Though the popular imagination first ties France to its accomplishments in food and wine, the French nation, from kingdom to republic, has an esteemed literary tradition that rivals its epicurean excellence. Lisez avec nous ensemble—that’s “read together with us” en français—to learn more about some of the most important works of French literature that you should consider adding to your personal bibliothèque.
William Shakespeare is renowned for singlehandedly expanding the English language. Under the auspices of the notoriously hidebound Académie Française for nearly 400 years, French has been far less receptive to neologisms than ever-adaptable English. However, François Rabelais coined many words of his own in his five-book picaresque masterpiece featuring two wandering giants. Combining farce, wordplay, and biting social commentary, the stories make up a cornerstone of the estimable French canon, capturing the Gallic zeal for both astute political satire and crass vulgarity.
More familiar to English readers as an award-winning musical and motion picture, Victor Hugo’s sweeping 1862 epic practically encapsulates the entirety of early 19th-century France, from its small-r republican spirit to the gross inequities of French society, even remarking upon the architecture of Paris along the way. The novel begins with its protagonist, Jean Valjean, suffering the consequences of having stolen a mere loaf of bread, culminating in a spirited insurrection against the corrupt French monarchy.
World War I has not been cataloged as thoroughly as the subsequent war that further ravaged Europe. In the wake of what was naively deemed “the war to end all wars,” veterans believed they had seen humanity at its worst. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s embellished retelling of his service, known in English as Journey to the End of the Night, is perhaps one of the bleakest and most unforgiving portrayals of humanity put to paper in any language. Unrelenting in its cynicism and documentarian in its capture of dialogue, the novel gives readers a true understanding of the grimness of war. In any translation, it’s no easy read.
Much to the chagrin of the French and the Francophonie, who maintain a spirited rivalry with that sceptered isle across the Channel, one of the most important works of French literature was written in English. The work of Bible translation known as the Douay-Rheims Bible was an effort to translate the Vulgate from Latin to English. As the Protestant Reformation took hold throughout 17th-century Europe, particularly in England, the Catholic Church realized that it had to take steps to maintain its stronghold over the ever-growing English-speaking world. By bringing the Vulgate, the Catholic Church’s preferred translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts, into English, the Church hoped to counter the Reformation and win back followers with an accessible edition of scripture. While the translation was written in English, the translation took place at French universities in 1582 and 1610, incongruously placing this anglophone work under le tricolore.