The Stranger , Albert Camus
Camus’s classic and wonderful absurdist-existentialist novel tells the story of a highly detached Algerian man named Meursault, who in the very center of the novel (even if you haven’t read it, we assume you know at least this much) kills another man for what seems like almost no reason. In 1999, Parisian newspaper Le Monde listed The Stranger first on its list of the best books of the 20th century, and if the French love it, you know it’s got to be good.
The Lover , Marguerite Duras
Duras’ beautiful autobiographical novel tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who falls desperately in love with a much older Chinese man in French colonial Vietnam. In 1984, the year of its publication, The Lover won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious French literary honor, given to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.” That sounds about right.
The Little Prince , Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Seeing as it’s the most read and most translated book in the French language, not to mention one of the best-selling books of all time, you’ve probably already read the gorgeous, absurdist, heartbreaking novella The Little Prince. But you should probably read it again.
Les Misérables , Victor Hugo
You may know Les Misérables as one of the most popular and longest-running Broadway musicals of all time, but of course, the phenomenal story of love, honor, and redemption was written by French Romantic author Victor Hugo in 1862. One of the most important French writers of the 19th century, Hugo is honored not only for his novels, but also for his poetry, especially in France.
Madame Bovary , Gustave Flaubert
We’re big fans of Madame Bovary around here, and (we think) for good reason. Flaubert’s first novel, published in 1857, has continued to captivate generations of readers with its beautiful language, painful truths, and inlaid patterns. As rock star book critic James Wood wrote in his recent book How Fiction Works , “Flaubert established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.” We recommend the Lydia Davis translation.
The Complete Claudine , Colette
Music-hall dancer, boundary-breaker, and sometime-girlfriend of Josephine Baker, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a complete badass. Not least because she was a prolific and beloved writer who lived to see herself called “Frances greatest woman writer,” and whose then-scandalous (and then-attributed to her husband) first novels still hold up as true, delicious, and lyrical works of art today.
The Red and the Black , Stendhal
When The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s legendary psychological-novel-cum-social-satire, was published in 1830, critics hailed it as being ahead of its time — a novel for the 20th century, not the 19th. Indeed, in a literary climate where psychology was most often portrayed through simple dialogue or third person narration, Stendhal delved deeply into his characters’ minds to pull out their feelings and motivations, changing the course of French literature forever.
The Count of Monte Cristo , Alexandre Dumas
Sure, there are probably more important works than The Count of Monte Cristo. Hell, there may even be more important works than The Count of Monte Cristo written by Dumas (The Three Musketeers, anyone?). But this novel is just so enthralling, devious, and fun that we think anyone interested in French literature (or literature in general, or awesome stories) should read it toute de suite.
The Human Comedy , Honoré de Balzac
This isn’t really fair, since La Comédie humaine is really a sprawling collection of linked short stories and novels (91 finished works, and 46 unfinished), but we couldn’t pick just one, and why not have them all? Balzac’s magnum opus is a sweeping portrayal of the lives of the people in Restoration-era France, after the fall of Napoleon, and even if you just dip in here and there, it’s an absolute classic.
Remembrance of Things Past , Marcel Proust
Well, you’ve got to put Proust on a list like this. There’s just no getting around it. But if you want to read the whole thing, you’d better get started: clocking in at something like 1.5 million words, it is one of the longest novels in the world.
10 extra recommendations for overachievers: Our Lady of the Flowers , Jean Genet Journey to the End of the Night , Louis-Ferdinand Céline Germinal , Émile Zola Candide , Voltaire Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant The Second Sex , Simone de Beauvoir Dangerous Liaisons , Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , Jules Verne Man’s Fate , André Malraux Being and Nothingness , Jean-Paul Sartre