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French Classics

There’s always a reason when a piece of literature is called a “classic.”  Sometimes it helps you understand a particular time period, sometimes it’s just masterful storytelling, and sometimes it achieved an incredible level of popularity – either way, classics are books that have stood the test of time.  Some are dramas, some romances, some action-adventure, some political thrillers, and some are science fiction, but all of these are classics.

The 1700s

Voltaire  Born François-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778), but known better by his pen name, Voltaire was a French writer, philosopher, and historian. He was famous for his intelligent and quick wit, his attacks on the church, and his support for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.  Voltaire was incredibly versatile, writing plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific work. Despite the strict censorship laws at the time, Voltaire risked a great deal to fight for freedoms, often using his writing to criticize government control, intolerance, religion, cultural norms, and the French government.

Voltaire’s most popular work is Candide, a satirical adventure novel that had to be published in secret and later the book was banned because it contained blasphemy, sedition, and  hostility hidden in a naive satirical character.  Today it is one of the most widely read and taught book in all of French Literature, likely because of its sharp wit and insightful look at human nature.  Candide can be read online for free.

The 1800s

Stendhal –  Marie-Henri Beyle (January 23, 1783 – March 23, 1842), better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French author. He was known for creating very realistic characters and building detailed psychological portraits of them.  Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839) are his two most famous and successful novels.

The Red and the Black is about young man trying hard to rise above his middle class upbringing through a combination of talent, hard work, and deception.  It’s meant to be a character study of the protagonist and, at the same time, a satire of the French social structure of the time.

The Charterhouse of Parma tells the adventures of a young Italian nobleman during the Napoleonic Wars.  It is a thriller, mixing mystery and adventure, but it also delves deep into human psychology and politics from the time.  It is considered to be one of the greatest works of French Literature.

Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a French novelist and playwright who was considered by many to be the French Charles Dickens. His greatest work is The Human Comedy, a series of novels, stories, and poems all interlinked to present a look at French life in the early 1800s, after the fall of Napoleon.  The Human Comedy is an enormous collection, so if you just want a taste of Balzac, check out Father Goriot, widely considered Balzac’s most important novel (and part of The Human Comedy).  Set in Paris in 1819, it follows three characters: the elderly Goriot; a mysterious criminal named Vautrin; and a naive student named Eugène.

Victor Hugo (February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885) was a Romantic (see romanticism above in the Edmond Rostand section) poet, novelist, and playwright.  Thanks to his two hugely successful novels, he is considered one of the greatest and most popular French writers. In France, Hugo is actually more well-known for his poetry, but here we know him as the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Les Miserables is considered one of the greatest novels of the 1800s. The story begins in  1815 and reaches its climax during the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris (not the French Revolution as many people think).  The story follows several characters preparing for, and impacted by the struggles of student groups rebelling against a corrupt French government, including ex-convict Jean Valjean and his adopted daughter.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a gothic story set in Notre Dame cathedral.  In the book, Hugo showed all walks of Parisian life, from the King all the way down to the rats in the city sewers.  The story was intended to bring to light the beauty of the gothic architecture (like Notre Dame) all over Paris that was slowly being torn down and replaced with more modern structures.  The incredible popularity of the book saved the cathedral and opened people’s’ eyes to the architectural wonders of their city.  On top of that, it’s an incredible gothic/romantic/horror/adventure story.

Alexandre Dumas (July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870) is one of the world’s best known French writer. He is most famous for his historical adventure stories like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask.  His works have been translated into almost 100 different languages, and he is one of the most widely read French authors of all time.

The Three Musketeers tells the story of a young man named d’Artagnan after he leaves home to travel to Paris and join the Musketeers of the Guard (the cream of the crop in the military). He helps uncover some shady goings on within the government and is called into action to help save the day.

Twenty Years After is a sequel to Musketeers and catches up with the heroes twenty years after the events of the first novel.  This time, the Musketeers have all moved on with their lives, but have been called back into action when more shady dealings are happening in the kingdom.  A subplot in the story, about a prisoner in an iron mask, has become the most popular part of the story and been made into a few movies by itself.

The Count of Monte Cristo is another great adventure story that takes place in France and Italy during important political times in Europe.  The novel is an adventure story about hope, justice, vengeance, mercy, and forgiveness. The main character is a man who was wrongfully imprisoned, escaped from prison, acquired a fortune, and tried to get revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment. One of the most beloved novels in history.

Gustave Flaubert (December 12, 1821 – May 8, 1880) was an influential French writer from the small town of Rouen (which we will visit).  He wrote in a realistic literary style and is best known for his first novel, Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary is about Emma Bovary, a rich doctor’s wife, who has affairs and spends ridiculous amounts of money in order to escape the boredom of wealthy life.  The basic story is very simple, but Emma Bovary is considered one of the greatest characters ever written and the power of the book is found in hidden details.

