Making a start: suggestions for further reading

French Literature - A Beginner’s Guide - Carol Clark 2011

Making a start: suggestions for further reading

I have written this book on the assumption that anyone who bought it must at least have been considering reading some French literature. I hope that exposure to a few samples will have confirmed him or her in this plan. But where to begin?

A short book would obviously be a better start than a long one, and books written in the ’classical’ period (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) are usually easier than nineteenth- or twentieth-century ones, simply because they are shorter and have a more restricted vocabulary. Exceptions to this rule of thumb would be Stendhal in the nineteenth century (whose novels are long but much less linguistically difficult than those of Balzac or Flaubert), and Camus in the twentieth.

There is, of course, always the option of reading French works in English translation. As a translator myself, I can hardly complain if people do this. But I would urge anyone with a reasonable command of French to attempt the originals, perhaps with a translation at hand to refer to if things get too difficult. All of the books mentioned here, except some of the most recent, are available in translation, usually in Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics. Parallel text versions are very useful, but sadly few of these are published nowadays.


If one is embarking on French literature in French, the options are almost literally limitless. The national library, the Bibliothèque de France, plans to put most of its holdings in French — a million titles achieved so far — on the Gallica website, and it is beginning to make the more frequently read among them available as e-books. The most respected collection of classics, including modern classics, in print on paper is the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, published by Gallimard, but these handsome, scholarly (and wonderfully portable) volumes are too expensive for most students. Almost all the works mentioned in this book will be found in one or more of the French paperback series. Garnier-Flammarion, Le Livre de Poche and Presses Pocket all offer introductions and notes (Garnier-Flammarion to my mind usually the best: Presses Pocket notes are aimed at upper secondary students). A most valuable offshoot of Le Livre de Poche is their Lettres Gothiques series, offering medieval works with modern French versions in parallel text. Rabelais’s Pantagruel and Gargantua are available in this series. Finally, really cheap texts without notes (a couple of euros apiece) can be had in the Librio series: these are usually popular single texts by classic writers such as Molière’s Tartuffe or Voltaire’s Candide, but some are interesting short collections of material that would otherwise be very hard to find (e.g. soldiers’ letters home from the First World War).

Background and guides

Readers seeking further information about the books and authors discussed here will no doubt start with the internet. I have found Wikipedia entries to be mostly accurate as to content. But for interpretative and critical approaches, they will still have to head to the library. An excellent book on the dictionary plan which does not, however, restrict itself to material facts is the New Oxford Companion to Literature in French edited by Peter France — no longer so new, since it appeared in 1995, but still well worth consulting.

Translations in the Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics series will have informative and sometimes thought-provoking introductions, and suggestions for further reading.

The ’Critical Guides to French Literature’ series published by Grant & Cutler in the 1980s and 1990s (the last few in the early 2000s) are introductions, mostly reliable, to individual texts: there is, I think, a volume on every work considered at any length in this book.

I should like to mention here one general work that I greatly admire, and have recommended to students over my years of teaching. It is Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach, first published in German in 1946, but in fact written in wartime conditions (and hence to a large extent from memory) in Istanbul in 1942—3. Translated into English and published by the Princeton University Press in 1953, it has never been out of print since. It contains excellent chapters on the Chanson de Roland (5), on a roman by Chrétien de Troyes (6), on Rabelais (11) and Montaigne (12). Later chapters are even more far-reaching. Chapter 15, ’The Faux Dévot’, begins with La Bruyère but expands to take in Molière, Racine and seventeenth-century French literature in general, while chapter 16, ’The Interrupted Supper’, moves from Manon Lescaut to Voltaire and Saint-Simon. Chapter 18, ’In the Hôtel de La Mole’, begins with Julien and Mathilde from Le Rouge et le Noir but is soon discussing Stendhal, Rousseau, Romanticism, Balzac and Flaubert. Chapter 19 begins with the Goncourts’ Germinie Lacerteux, but also treats Zola at length before ending with the German realists and the Russians Turgeniev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Other chapters discuss Italian, Spanish and English authors. Mimesis is indeed a tour de force. Clearly the work of a strikingly perceptive reader who was also an extraordinarily well-read man, its 550 pages do not boast a single footnote.

The following notes do not include full histories of literature, or of particular centuries, or academic studies of authors. Students will find these in their reading lists. I simply refer to works that I have found interesting and useful, and which may appeal to readers not making a formal study of French literature.

Sixteenth century

A good background to sixteenth-century texts is Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983, paperback edition 2005 still in print). Her chapter 4, ’The Expanding Republic of Letters’, traces its theme as far forward as the eighteenth century.

The Penguin Classics translations by M.A. Screech of Rabelais and Montaigne (both the Essays and the Apologie de Raymond Sebond as a single volume) have very full and admirably learned introductions, written from the point of view of the translator as a committed Christian.

There has been a remarkable revival of interest in Montaigne in very recent years, with several young or youngish authors trying to engage with the essayist in the way he would have wished, as a fellow human being rather an embalmed ’classic’. Sarah Bakewell’s admirable How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2010) has been a publishing success, winning several prizes. The communication project Oxford Muse, founded by the distinguished historian of France Theodore Zeldin, is now inviting readers at large to emulate Montaigne and contribute brief self-portraits to a common database.

