The field of French literature contains innumerable famous French novels in addition to a rich assortment of poetry and plays. Some of the most famous novels are household names (such as The Phantom of the Opera) although most people are familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical without knowing that the musical was based on a French novel.
Reading List: Famous French Novels
Students working towards a degree in French (whether it be a bachelors or a masters degree in French) are often presented with long lists of required reading in order to become familiar with the most famous French writers. Individual courses require reading a large amount of French literature, and in addition, many programs in French require students to pass exams about the overall body of French literature in order to obtain their degrees. These lists are good references; however, they are far too long for the pleasure reader looking to discover French literature. Check out the absolute must-reads of French literature for a taste of philosophy, history, surrealism and adventure.
A classic of French literature, this book, written by the philosopher Voltaire, is sub-titled 'Optimism'. This famous French novel is a classic tale of optimism in the face of all odds. Candide, the main character, does not always display optimism openly, and the trials that Candide is put through make his story somewhat like the biblical tale of Job. Just when you think it couldn't possibly get any worse, it does, and yet, somehow, one is still left hoping for a better turn of events in the next scene.
Victor Hugo's Classics
Victor Hugo wrote several novels, the two most well-known of which are The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables. Many are familiar with the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo through the Disney movie, and the musical version of Les Misérables has been entertaining audiences for decades. Hugo's novels address the history of the times, specifically addressing the stories of the people of Paris. Not only are his novels great reads, but they offer a very healthy dose of history as well.
The Adventure Stories of Alexandre Dumas
Two very famous novels by Dumas are The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, both top-notch adventure stories. Anyone looking for a book that reads like an adventure story, but nonetheless has complicated themes hidden inside it, will greatly enjoy these books by Alexandre Dumas. In addition, did you know that the story of The Nutcracker, made into a ballet by Tchaikovsky, is based on a story written by this famous French author?
Albert Camus is said to be the leader of the French surrealist movement, which is clearly evidenced in his short novel The Stranger. This is a book that is frequently read by high school students (in English) because of its literary properties. In addition, the book is short enough that it can be realistically tackled in literature classes at the high school level. If this wasn't in your senior literature class, you might want to check out this classic of French literature.
Le Petit Prince
This book is one of the most well-known French novels of all time. Although typically considered a children's book, this book is loved by readers of all ages. For children, the story and the pictures are captivating; for adults who read this book, they are left for ages afterwards thinking about the themes of friendship and love that are in the book.
This book, like The Stranger is also a classic in many American high schools. Unlike The Stranger, Le Petit Prince is often read in French classes, in French, by advanced students. While novels such as Les Misérables are still too advanced for seniors in French IV classes, Le Petit Prince is at the perfect level, and students often thoroughly enjoy the book.
Many of the famous novels mentioned here are better read in English translation until you've become fully fluent in French; however, if you'd like to stretch your French vocabulary and read a delightful book in French, give Le Petit Prince a try. Bonne lecture!!