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The 16 Best French Books to Read in 2018

L’Étranger, Albert Camus
Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
L’Enfant Noir, Camara Laye
Entre les Murs, François Bégaudeau
La Mécanique du Coeur, Mathias Malzieu
La Maison de Claudine, Colette
La Gloire de Mon Père, Marcel Pagnol
Candide, Voltaire
Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo
L’Élégance du Hérisson, Muriel Barbery
Soumission, Michel Houellebecq
Stupeur et Tremblements, Amélie Nothomb
Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, Fatou Diome
Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac
Les Fleurs du Mal, Charles Baudelaire
Zazie dans le Métro, Raymond Queneau

A French Bible

10 Best Books to Learn French: 10 Unbelievably Good Books for French Learners

10 Unbelievably Good Books for French Learners

1. “Hygiene de l’assassin” by Amélie Nothomb
This is a strange little book written almost entirely in dialogue. The story consists of different journalists interviewing a famous novelist, Prétextat Tach, who is dying. Tach, an obese, misogynistic monster of a man, is an unpleasant yet highly entertaining character. He makes a game of avoiding questions about his personal life and driving away his interviewers, among whom a contest develops to see who can dig up any interesting information on the novelist. The interactions between Tach and the interviewers make for fast and absorbing reading, and the mystery developing around Tach’s past and personality will keep you glued to the page.

2. “Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
I had to include at least one French piano drama. If you continue to read in French or watch French movies, you’ll find a lot of stories in which some part of the plot hinges on a character’s ability or inability to play the piano. File this away for further investigation as you progress.

The protagonist of this drama, Simon Nardis, is a former jazz pianist and alcoholic who had to give up both habits to stay on the straight and narrow. In a single night, he breaks with years of abstinence and returns to his two loves. Written in sharp, snappy prose, “Un soir au club” reads like hot jazz and quickly draws you in with its seductive pace. Gailly often uses short sentence fragments for emphasis, which helps direct the reader’s attention to grammar and phrasing.

3. “Bonjour Tristresse” by Françoise Sagan
It’s difficult to find a comparison for Sagan in English-language literature. My mother, who lived in France in the sixties, gave me her copy of “Bonjour Tristesse” while shrugging it off as a silly, guilty pleasure. For this reason, I came to think of it as something along the lines of a trashy romance novel.

I was surprised to find it was a lot better than that. The plot centers on a teenage girl’s relationship with her womanizing father, and how his love life influences and becomes entangled with her own. It retains the fast pacing and quick gratification of a romance novel, but reads more like a soap opera condensed into novel form, and draws you in with charisma and personality.

4. “Pietr-le-Letton” by Georges Simenon
This novel by Simenon introduces Commissaire Maigret, who appears in many more novels and stories. By many, I mean more than a hundred. So if you develop a taste for following Maigret through his methodical, character-rich investigation processes, you’ll have taken on an excellent habit for your French learning.

The prose in this novel is still a little rough compared to the easy, relaxed pace Simenon developed in later works, but it familiarizes you with Maigret and Simenon in a story that takes the detective through a variety of locales in different social strata.

5. “Coule la Seine” by Fred Vargas
This collection of three mystery stories is a nice sampler to get you acquainted with another French detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, who appears in several Vargas novels. Vargas is a historian who incorporates her knowledge of history into her books, creating rich, eccentric characters who have the education necessary to make her plots play out in a satisfying way.

Every native English speaker learning French at some point encounters doubts as to whether what they’re doing is really useful. For this reason, you may find Vargas comforting. She creates characters who are armed with unexpected facts that end up applying to real-life situations. These tendencies are not all fully explored in this collection, but you’ll get an idea of Adamsberg’s personality as well as the charm of the style and characters you’ll find in the novels.

6. “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
This is a classic that is part of any basic education in French literature. Set in French colonial Vietnam, it tells the story of a young girl from a French family who becomes romantically involved with an older Chinese man. The plot is narrated from the detached point of view of a woman who is now much older and reflecting on the events related. The writing is hypnotic and simple to read. As in the case of Gailly’s “Un soir au club,” Duras often repeats words and events, which is good for poetic effect and great for learning.

7. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant

Another classic, this is a sparse moral and psychological drama. The story follows a young man who develops a relationship with an older woman. Narrated in the first person, “Adolphe” explores all of the inner misgivings and woes of the main character, who is highly self-analytical. The prose is mostly limited to Adolphe’s state of mind as well as his interactions with others, so the vocabulary and phrasing are efficient and fairly easy to follow despite the fact that the book was first published in 1816.

8. “Extension du domaine de la lutte” by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq has become a highly controversial figure in France for writing characters with questionable social views and making offensive statements. Despite that, he’s someone to be aware of if you have any interest in contemporary French culture and literature. He’s a solid writer who can fill out your vocabulary on modern subjects such as dating, social politics, and the workplace. This is his first novel, and it encompasses and riffs on the dreariness of day-to-day societal existence in a way that comes across like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” as told by Bill Hicks, but with a lot more French.

9. “Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman

If I describe this work as an existential, quasi-horror sci-fi novel, I’m speaking accurately but failing to assess its beautiful, haunting singularity. Narrated by a female character who was raised by a group of older women imprisoned in an undisclosed underground location, the reader is introduced to a world that is like this one but also distinctly different. The question of who the women’s captors are and why they are being held makes the story a mystery as well. Creepy, imaginative and rife with examples of the first person plural passé simple, Harpman’s novel is a dream for any speculative-fiction-loving French learner.

