Vulgar Latin, spoken form of non-Classical Latin, gave rise to the Romance group of languages which include French. Before 1200 CE, almost all French literature had been composed as verse and had been communicated orally to its public. The 11th-century epic poem La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is regarded as the oldest surviving major work of French literature. 18th century French Enlightenment writer Voltaire was one of the first great French novelists. Romanticism was the dominant movement in European literature in the first half of the 19th century. It was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature. Romanticism was relatively late in developing in French literature but its writers played a major role in it. These include the novelists Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and George Sand. Literary realism is a literary genre which aims to represent subject-matter truthfully. French writer Honoré de Balzac is the most prominent representative of 19th-century realism in fiction. Other major French novelists of the movement include Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. The best known French novelists of the 20th century are Albert Camus and Marcel Proust. Here are the 10 most famous French novelists and their best known novels.
#10 Gustave Flaubert
Lifespan: December 12, 1821 – May 8, 1880
While he was in school, Gustave Flaubert began his literary career with his first published work appearing in a review, Le Colibri, in 1837. Five years later, he finished a novella titled November, published in 1842. Madame Bovary, the work for which Flaubert is most known, took five years to complete. It was first serialized in the literary magazine Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856. Public prosecutors attacked it for obscenity and the resulting trial made the novel famous. Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. Now established as one of the greatest novels, the book is described as a “perfect” work of fiction. Gustave Flaubert is widely regarded as the leading exponent of literary realism in French literature. Literary theorist Kornelije Kvas believes that Flaubert’s “realism strives for formal perfection, so the presentation of reality tends to be neutral, emphasizing the values and importance of style as an objective method of presenting reality”.
Madame Bovary (1856)
Sentimental Education (1869)
#9 Emile Zola
Lifespan: April 2, 1840 – September 29, 1902
The most famous French writer of his day, Emile Zola is perhaps the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism. Naturalism is a literary movement that began in the late 19th century which is a type of extreme realism and focuses on the idea that environment determines and governs human character. Apart from being a novelist, Zola was a journalist, playwright and a major figure in the political liberalization of France. He had a colossal amount of literary output which includes novels, dramas, poetry and criticism. Zola is best known for his 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart which follows the lives of the members of the two titular branches of a fictional family living during the Second French Empire. The 9th installation of the series, Nana, is his most famous novel. It sold 55,000 copies on its day of release. Among other things, the novel has inspired several works of art. Apart from being a great writer, Zola is recognized as a defender of truth and justice for his role in the exoneration of the falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus.
Thérèse Raquin (1867)
#8 George Sand
Lifespan: July 1, 1804 – June 8, 1876
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, popularly known by her pen name George Sand, was a compelling figure in 19th century Europe. Among other things, she had numerous lovers during her lifetime, was probably a bisexual, smoked in public and dressed like a man despite there being a rule against it in France. Her first novel Indiana was published in 1832 and it attracted considerable attention. In it, she questioned the hierarchical binary oppositions between men and women. By the age of 27, Sand had become the most popular writer of any gender in Europe. This was an amazing accomplishment considering she was more popular than even Balzac or Hugo. Moreover, it shows her ability to write characters and themes people connected with at the time. The novels of Sand centered on class struggle and often featured peasants as protagonists. In addition to being popular, she was well respected in the literary elites of Europe. George Sand is undoubtedly the most famous female French writer of all time.
La Mare au Diable (1846)
#7 Marcel Proust
Lifespan: July 10, 1871 – November 18, 1922
Belonging to a wealthy Jewish family, Marcel Proust was a sickly child. He became involved in writing from an early age with his work being published in literary magazines. He also had a column in the journal Le Mensuel. From 1895 to 1899, he wrote Jean Santeuil, an autobiographical novel which remained unfinished. It was later published in 1952, long after his death. Proust lost his father in 1903 and his mother two years later, leaving him grief-stricken. In 1909, Proust began working on his magnum opus À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). A novel in seven volumes, it was published in France between 1913 and 1927. The last three volumes were published posthumously and edited by his brother. In Search of Lost Time is considered by many critics to be the definitive modern novel and it had a profound effect on 20th century literature. English writer Somerset Maugham called it the “greatest fiction to date”. It also made Marcel Proust one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
In Search of Lost Time (1913)
Jean Santeuil (1952)
#6 Honoré de Balzac
Lifespan: May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850
An independent thinker as a child, Balzac found school difficult. After finishing school, he attempted to be a publisher, printer, businessman, critic and politician; but failed in all these efforts. He attained his first real success as a writer through his 1829 novel Les Chouans. In 1833, Balzac released Eugénie Grandet, his first best-seller. Balzac’s work habits were legendary. He wrote from 1 am to 8 am every morning and sometimes even longer. The magnum opus of Balzac is La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), which consists of 91 interlinked novels and novellas depicting French society from the French Revolution to the eve of the Revolution of 1848. These were published between 1829 and 1847. The series remained unfinished at the time of his death as he had plans to incorporate several other books in it. Honoré de Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature and one of the greatest French writers. Among other things, his characters were always complex, morally ambiguous and fully human.