Jules Verne (February 8, 1828 – March 24, 1905) was a French novelist, playwright, and poet who is known as one of the Fathers of Science Fiction best known for his adventure novels called the Voyages Extraordinaires.  He’s known for writing some of the most popular adventure novels ever published.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is about a German professor named Otto Lidenbrock who believes there are volcanic tubes that lead to the center of the Earth.  Along with his nephew, Axel, and a guide named Hans, travel down into an Icelandic volcano towards the center of the Earth, encountering many adventures, including prehistoric beasts, natural disasters, and strange occurrences.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea tells the story of one of Verne’s most famous characters, Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus.  Nemo is tired of the violence and hypocrisy in “modern” society, so he’s decided to live under the sea in a giant sub.  The story is told by Professor Pierre Aronnax, after he and two friends are kidnapped by Nemo and taken on undersea adventures all around the world.

Around the World in Eighty Days tells the story of Phileas Fogg, a wealthy young man who is a member of the Reform Club in London.  At the club, Fogg bets other members a large amount of money that he can travel all the way around the world in less than 80 days.  Fogg makes an attempt to race around the world, encounters numerous adventures, and has to deal with one of the club members secretly trying to made sure he isn’t successful.

Some other popular novels by Verne include From the Earth to the Moon and The Mysterious Island.  There are dozens more, but these are his most popular books.

Émile Zola (April 2, 1840 – September 29, 1902) was a French writer also very active in French politics.  Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902

Germinal is often considered Zola’s masterpiece and one of the most important novels in the French tradition.  The novel is a harsh, but realistic story of a coalminers’ strike in France in the 1860s.  The story describes the hope for a better future that the miners strive for.

Guy de Maupassant (August 5, 1850 – July 6, 1893) was a French writer who was, considered one of the fathers of the modern short story.  Maupassant was a student of Flaubert, and his stories are known for a simple style and surprise dénouements (outcomes).  Many take place during the 1870s and the Franco-Prussian War, focusing on the futility of war and the innocent civilians who are permanently changed by war.

Boule de Suif is often considered his masterpiece, while The Necklace, and The Horla are among his most popular too.  They’re all very short, so why not read all three? If you like these ones, Maupassant has hundreds more short stories that you could find online.

The 1900s

Gaston Leroux (May 6, 1868 – April 15, 1927) was a French newspaper writer and author of detective fiction.  In the U.S., he is best known for the novel The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, 1911), which was turned into a Broadway musical and several films.

The Phantom of the Opera is the story of a mysterious phantom living beneath the Paris Opera house (a real building that’s still there).  For a while, the phantom wreaks havoc on the company, causing accidents and destroying things.  Eventually, though, he falls for one of the stars of the opera and kidnaps her during a performance.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room is more typical of Leroux’s style.  It’s called a locked room mysteries ever, and is one of the greatest mystery stories ever written.  The story concerns a seemingly impossible, crime in which the criminal seems to have disappeared from a locked room. Leroux provides the reader with detailed, precise diagrams and floor plans to help you visualize the scene of the crime, but the story is a challenge to any reader trying to figure out the ending.

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871 – November 18, 1922) was a French novelist and essayist best known for his gigantic, seven part novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past). He is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time, but this book is enormous, and I can’t recommend it to middle school or high school students.

Colette whose full name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 23, 1873 – August 3, 1954), was a French author whose life a scandal and affairs could have been a soap opera.  She is best known for her novel Gigi, which was later made into both a movie and a Broadway musical. Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Gigi is a story that could have been taken from Colette’s own life.  It’s about a young woman being trained as a courtesan, who doesn’t see eye to eye with her family’s beliefs on love and money, who catches the eye of a rich older man, and scandalously becomes his wife.

Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. It’s important to know who Sartre was and the tremendous impact he had on literature and philosophy, especially the idea of existentialism, but he’s a difficult read for younger readers, so I don’t recommend the younger kids in our group try to tackle Sartre.

If you want to give it a shot, his most famous play is No Exit, which contains the famous line, “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” translated as “Hell is other people.” Sartre’s most important novels are the The Roads to Freedom trilogy which shows how World War II affected Sartre’s philosophical ideas.

Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908 – April 14, 1986), was a French writer, philosopher, political activist, and feminist, who is also known for her long term relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.  She wrote novels, essays, biographies, and an autobiography on philosophy, politics, and social issues.  She is known for her nonfiction book, The Second Sex, a historical look at women’s oppression and feminism.  Her most famous fiction works are the novels She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. I couldn’t find any of de Beauvoir’s writing online, so you’re on your own if you want to read something by her.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Shepard permalink
    June 23, 2015 1:12 pm

    I read “The Three Musketeers”. In the book a younger man named D’Artagnan leaves his hometown in Paris to go and join the Musketeers. It wasn’t easy for D’Artagan. He was put through tasks before deciding wether or not he would be a Musketeer. He ends up joining the Musketeers. The other Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. The Musketeers job was to fight and defend the queen and the king. They had to protect them at all time because of their evil rival who would always try to poison the king or queen. His name was The Cardinal. The Cardinal would usually send food to someone and poison it so that they would die. It was a very fun book to read, but very confusing. I got confused at first by the names. There was a lot of names and some of them I didn’t know how to say. Also the book was very short. In the book they were a lot of enemies more than heroes. Some parts would seem nice at first, but then something that you wouldn’t expect would happen to the hero. Overall the book was a good book, but I wish it could of been a little bit longer.

