Hugo

If you want to return to the Middle Ages but read a more recent novel, Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), set in the 15th century, is a bittersweet tale of love and how appearances do matter, but don’t save you from being an utter twat. It’s a love tangle and you will need a chart to keep the love affairs in Hunchback of Notre Dame straight, so here is one:

QuasimodoEsmeraldahe's friendzoned in favour of Phoebus
PhoebusEsmeraldahe decides to marry for money instead
Dom Claude FrolloEsmeraldahe's in the clergy and she doesn't want him.
EsmeraldaPhoebushe marries his fiancée Fleur-de-Lys instead.
Paul GringoireEsmeralda's goat Djali (a Platonic love)The only one to actually marry her, but she only did it to save his life.

Hugo is also famous for his poems and for the novel Les Misérables, set against the French Revolution of 1832 (the less-famous and less successful one). His prose is extremely moving and poignant, but if you are the sort to skip the descriptions of whaling in Moby Dick, you should start with Hunchback, which keeps its digressions to one chapter on the city of Paris in the 15th century, whereas Les Misérables has numerous longer passages of social commentary scattered throughout the text.

Or you can get an abridged version aimed at children, which cuts out those passages.

The Founder of Realism in French Literature: Honoré de Balzac

His use of details is why many consider Balzac the founder of realism in European literature. He was forced to study law by his family, but soon quit the law firm he worked in. He started his writing career by co-authoring sensationalist novels, but soon gained enough notoriety to write what he wanted. He started a series of books called La Comédie Humaine (The human Comedy), on life in post-Napoleonic France. This ranged from short stories to novellas to full-blown novels totaling all of 91 finished works, with 46 more planned (of which some were started but some are only known by title). They are divided into sub-categories such as “scenes from provincial life”, “scenes from military life” etc. A few select titles are:

  • Eugénie Grandet
  • Le Père Goriot
  • Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily in the Valley).

Along with his eclectic writing schedule (1 to 8 in the morning), de Balzac is famous for his addiction to coffee - which some suggest caused his death by heart failure in 1850 at the age of fifty-one, only five months after his wedding.

George Sand: a Feminist French Author

Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin in 1804. She spent most of her childhood in the region of Berry, an area often featured in her novels and stories. She married Casimir Dudevant at the age of eighteen but separated from him in 1831, taking her children with her.

George Sand was a French writer.
George Sand was well-known in French literature salons. Photo credit: Renaud Camus on Visual hunt

Her first affair in 1831 was with Jules Sandeau, a novelist with whom she wrote several stories, including Rose et Blanche, under the common pseudonym of Jules Sand. For her first solo novel she adopted the pen name George Sand.

George Sand was famous for her affairs with prominent artists of the time, including writers Prosper Mérimé and Alfred de Musset and composer Frédéric Chopin. She kept up a friendly correspondence with Gustave Flaubert and actress Marie Dorval, with whom she was rumoured to have had a lesbian relationship (the few surviving letters she wrote would seem to support this). Her affectation of male dress - more comfortable and offering greater ease of movement than the female garb of the time, as well as gaining her entry to places otherwise barred to French women - and her smoking did little to alleviate these claims. She is one of the great women writers, being to the 19th century what French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was to the twentieth.

A Swashbuckler in Verse: French Playwright Edmond Rostand

Are you a fan of the swashbuckling genre? You can go to bed every night with Alexandre Dumas (whose grandmother had been a black slave) and his roaring adventure set in the 17th century, The Three Musketeers and their sequels - yes, there are sequels:

  • Twenty Years Later
  • The Vicomte de Bragelonne (which includes the story of the Man in the Iron Mask)

But swashbuckling romances were quite popular in the nineteenth century, such as Paul Féval’s Le Bossu (“The Hunchback” - not to be confused with Hugo’s work) and of course, that masterpiece of French poetry, playwright Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

I don’t recommend this work to beginner French students. It is a play, and in verse. It’s a bit like reading Shakespeare to learn English, except that the language is mostly modern. However, more advanced readers will adore the wit and satire in the story of a true wingman, who writes poetry to help his friend win the lady he himself is in love with - but with whom he has no chance, being afflicted with an enormous nasal appendage.

If nothing else, you will learn curses from the Gascogne region, such as “Mordiou!” and the proper etiquette for insulting someone’s nose.

A Lyrical French Writer: Marcel Proust

A socialite who never actually worked at his job at the Mazarine library, Proust was early on involved in literary magazines (including the literary revue Le Banquet) and attended literary salons where he met many French celebrities of the time. For example, a compendium publication of his early pieces had a preface by Anatole France, a French poet and journalist.

