French literature is so wide and diverse that a month to write about French classics wouldn’t be enough! If you want to be pushed into old Paris and discover what life was like in Paris when only books could entertain and denounce, take a good cup of tea and make your choice among the below French classics that are a significant part of French heritage.
The Red and the Black, Stendhal, 1830
The Red and the Black (“Le rouge et le noir” in French) portrays Julien Sorel’s life. The first volume is about his life in Franche-Comté and the second one takes place in Paris. This novel focuses on the main character’s moral and psychological growth throughout the events of his life. If you want to play the apprentice-psychologist, you should give this French classic a try.
Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac, 1842
Père Goriot is one of the books that belongs to La Comédie Humaine, a tremendous compilation of more than 90 interlinked novels, all written by Balzac. This realistic novel really is about paternal love, corruption and social classes. We could also say that the city of Paris is almost a character itself.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862
Les Misérables probably is one of the most famous French classics around the world. This novel is divided into 5 parts, and is mainly about Jean Valjean’s life, who is an ex-convict and who is somehow trying to do good and to get rid of the image he is conveying. Redemption, misery, love and History truly are the main themes of this book. If you have time to spare (it is indeed a long book), don’t miss out this masterpiece.
Read also this article about the French clichés and find out if they are true.
The Ladies’ Paradise, Emile Zola, 1883
The Ladies’ Paradise (“Au Bonheur des Dames” in French) depicts the fascination around Parisian department stores, which was a new concept at that time, and the desillusionment of Mrs. Denise Baudu while she was working in one of the biggest shop of Paris called “Au bonheur des dames“. This book is actually quite modern and the issues are still relevant today.
Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant, 1885
Bel-Ami depicts the social rise of George Duroy. Blinded by money, womanizer and power-hungry, Duroy is a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like and don’t want to see succeed in life. Question : Is the writer going to make him achieve his goals or not? Anyway, if you are looking for someone to hate in Paris, Duroy is the right guy and Bel-Ami is the right book!
Arsène Lupin, Maurice Leblanc, 1905
Arsène Lupin is the most famous Parisian gentleman burglar! Maurice Leblanc was at first writing short stories about the thief, published in a French magazine. It was such a great success that he collected all of the short stories to make books. Easy and fun to read! There is also a French TV-show produced by Netflix that you can watch called Lupin.
The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux, 1910
You probably know The Phantom of the Opera thanks to the musical. But did you know that it is an adaptation from the book “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” ? The plot : Strange incidents are happening at the opera, in Paris, where a young singer, Christine Daàé, is singing. If you like love stories (a love triangle here), music and mysteries, then you are likely to enjoy it a lot. And why not listening to the musical soundtrack while reading it to get the full experience?
I hope this selection gave you ideas for your next reading. Those masterpieces are really worth it if you love Paris and if you want to have a look at what Paris used to be in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.
Don’t hesitate to comment this article if you already read one of those books or if you are planning to read one of them!