    • June 29, 2015 10:40 am

      Nice job getting a book read already, Matt. However, you’re missing some key components of the assignment. Take another look at what we need you to do and try again.

  2. Matthew Shepard permalink
    June 29, 2015 12:08 pm

    For My Book I read “The Three Musketeers”. The book was published in in 1844 by a man named Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers could be considered as two genres. Fiction and a Historic Novel. For me honestly I think the book would have two themes (Even though it could have lots more). The first one is Friendship. Friendship helps the Musketeers defend the king and defeat evil. The second one is Pride. The Musketeers are proud of whatever they do. They never take insults to seriously and always take pride in their work and what they do. Other books in this series is “Twenty years later”. This book is a squeal to the book and tells about the Musketeers twenty years later. The three Musketeers got awards in the book and in the movie. The audience is intended for Middle school/High school, and could also be for older adults. This book was made into a Movie in 1993. I really liked the book because there was always action in the book. The only thing I didn’t like was how the book was short.

    Alexandre Dumas wrote this book and many other books mostly for plays for theater. His father was a general in the revolutionary french war.

    The Main character in the story was a young man named D’Artagnan. He was very Outgoing and never gave up or backed down on anything. During the book D’Artagnan was probably in his late 20’s. His job as a Musketeer was to fight for and defend the king and queen. D’Artagnan was very thoughtful and always thought of others before himself.

    The book took place around the 17th century. The season was probably fall. It wasn’t too hot, but it wasn’t too cold. It also didn’t say anything about snow. Weeks pass by in my book.

    My book took place in a town called Mueng. Mueng is also in France. Mueng is a very quiet town. Not a lot happens. Just normal life. Farming,working, Eating, sleeping and thats pretty much it. The only time something amazing or action-packed would happen is if The three musketeers were hunting someone down. During the book they didn’t really move from Mueng. The weather in Mueng is pretty dull. Like I said before not too hot, and not too cold. It was also usually cloudy too. What I learned was that every person that you meet will always give you new information about whats around you.

    • July 2, 2015 9:21 am

      Is there anything you took away from this book that you think will help make the trip better for you?

      • Matthew Shepard permalink
        July 2, 2015 4:38 pm

        There is. To Look at the people and the things around you. People You might meet could tell you interesting facts about the city in your in. So it would be good to ask questions about a building or person. Also the look at buildings and items closely. They could have interesting stories about them and how they were used.

  3. Matthew Shepard permalink
    June 30, 2015 11:16 am

    The book I read was the three Musketeers. The book was published in 1844 by a man named Alexandre Dumas. The book could be known as two different genres. Fiction and a Historical novel. There are 2 themes in the story. One is friendship. All four musketeers trust in each other and devote their lives to protecting the king and queen. The other is Pride. They are usually proud of themselves and don’t take insults too seriously. Another book in the series is called “Twenty Years After” and tells about the life of the Musketeers twenty years later. The Three Musketeers has won awards in both the book and the movie. The audience this book is intended for is middle/high schoolers and maybe older adults. The three Musketeers is considered a classic book. It was made into a movie in 1973, 1993, and 2011. I really liked the book and all of the characters. It was very confusing also because they jumped from talking about one character to another. The only dislike I had was that the book was short.

    Alexandre Dumas was born in on July 24, 1802 and died on December 5th, 1870. Alexandre didn’t really have a job before writing. He wrote books like “The Three Musketeers” for plays/theater. Alexandre lived and died in France. He lived there all of his life. Alexandre ended up having four kids.

    D’Artagnan was the main character. He was always brave and never backed down from a challenge. D’Artagnan I would say was in his late 20’s at the time. Being a Musketeer, D”Artagnan’s job was to protect and defend the king and queen. D’Artagnan, besides fighting, loved to bond with the group and do stuff together.

    “The Three Musketeers” took place in Paris in the 17th century. Specifically in a town called Mueng. Mueng was a very dull place. Not too cold and not too hot. At most times it was also very cloudy and rainy. Usually in the books days and weeks pass.

    The book takes place in Mueng. It is very dull and not very action packed. In the story they usually stick around town and go nowhere else expect if they are trying to find someone and arrest them. The weather like I said is dull. Usually rainy or cloudy. There is rarely any sunshine.

    From this book I learned that everyone you meet during your trip will have a new thing to share with you. So you should always listen because they know more about the place than you.

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