He is best known for his work in seven volumes, À la recherche du temps perdu (in English, In search of lost time), a portrait of the changing world at the turn of the 20th century, where the aristocratic milieu and haute société found their values and lifestyle put into question. His wealthy narrator, Swann, had many autobiographical traits. The series remained unfinished at his death in 1922, but the last ones were published posthumously:

  • Swann's Way or The Way by Swann (Du côté de chez Swann, 1913)
  • In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower or Within a Budding Grove (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919)
  • The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes, 1920/1921)
  • Sodom and Gomorrah or Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe, 1921/1922)
  • The Prisoner ot The Captive (La Prisonnière, 1923)
  • The Fugitive, The Sweet Cheat Gone or Albertine Gone (Albertine disparue, also called La Fugitive, 1925)
  • Finding Time Again, Time Regained or The Past Recaptured (Le Temps retrouvé, 1927)

It seems likely that Proust was a homosexual, and many of his characters are homo- or bisexual, quite a shocking thing at the time (Proust fought a duel against someone accusing him of homosexuality). His prose is extremely lyrical - beautiful and poetic, but his long sentences are hard to follow unless you are well-versed in the French language.

A Political French Writer: Émile Zola

Émile Zola was a naturalist writer and childhood friend of artist Paul Cézanne. Among his earlier works are many of the stories from a series of twenty novels depicting two branches of a family over several generations, les Rougon-Macquarts. Émile Zola truly became famous for l’Assomoir in 1877; among his later bestsellers are Germinal in 1885 and the “city” novels Lourdes, Rome and Paris (1894, 1896 and 1897). He became a leader of the French literati world and was paid more than Victor Hugo.

Emile Zola was a critic of Napolean III.
Emile Zola spoke up against anti-semitism in his article "j'accuse!" Photo credit: Museum of Photographic Arts Collections on VisualHunt

Emile Zola was ever a critic of French politics, being particular vociferous about Napoleon III and the Second Empire, but his most famous article was his denunciation of the Dreyfus affair, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer, was made a scapegoat in a spy affair, convicted of treason and exiled on almost no evidence. In his famous article entitled J’accuse!, Zola denounced the French government for anti-semitism and obstruction of justice in their handling of the Dreyfus affair.

French Poet Charles Baudelaire

Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet with far-reaching influence. For one, his translation of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe extended the reach of this English writer onto the Continent; additionally, his own work influenced leading 19th-century French poets such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.

His first published work was Salon of 1845, an art revue. A free-spender and often idle, Baudelaire did not publish his best-known work, Les Fleurs du Mal, until he was 36. The Flowers of Evil are a collection of poems that addressed such themes as love in various forms - passion, eroticism, lesbianism, sacred love - death, and decadence. With the Fleurs considered an obscenity against public morals, Baudelaire was prosecuted and convicted, but came off with a fine rather than exile, and had to omit some of the poems from subsequent editions.

Of his affairs, the best-known is his long-standing mistress of two decades Jeanne Duval, a half Creole of French and African ancestry born in Haiti. He called her his “black Venus” and dedicated several poems to her. He probably gave her syphilis - both of them died of it, though the exact date of Duval’s death is unknown.

The Traveling French Writer: Gustave Flaubert

Yet another failed law student, Flaubert led an exciting and varied life, often traveling. Though he loathed Paris and left it after an attack of epilepsy, he often visited to meet literary friends such as Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet or Ivan Turgenev, or his later protegé, Guy de Maupassant.

His first finished work was a novella entitled November, which came out in 1842. His second novel, la Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), was heavily critiqued by his friends. He was enjoined to leave the supernatural out of his writings, and shortly thereafter embarked on a long trip to Egypt, returning in 1850 to start on his most famous novel, Madame Bovary.

In it, Emma Bovary, bored with life with her shy and awkward husband, embarks on a series of adulterous affairs that eventually ruin her both emotionally and financially. The book tracks her emotional journey, bookended by her husband’s story before their marriage and after her death.

Flaubert was accused of indecency.
Gustave Flaubert is best known for his novel Madame Bovary. Photo credit: Môsieur J. [version 9.1] on Visual Hunt
Like Baudelaire and several other prominent French novelists, Flaubert was accused of public indecency, but acquitted. The publicity surrounding the publication of Madame Bovary no doubt in part contributed to its success.

Flaubert next travelled to the ruins of Carthage to research his novel, Salammbô, set in ancient Carthage shortly after the First Punic War.

His last finished novel was L’éducation Sentimental (The sentimental education), on the romantic life of a young man during the French Revolution. Though praised by French critics, Henry James disliked it.

Settled by then in Rouen, Flaubert spent the last years of his life working on various projects, including a re-working of the Temptation of Saint Anthony and a novel called Bouvard et Pécuchet. Of those, only a collection of novellas was published.

He died in 1880 at the age of 58.

If you want to become a French citizen of the mind and explore French literature more in depth, why not see if a Superprof tutor is willing to help you with your reading list?

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Sonia is an Egyptologist turned writer and translator. She speaks 3 and a half languages, can translate hieroglyphs and enjoys yoga, singing, embroidery and travelling through all of time and space.