10. “Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol
This is the longest and most difficult book on the list, but also one of the most useful for learning French. If you find it intimidating, work your way through a few others first and try coming back to it. Pancol writes with a light, sympathetic touch about members of a modern French family who follow separate ambitions and interests while still striving to love and support one another. The story has the appeal of an addictive television series that will keep you thinking about the characters when you’re not reading, and motivate you to get through the more difficult parts to find out what happens to them.
Poetry Bonus: “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert

If you’ve been studying French for a while, chances are you’ve already come across Prévert’s poetry. He’s a playful but serious poet, who used simple language and repetition to great effect. His style has the added bonus of setting aside little isolated blocks of French for you to read, memorize and, if you’re feeling ambitious, translate. Poetry in general is a great way to try your hand at translation, which will help your French even if translation isn’t something in which you have a particular interest.

Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

1 The Stranger
The Outsider Albert Camus 1942 French
2 In Search of Lost Time
Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust 1913–27 French
3 The Trial Franz Kafka 1925 German
4 The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 1943 French
5 Man’s Fate André Malraux 1933 French
6 Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Céline 1932 French
7 The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck 1939 English
8 For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway 1940 English
9 Le Grand Meaulnes Alain-Fournier 1913 French
10 Froth on the Daydream Boris Vian 1947 French
11 The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir 1949 French
12 Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett 1952 French
13 Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre 1943 French
14 The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco 1980 Italian
15 The Gulag Archipelago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1973 Russian
16 Paroles Jacques Prévert 1946 French
17 Alcools Guillaume Apollinaire 1913 French
18 The Blue Lotus Hergé 1936 French
19 The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank 1947 Dutch
20 Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss 1955 French
21 Brave New World Aldous Huxley 1932 English
22 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell 1949 English
23 Asterix the Gaul René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo 1959 French
24 The Bald Soprano Eugène Ionesco 1952 French
25 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Sigmund Freud 1905 German
26 The Abyss
Zeno of Bruges Marguerite Yourcenar 1968 French
27 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov 1955 English
28 Ulysses James Joyce 1922 English
29 The Tartar Steppe Dino Buzzati 1940 Italian
30 The Counterfeiters André Gide 1925 French
31 The Horseman on the Roof Jean Giono 1951 French
32 Belle du Seigneur Albert Cohen 1968 French
33 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez 1967 Spanish
34 The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner 1929 English
35 Thérèse Desqueyroux François Mauriac 1927 French
36 Zazie in the Metro Raymond Queneau 1959 French
37 Confusion of Feelings Stefan Zweig 1927 German
38 Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell 1936 English
39 Lady Chatterley’s Lover D. H. Lawrence 1928 English
40 The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann 1924 German
41 Bonjour Tristesse Françoise Sagan 1954 French
42 Le Silence de la mer Vercors 1942 French
43 Life: A User’s Manual Georges Perec 1978 French
44 The Hound of the Baskervilles Arthur Conan Doyle 1901–02 English
45 Under the Sun of Satan Georges Bernanos 1926 French
46 The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925 English
47 The Joke Milan Kundera 1967 Czech
48 Contempt/A Ghost at Noon Alberto Moravia 1954 Italian
49 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Agatha Christie 1926 English
50 Nadja André Breton 1928 French
51 Aurélien Louis Aragon 1944 French
52 The Satin Slipper Paul Claudel 1929 French
53 Six Characters in Search of an Author Luigi Pirandello 1921 Italian
54 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Bertolt Brecht 1941 German
55 Friday Michel Tournier 1967 French
56 The War of the Worlds H. G. Wells 1898 English
57 If This Is a Man
Se questo è un uomo, Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi 1947 Italian
58 The Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien 1954–55 English
59 Les Vrilles de la vigne Colette 1908 French
60 Capital of Pain Paul Éluard 1926 French
61 Martin Eden Jack London 1909 English
62 Ballad of the Salt Sea Hugo Pratt 1967 Italian
63 Writing Degree Zero Roland Barthes 1953 French
64 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum Heinrich Böll 1974 German
65 The Opposing Shore Julien Gracq 1951 French
66 The Order of Things Michel Foucault 1966 French
67 On the Road Jack Kerouac 1957 English
68 The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Selma Lagerlöf 1906–07 Swedish
69 A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf 1929 English
70 The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury 1950 English
71 The Ravishing of Lol Stein Marguerite Duras 1964 French
72 The Interrogation J. M. G. Le Clézio 1963 French
73 Tropisms Nathalie Sarraute 1939 French
74 Journal, 1887–1910 Jules Renard 1925 French
75 Lord Jim Joseph Conrad 1900 English
76 Écrits Jacques Lacan 1966 French
77 The Theatre and its Double Antonin Artaud 1938 French
78 Manhattan Transfer John Dos Passos 1925 English
79 Ficciones Jorge Luis Borges 1944 Spanish
80 Moravagine Blaise Cendrars 1926 French
81 The General of the Dead Army Ismail Kadare 1963 Albanian
82 Sophie’s Choice William Styron 1979 English
83 Gypsy Ballads Federico García Lorca 1928 Spanish
84 The Strange Case of Peter the Lett Georges Simenon 1931 French
85 Our Lady of the Flowers Jean Genet 1944 French
86 The Man Without Qualities Robert Musil 1930–42 German
87 Furor and Mystery René Char 1948 French
88 The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger 1951 English
89 No Orchids For Miss Blandish James Hadley Chase 1939 English
90 Blake and Mortimer Edgar P. Jacobs 1950 French
91 The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge Rainer Maria Rilke 1910 German
92 Second Thoughts Michel Butor 1957 French
93 The Origins of Totalitarianism
The Burden of Our Time Hannah Arendt 1951 English
94 The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov 1967 Russian
95 The Rosy Crucifixion Henry Miller 1949–60 English
96 The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler 1939 English
97 Amers Saint-John Perse 1957 French
98 Gaston
Gomer Goof André Franquin 1957 French
99 Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry 1947 English
100 Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie 1981 English