Le Pere Goriot (1834)
La Peau de chagrin (1831)
Eugénie Grandet (1833)
#5 Albert Camus
Lifespan: November 7, 1913 – January 4, 1960
Albert Camus was born in a poor family in Algeria (at the time, a French colony). His paternal grandfather had moved from to Algeria for a better life. Camus was thus called pied-noir (black foot’), a slang term for French who were born in Algeria. Due to his strong anti-fascist feelings, Camus began working for the leftist newspaper Alger Républicain in 1938. He moved to Paris in 1940 but had to soon flee from there due to the German invasion of France in World War II. While taking an active part in the underground resistance movement against the Germans, Camus began writing his second cycle of works. By the time the war ended, he was a celebrated writer known for his role in the Resistance. The best known work of Camus, L’Étranger (The Stranger) is a novella published in 1942. In 1999, Paris newspaper Le Monde ranked it as number one on its 100 Books of the Century. In 1957, Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44, the second-youngest recipient in history. He died in a car accident a few years later at the age of just 46.
The Stranger (1942)
The Plague (1947)
The Fall (1956)
Lifespan: November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778
François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, was born in a family on the lowest rank of the French nobility. He decided to be a writer by the time he left school. His father pushed him towards law but Voltaire spent much of his time writing poetry. Aided by the mathematician Charles Marie de la Condamine, Voltaire rigged a flaw in the government lottery system to become rich. He then used his lottery winnings to invest in various businesses ensuring he wouldn’t have to think of money any longer. Further success followed in 1732 with his play Zaïre, which was critically acclaimed and loved by the French audience. Voltaire was a prolific writer producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, histories and scientific expositions. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. As a novelist, his most famous works include the satirical novel Candide and the philosophical novella Zadig.
#3 Jules Verne
Lifespan: February 8, 1828 – March 24, 1905
Pierre Verne, Jules’s father, was an attorney and wanted his son to follow his footsteps. While in law school, Jules wrote numerous plays. In September 1862, he met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, a French editor and publisher. Thus began a famous collaboration between the two. The first of Verne’s sequence of fifty-four novels known as Voyages extraordinaires (Extraordinary Voyages), was published by Hetzel in 1863. Titled Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon), it became an international best seller. Jules Verne went on to produce some of the best known works in science fiction including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). He is thus credited with laying the foundation of modern science fiction. After Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, Jules Verne has been the third most-translated author in the world since 1979. Moreover, Verne’s novels have had a wide influence on both literary and scientific works.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870)
#2 Alexandre Dumas
Lifespan: July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870
Though most known for his novels, Alexandre Dumas first earned fame as a dramatist with his play Henri III et sa cour (Henri III and his court), which was first performed on February 11, 1829. After earning early success as a writer, Dumas fell out of royal favor when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) was elected the first President of France in 1851. As such, he moved to Belgium, then to Russia and then to Italy before finally returning to Paris in 1864. Dumas is most famous for his novels of high adventure which include The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After. He remains one of the most widely read French authors and his novels have been adapted into some 200 films since early 20th century. Dumas was also a prolific writer of non-fiction. He wrote journal articles on politics and culture; and books on French history. His published works totaled 100,000 pages.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
The Three Musketeers (1844)
Twenty Years After (1845)
#1 Victor Hugo
Lifespan: February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885
Victor’s father Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo went on to become a general in Napoleon’s army. As such, the family had to move often with the imperial army. His mother’s royalism and his father’s loyalty to successive governments was the other major influence on his childhood. While Victor was committed to royalism when he was young, he later became a passionate supporter of republicanism serving in politics as both deputy and senator. As a writer, his career spanned more than 60 years during which he produced poems; dramas in verse and prose; letters, public and private; and several novels. While in France Victor Hugo is more famous as one of the greatest French poets, outside France he is best known as the author of the novels Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862). Victor Hugo has been described as “the most powerful mind of the Romantic movement”. He is one of the few writers who have achieved critical acclaim while also being extremely popular. Hugo is perhaps the most famous French novelist of all time.
Les Misérables (1862)
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831)
The Man Who Laughs (1869)