French novels – 10 of the best, nos. 1 to 5

And now for something completely different.  A personal selection of the top 10 French novels, the ones I keep coming back to.  Numbers 1 to 5 are in this post.  For Numbers 6-10, click here.

Spoiler alert: I do reveal the ending in some cases below. If you don’t want to know, don’t read beyond ** in the book description.

See also my post about French country novels.

Not in any particular order:

1.     L’eau des Collines: Jean de Florette et Manon des Sources (1963) by Marcel Pagnol

A rare example of a film that became a book. Pagnol himself directed his wife Jacqueline in ‘Manon des Sources’ in 1953 and then published the story in 1963. Two crafty Provençal peasants cheat a hunchbacked tax collector-turned-smallholder out of his inherited farm by stopping up a water source of whose existence he is unaware..

** His daughter Manon takes her revenge in the second book and the two malfaiteurs get their come-uppance.

Claude Berri directed two superb films based on the books in 1986, with Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Dépardieu and Yves Montand.

2.     L’Assommoir (1877) by Emile Zola

One in a series of 20 novels by Zola, known collectively as ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’ and all set between about 1852 and 1870 during the reign of Napoleon III. They include Nana, Germinal and La Bête Humaine. I think L’Assommoir is the best. Set in the less salubrious artisan quarters of Paris, it describes the slow but inexorable disintegration of several lives because of the demon drink. Some of the other Rougon-Macquart are tedious beyond belief since Zola couldn’t stop indulging himself in long and flowery descriptions that go on for pages. La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret is probably the worst in that regard. I know because I have ploughed through all 20.

3.     Des Grives aux Loups (1979), Les Palombes ne Passeront Plus (1980), L’Appel des Engoulevents (1990), La Terre des Vialhe (1998) by Claude Michelet

Terrific series of books about six generations of the farming family Vialhe in the Corrèze, from 1900 up to the late 1980s. The books chronicle their lives and the revolutionary changes that took place in the French countryside during that period. A way of life that had lasted for more than 1,000 years was swept away in the space of 50. You get wrapped up with the convincing characters. The series should have finished at the end of the 3rd book, but Michelet succumbed to pressure from his public and publishers and wrote a concluding 4th book, which is weaker than the others.

4.     Une Vie (1883) by Guy de Maupassant

Achingly sad tale of the blighted dreams of a romantic young woman, Jeanne, who has been wrapped in cotton wool by her parents in Normandy. She marries the first (gold-digging) comer who is already sleeping with the family maid and who subsequently has a liaison with the wife of an aristocratic couple.

**The lovers are murdered by the jealous husband. Everybody spoils the child of Jeanne’s unhappy union with the defunct gold-digger and the boy eventually ruins the family, which has subsidised his ill-advised commercial ventures. Jeanne is forced to sell the family château and live with the maid in a modest cottage.

5.     Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert

Another romantic young woman, taken in more by style than substance, marries a dull and talentless local doctor and settles down to tedious French provincial life. She relieves the boredom and disappointment by having flings with a series of love rats, though her naïve husband suspects nothing. Don’t expect a happy ending.

For Numbers 6-10 click here.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved.


I'd love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.