French Books for the Uninitiated by Ben Brown

French Books for the Uninitiated by Ben Brown

For those of us who weren’t born into the French language there is the joy of an awful lot of learning to come if we’re ever going to speak it with any amount of fluency. But once you’re past the comics and children’s books what to read next? This list is a document of my own ongoing and loving struggle, sorted into roughly ascending order of difficulty. And if you’re not ready to try them in French we’ve included links to the English versions too!

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L’Etranger by Albert Camus – The gateway drug of French adult reading. Camus is even kind enough to avoid the passé simple, that thorn in the side of any early reader.

The Outsider

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En Attendant Godot by Samuel Beckett – Beckett is a beautiful anomaly, an Irish writer who preferred to write in French to make things harder for himself. This is his second play written in French and the one that made his name.

Waiting for Godot

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Paroles by Jacques Prévert – Poetry is for the most part much harder to appreciate in a second language than prose but Prévert’s verse is accessible and charming.

Paroles: Selected Poems

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Pietr-le-Letton by Georges Simenon– France’s most prolific author (I googled it so it must be true) Simenon churned ‘em out, yet he rarely had a dud. The Maigret books are some of the best detective novels of the 20th century. His more serious “psychological” novels, the romans durs, are, as the name suggests, harder reads but also worth the effort

Pietr the Latvian

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Le Silence de la Mer by Vercors – This moving novella was written under a pseudonym by the great Résistance publisher, Jean Bruller, cofounder of Les Editions de Minuit, which ran in secret during the Nazi occupation and still runs – out in the open – today.

Le Silence de la Mer

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L’Ecume des Jours by Boris Vian – A jazz musician, writer, playwright and poet, Vian was an unusually brilliant young man. This surreal, romantic novel is now a well-loved classic but it was a disappointment for Vian, only becoming a success after his death. Another one of his novels has the magnificent title J’irai cracher sur vos tombes. It was filmed in 1959, and Vian fought with the filmmakers during the production, sure that they were ruining his book. At the première Vian stood up in the first few minutes, shouted his dissatisfaction at the screen, and promptly suffered a fatal heart attack.

Mood Indigo

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Le Passe-muraille by Marcel Aymé – Short stories are great if you’re looking to try something a bit harder than usual and this is one of the best. There’s even a sculpture of the passe-muraille a few streets from the Sacré Coeur.

The Man who Walked through Walls

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Candide by Voltaire – If you want to dive into the classics then Candide is a good starting point. It’s short, drily funny and won’t tire the arm getting the dictionary down from the shelf all the time.

Candide

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Tous Mes Amis by Marie NDiaye – Another great collection of short stories, one of which saw its first translation into English in the Shakespeare & Co ‘Paris magazine’. Her first book was picked up by the Editions de Minuit when she was just 17 and her novel Trois Femmes Puissantes won the most prestigious literary prize in France, the Prix Goncourt, in 2009.

All My Friends

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Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano – I’ve read a few Modianos and enjoyed them all. He writes with clarity and simplicity while still being profound and haunting. He was relatively unknown outside of France until he won the Nobel prize last year.

Dora Bruder

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Zazie dans le Métro by Raymond Queneau – « Doukipudonktan ! » Don’t be put off by the first word of this delightful novel, it’s not such a difficult read. Queneau was a founding member of the Oulipo group, who liked to set themselves unusual limitations when they worked to encourage creativity. Results include Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a 300-page novel written without the letter e. (Incidentally, it has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair with the same restriction. He won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for it and even without having read it I think I can safely say he deserved it.)

Zazie in the Metro

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Truismes by Marie Darrieussecq – This book is mad, grotesque, and fantastic in every sense. Darrieussecq’s first novel, she wrote it while finishing her PhD in French literature. Using a limited vocabulary with incredible control she creates a bizarre dystopia that is unlike anything else I’ve read in a long time.

Pig Tales: A novel of Lust and Transformation

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Andromache by Racine – This early Racine play is a good introduction to the Golden Age of French theatre. Racine, a strict observer of the Greek unities, is France’s best known tragedian. Avoid only if you can’t stand rhyming couplets.

Four French Plays: Cinna, The Misanthrope, Andromache, Phaedra

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Nouvelles orientales by Marguerite Yourcenar – Yourcenar became famous when her 1951 novel Mémoires d’Hadrien was published to universal acclaim. In 1980 she was the first woman to be elected to the Académie française. This collection of short stories is a jewel. Each one is intricate and perfect.

Oriental Tales