Seventeenth century

Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1994), is a valuable study of the different ways in which the king’s image was deliberately constructed over the course of his reign. Georgia Cowart, The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (2008), focusses chiefly on opera and ballet.

Paul Bénichou’s classic study of the ’classical’ writers in their social and ethical context, Morales du grand siècle (1948), was translated by Elizabeth Hughes as Man and Ethics: Studies in French Classicism (1971).

Eighteenth century

Robert Darnton’s works of French cultural history offer an interesting background to the literature of the century (The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, 1984; The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1987).

Well-researched as well as engagingly written are Nancy Mitford’s biographies of Madame de Pompadour (1954) and Voltaire (1957).

Bertrand Russell declared that he had intended his History of Western Philosophy (1946) as a work of social history rather than a technical contribution to philosophy. It is clearly and attractively written but just as clearly biased against the philosophers he disapproved of. It contains a memorable hatchet-job on Rousseau.

Nineteenth century

For the nineteenth century, Graham Robb in his biographies of Balzac (1994), Hugo (1997) and Rimbaud (2000) not only writes authoritatively about these authors, but gives an excellent introduction to the literary world of their day. A short and not obviously academic book, though it was composed by an Oxford don, is Robert Baldick, Dinner at Magny’s (1971, Penguin 1973, now out of print but available in libraries or from online booksellers). In it Baldick attempts to reconstitute the conversation between the writers (Flaubert, the Goncourts, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, Turgenev and, on one occasion only, George Sand) who used to meet for private dinners at Magny’s restaurant in Paris in the 1860s. Every speech ascribed to them has its origins in the Goncourts’ journals, Flaubert’s letters or some other such contemporary source, yet the book reads remarkably convincingly as a series of real conversations, and gives an eye-opening introduction to the attitudes, political, sexual and to writing, of successful authors at that time. It may perhaps offer a partial answer to why there were so few successful women writers in the French nineteenth century.

In the 1960s Paul Bénichou, born in 1908 and previously known as a scholar of French classical literature, began a huge research project on Romanticism, which led to the publication of five highly regarded books, from Le sacre de l’écrivain (1973) to Selon Mallarmé (According to Mallarmé, 1995). Only the first has so far been translated into English, by Mark K. Jensen as The Consecration of the Writer (1999).

Twentieth century

An invaluable work on French writing and literary life in the twentieth century, alas not yet available in English, is Michel Winock, Le siècle des intellectuels (1997). It is in three sections, the second called Les années Gide (the Gide years) and the third Les années Sartre, but it also covers the emergence of ’theory’ in the 1960s and 1970s and the complicated political involvements of its exponents. Winock’s twenty-page epilogue is entitled La fin des intellectuels?. Priscilla P. Clark, Literary France: the Making of a Culture (1987) is much shorter and more accessible: a good introduction to how ’literature’ as an institution developed in France. There are brief and clear treatments of the more important French exponents of literary theory in Clare Connors, Literary Theory: a Beginner’s Guide (2010).

Dominique Viart and Bruno Vercier, La littérature française au présent (2005, not yet translated) brings the story up to and past the millennium.

Produced to accompany a recent exhibition celebrating the centenary of the famous publishing house, Alain Jaubert and Brigitte Besse, Portraits pour un siècle: cent écrivains (Gallimard/BnF, 2011) commemorates a hundred authors (eighty-eight men and twelve women, seventy French and thirty foreign) published, and in many cases discovered, by Gallimard, and gives an idea of the controlling position the house held in the French literary world throughout the twentieth century. Each author is represented by a full-page photograph and a short text, and almost every author mentioned in our chapter 7 is included (all between pages 166 and 197, and many afterwards).

Authors on authors

Many of the authors discussed here have inspired other creative writers in French and also in other languages. As mentioned above, Sartre wrote psycho-biographies, on existentialist principles, of Baudelaire (1946) and Flaubert (L’Idiot de la famille, 1971—2). Both are available in English. Baudelaire is short and surprisingly accessible, The Family Idiot long (three volumes) and difficult.

To mention just a few writers in other languages, Angela Carter’s short story ’Black Venus’, in the 1985 collection of that name, rewrites the Baudelaire—Jeanne Duval relationship from the woman’s point of view. Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) is supposedly told by a Flaubert scholar planning a book on him: the parrot is the one that appears, transfigured, to Félicité at the end of Un cœur simple, or rather, one of the three stuffed parrots in various Rouen museums each purporting to be the original. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary inspired the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to write La orgia perpetua in 1975 (translated by Helen Lane as The Perpetual Orgy in 1986). Despite its sensational title this is a literary essay, first discussing the special meaning the novel had for Vargas Llosa, and then embarking on a close technical account (Julian Barnes thought it the best in existence) of how it was written.

Biographies romancées of French authors by foreign novelists include a life of Molière by Mikhail Bulgakov, written in 1933 but published in Russian only in 1962, then translated into French and into English (1986). Bulgakov also wrote a play about Molière’s struggles with the censors, which was banned after four performances, the Russian censors seeing too many parallels in it with the playwright’s own situation.

The American novelist Edmund White has written thoughtful, personally involved biographies of Genet (1993), Proust (1998) and Rimbaud (2008).

I repeat, however: the best way to start is to get to grips with an original book, of whatever period or genre, and take things from there. Alan Bennett’s short novel The Uncommon Reader (2007) offers an inspiring example of this method.