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. The earliest novel on our list is Voltaire’s Candide which was published in 1759. French Romantic writers of the early 19th century wrote several popular and acclaimed novels. These include Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and the adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is considered as a masterpiece of realism that established the realist movement on the European scene with its publication in 1856. The best known French novels of the 20th century include In Search of Lost Time; The Little Prince; and The Stranger. Here are the 10 most famous French novels by renowned writers.
Author: Emile Zola
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. As a novelist, Zola is best known for his 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. His most famous novel, Nana, is the 9th installation of the series. Published in book form in February 1880, it was a runaway success with its first edition of 55,000 copies being sold out in a single day. The novel tells the story of its titular character, Nana Coupeau, rising from a streetwalker to a high-class prostitute during the last three years of the French Second Empire. The character Nana was inspired by Valtesse de La Bigne, a French courtesan who had a succession of rich lovers.
#9 In Search of Lost Time
French Title: À la recherche du temps perdu
Author: Marcel Proust
Primarily due to this masterpiece, Marcel Proust is regarded as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. He began working on it in 1909 and it was published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. The last three volumes were published posthumously and edited by his brother. The novel is about the recollections of the narrator of his childhood and experiences into adulthood in late 19th century and early 20th century aristocratic France. In Search of Lost Time is famous for its exploration of involuntary memory, a sub-component of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort. The novel 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 In Search of Lost Time the “greatest fiction to date”.
François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, is regarded as one of the greatest French writers. He was prolific, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, histories and scientific expositions. His most famous novel, Candide, follows the story of its titular character as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world. It is a picaresque novel, that is a work that depicts a roguish but “appealing hero”, usually of low social class. Candide is characterized by its tone as well as by its erratic, fantastical and fast-moving plot. Though it was a best-seller, the novel was denounced by both secular and religious authorities as it openly derides government and the church alike. It was banned in February 1759. Nonetheless, it sold 20,000 to 30,000 copies by the end of the year in over 20 editions. Candide is the most widely read of Voltaire’s many works; and it is considered one of the great achievements of Western literature.
#7 The Three Musketeers
French Title: Les Trois Mousquetaires
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Swashbuckler is a genre of European adventure literature that focuses on a heroic protagonist who is skilled in swordplay, acrobatics, guile and chivalrous ideals. The Three Musketeers belongs to the swashbuckler genre which has chivalrous swordsmen who fight for justice. The novel follows the adventures of a young man named d’Artagnan after he leaves home to travel to Paris. There he meets three of the most formidable musketeers of the age – Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The four then become entangled in one of the great conspiracies in monarchist France. Alexandre Dumas is one of the most widely read French authors and The Three Musketeers is one of his best known works. It has been adapted into numerous films, television series, theater, video games and more.
#6 The Stranger
French Title: L’Étranger
Author: Albert Camus
Albert Camus is a Nobel Prize winning French author who rose to fame after the Second World War and is regarded as perhaps the greatest French novelist of the 20th century. The Stranger is his most famous work. Its protagonist is an indifferent French Algerian named Meursault. The novel is famous for its first lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” The novella is divided into two parts: presenting Meursault’s first-person narrative view before and after he kills an Arab man. The Stranger is regarded as one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature. In 1999, Paris newspaper Le Monde ranked it as number one on its 100 Books of the Century. It has been adapted into two films: Lo Straniero (1967) (Italian) by Luchino Visconti and Yazgı (2001, Fate) (Turkish) by Zeki Demirkubuz.
#5 The Little Prince
French Title: Le Petit Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French writer who was also a journalist and a pioneering aviator. As a novelist, he is best known as the author of this novella. The Little Prince sold an estimated 140 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 301 languages and dialects. This makes it one of the best-selling and most translated books ever published. The novella begins with the plane of its narrator being crashed in the Sahara desert. Here he meets a young boy who is nicknamed “the little prince”. This boy then recounts the story of his life to the narrator. The novella addresses themes of loneliness, friendship, love and loss. Among other things, it has been adapted into films, plays and TV series. In 1999, Paris newspaper Le Monde ranked it as number four on its 100 Books of the Century.
#4 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
French Title: Notre-Dame de Paris
Author: Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo has been described as “the most powerful mind of the Romantic movement”. 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). A historical novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is set in Paris in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI. The story centers on Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral; and his unrequited love for the beautiful dancer La Esmeralda. The defining characteristic of Quasimodo is his physical monstrosity and the primary focus of the novel is what it means to be perceived as a monster. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is regarded as one of the greatest works in French literature and it has been adapted several times for the stage and screen.
#3 Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert is widely regarded as the leading exponent of literary realism in French literature. 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. It tells the story of its titular character who craves for romance, wealth and passion which eludes her in her dull married life. The novel transforms the commonplace story of adultery into an enduring work of profound humanity. Now established as one of the greatest novels, Madame Bovary is described as a “perfect” work of fiction. It is considered as a masterpiece of realism that established the realist movement on the European scene.
#2 The Count of Monte Cristo
French Title: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
The most famous novel of one of the greatest novelists in the genre of adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo has been “translated into virtually all modern languages and has never been out of print in most of them.” The novel follows the life of its protagonist Edmond Dantes, who is falsely accused of treason, arrested and imprisoned without trial, just before he can marry his fiancee Mercedes. The novel then focuses on his quest for vengeance against those who conspired to destroy him. According to literary critic George Saintsbury, The Count of Monte Cristo is “said to have been at its first appearance, and for some time subsequently, the most popular book in Europe.” While contemporary critic Luc Sante calls it “a fixture of Western civilization’s literature, as inescapable and immediately identifiable as Mickey Mouse, Noah’s flood and the story of Little Red Riding Hood.”
#1 Les Miserables
English Title: The Miserables
Author: Victor Hugo
The most famous work of perhaps the greatest French novelist, Les Miserables was an instant popular success and was quickly translated into several languages. Set in the Parisian underworld and plotted like a detective story, the novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters. The most prominent of them is Jean Valjean, who is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Other major characters include Javert, a fanatic police inspector in pursuit to recapture Valjean; Fantine, a beautiful working class woman; and Cosette, her illegitimate daughter. Since its original publication, Les Miserables has been the subject of a large number of adaptations in numerous types of media, such as books, films, musicals, plays and games. It continues to enjoy popularity and is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in European literature.