Reading in French

I hardly ever read books in French and I hardly ever read books by Nobel laureates. In the first case, my grasp of the language is shaky and I have no good entry point into French literature: I don’t know what to try. I think the last French-language book I tried reading was Les Trois Mousquetaires, and I dropped it halfway through because it’s silly and romantic. In the second case, I have no respect whatsoever for the collective taste (or “artistic authority”!) of the Swedish Academy, and it is my firm opinion that the only reason that anybody cares about the Nobel prize for literature is the size of the cheque.

The book I just finished reading is thus of an entirely unheard-of kind for me: a French-language work by a Nobel laureate. I quite enjoyed J.M.G. Le Clézio’s little 2004 book L’Africain.

Now, why this sudden uncharacteristic choice of reading matter? It’s a little complicated, but bear with me.

  1. I like Lovecraft, Poe and Baudelaire.
  2. Lovecraft mentions Huysmans, who also liked Poe and Baudelaire.
  3. I avoid reading translations from the languages I know.
  4. Checking out Huysmans’ À rébours from the library, I realised that this was a book I could have read in the original.
  5. To compensate for this misstep, I decided to get another book in French.
  6. When Le Clézio got the prize he was described in the media as an unusually accessible Nobel author.
  7. L’Africain is only 125 pages and has an interesting summary on the back cover.

Simple as that. The book is an evocative treatment of the author’s father’s youthful work as a rural doctor in sub-Saharan Africa, and of some childhood years the author spent there. It is also a regretful meditation on why the father had such a bad relationship with his children. Although a white man raised in Mauritius speaking both French and English, the father is the African of the book’s title.

As for Huysmans, I must say that though À rébours is highly original and full of lovely details, I found the neurotic main character to be quite a silly figure. Rather than the “Bible of the Decadents”, the book must at least in part have been written as a caricature of wealthy decadence. There’s a hilarious scene where Des Esseintes pays a female ventriloquist to become his mistress and she gets really bored by having to make weird voices appear to come from without all the time when the two get between the sheets.

Now, Dear Reader, tell me what I should read in French and why!

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]


  1. #1 Gealach
    January 6, 2010

    Det enda jag har läst av Huysmans är “Là-bas”, som jag kommer ihåg att jag gillade, även om jag har ett detaljminne som är under all kritik, så jag minns inte så mycket av den, tyvärr… Men det kanske är ett tips. (

    Jag kanske skulle ta och läsa om den. 🙂

    En bok som vi läste på A-kursen i franska (för hundra år sedan) och som jag älskar är “Djinn” av Alain Robbe-Grillet. Den är rolig för att storyn är så totalskum och för att den blir mer och mer språkligt avancerad ju längre man kommer, börjar rätt lätt, men ökar i svårighetsgrad allteftersom. Historien börjar som en vanlig deckare men efter några sidor känner man sig förvirrad och undrar om man missat en massa, bläddrar tillbaka och inser till sist att det är meningen att man ska känna sig så. 🙂

    En annan av mina favoriter är “L’empire des anges” av Bernard Werber. Det börjar med att huvudpersonen dör och hamnar i himlen där han blir skyddsängel åt tre nyfödda barn på jorden – bitvis hysteriskt kul, men betydligt mer filosofisk än det kanske låter.

  2. #2 Brian J.
    January 6, 2010

    Something by Levi-Strauss, just because you’ve presumably read some of his work translated INTO the languages you know. 🙂

  3. #3 Pär
    January 6, 2010

    L’écume des jours, peut-être?

  4. #4 Nick Williams
    January 6, 2010

    You should read Montesquieu’s Persian Letters

    a) because it is a bloody good satire on Western civilisation

    b) because in our post 9/11 world the central characters are two very likable Arab gentlemen.

    Remind yourself of Borat witlessly travelling across the US offending Americans. Here you have a similar culture clash with Usbek and Rica in pre-revolutionary France. There is also a harem with eunuchs!

  5. #5 Larry Ayers
    January 6, 2010

    If I knew French I’d read Flaubert.

  6. #6 Peter Lund (Denmark)
    January 6, 2010

    Maigret. Easy to read except for somewhat old-fashioned language. Good stories. Sometimes an interesting historical view of French society.

    Michel Tournier (at least the short stories). Easy to read, interesting philosophical perspectives on things.

  7. #7 ArchAsa
    January 7, 2010

    Peter Lund stole my suggestion!
    I can also recommend Guy de Maupassant, who wrote grat short stories. And some of his later work fall in the horror-category, though more as psychological horror.

  8. #8 ArchAsa
    January 7, 2010

    Actually, Maupassant’s short story Le Horla is cited by Lovecraft as an inspiration for The Call of Cthulhu…

  9. #9 Martin R
    January 7, 2010

    These are great suggestions. Thanks everybody! And keep the titles coming!

  10. #10 Martin R
    January 7, 2010

    Yeah, many of HPL’s stories attempt the characteristic maupassantian punch-line ending.

  11. #11 Marine Putman
    January 7, 2010

    I suggest La nuit des Temps by Barjavel. Medium length, well-written and it all starts with an archeological discovery…

  12. #12 Thinker
    January 8, 2010

    I would second Maigret, and also add another “modern classic”: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Story, adventure and philosophy all rolled into one quite accessible package!

  13. #13 Steve Walker
    January 8, 2010

    If you are partial to horror fantasy, you might try the writing of Jean Ray, the Belgian writer of such collections as Histoires Noires et Fantastiques

  14. #14 Christian Sánchez
    January 16, 2010

    Jules Verne

  15. #15 Chris
    July 8, 2010

    I’m reading Les Trois Mousquetaires at the moment and rather enjoying it. I find it hard to believe your grasp of French is that shaky if you’re able to handle a book like that! Were you able to follow it without constant recourse to a dictionary?

  16. #16 Martin R
    July 8, 2010

    Yes, thank you, the dictionary was mainly for period items of clothing etc. mentioned in the text.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.