French classics recommendations | Celebrating Bastille Day

Hello, beautiful people!

Today is Bastille Day, the French National Day! It celebrates the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789, as well as la Fête de la Fédération (Federation’s Party I guess?) celebrated on July 14th 1790, which celebrated the unity of the French people. 

Happy Bastille Day!

While I’m French, I mostly read in English, because there are so many books I want to discover that were written in that language and that’s also why I’m always speaking in English on social media. However, I have many French classics that I adore and I thought today would be the perfect excuse to share that with you all!

Side note: all the Goodreads links are of course, for the translations in English! I’m not completely sure whether the Marcel Pagnol books I recommended were translated, but they can be a good place to start if you want to try to read in French. *wink* The first three recommendations are my ultimate favourites, then I put the books in publication order!

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

I couldn’t start this post with any other book, because Les Misérables is my favourite book ever. It is set through different time periods and places, but mainly follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who tries to put his past behind him. His path crosses many times with memorable characters, such as Fantine, Javert, the Thénardiers, Cosette, Gavroche or Marius. It is such a masterpiece, depicting history so closely (a lot of it is set in 1832 during the barricades), crafting such fleshed-out characters, with a gripping plot, even though it’s more than a thousand pages long. I won’t even get started on Marius and Cosette, but I adore them so much. I dedicated an entire blog post to Les Misérables last year, as it’s both my favourite book and my favourite musical, so if you’re interested in that, it’s here. Please, whether it’s the abridged version or the musical, give it a chance, it’s so worth it.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839)

Many readers know Stendhal thanks to his novel The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), but my personal favourite is The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme), set in Italy during the Napoleonic Wars. It follows the young aristocrat Fabrizio del Dongo, who wants to go to war to fight for Napoléon. He stumbles on the Battle of Waterloo, ill-prepared, yet filled with enthusiasm for war and glory. He goes back to Milan and is entangled in a series of amorous exploits, fuelled by his impetuous nature and the political chicanery of his aunt Gina and her lover. According to Balzac, it is the most important French novel of its time, a compelling novel of extravagance and daring, blending the intrigues of the Italian court with the romance and excitement of youth. I read this one for a literature class four years ago and I absolutely fell in love with it. Fabrizio and Clélia are my ridiculous babies and I love them so much.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola (1883)

Ever since we had to read The Ladies’ Paradise at the end of middle school, I’ve been obsessed with Emile Zola and one of my life goals is to read his entire Rougon-Macquart series, which follows the fates of an entire family during the Second Empire in France (from 1851 to 1870) and is made of twenty novels. The Ladies’ Paradise is by far my favourite novel by Zola and the first I have ever read. The novel recounts the rise of the modern department store in late nineteenth-century Paris. Its main character, Denise Baudu, is particularly interesting, because she’s such an independent and hard-working woman, very different from Zola’s usual female characters. She wasn’t even supposed to be the heroine of this novel at first, as it also follows Octave Mouret, founder and owner of the store, and I love her even more knowing that. The store itself is a character, it’s a symbol of capitalism, of the modern city, and of the bourgeois family: it is emblematic of changes in consumer culture, in sexual attitudes and in class relations taking place at the end of the century. 

Interesting fact: The BBC period drama series The Paradise was inspired by this novel. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m planning to, at some point!

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1862)

Gustave Flaubert’s most famous works are Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, but plot twist, I haven’t read any of them just yet, but fell in love with this historical novel, Salammbô. This one is an epic story of lust, cruelty, and sensuality set in Carthage in the days following the First Punic War with Rome, with such historical details that there aren’t many French historical novels that can compare to it. I’m fascinated by this novel, because I studied history and adore understanding what people knew of history during their time, how they viewed it, how they studied it and Salammbô is a great example of that. 

A Love Story by Emile Zola (1879)

My second favourite novel by Emile Zola is A Love Story (Une Page d’Amour), it’s also translated as A Love Episode sometimes. It follows Helene, a young widow who lives a secluded life with her only child, Jeanne, a delicate and nervous girl who jealously guards her mother’s affections. When Jeanne falls ill, she is attended by a doctor, who falls in love with Helene. Jeanne realizes she has a rival for Helene’s devotion in the doctor, and begins to exercise a tyrannous hold over her mother. This novel is an intense psychological and nuanced portrayal of love’s different forms. Zola’s study extends most notably to the city of Paris itself, whose shifting moods reflect Helene’s emotional turmoil in passages of extraordinary lyrical description.

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

Bel-Ami is fairly well-known outside of France, especially since there was a movie adaptation with Robert Pattinson a few years ago (I don’t think I ever watched it, though). This book is the scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power. George Duroy, the main character, is offered a job as a journalist in La Vie Française and soon makes a great success of his new career. He learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. It also describes very accurately the life of Paris in the Belle Epoque very accurately and I’ve read it several times, I really love this one.
Swann’s Way (1913) and In the Shadow of Young 
Girls in Flowers (1919) by Marcel Proust

Swann’s Way (Du Côté de Chez Swann) and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) are the first two books in Marcel Proust’s In Search for Lost Time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) series, which is set at the beginning of the 20th century in France. I love reading about society at that time and the author portrayed it so well. In this seven book series,  Proust attempted the perfect rendering of life in art, of the past recreated through memory. It is both a portrait of the artist and a discovery of the aesthetic by which the portrait is painted, and it was to have an immense influence on the literature of the twentieth century. The first two books follow the narrator as a child and as a young man, there are a bit hard to read at times because they don’t have many chapters, but I enjoyed them so much. I’m so glad I got motivated to read them three years ago, thanks to one of my literature professors, and I’m finally going to continue with Guermantes’ Way soon enough, as I want to have read the entire series by the time I turn twenty-five!

Marius (1929), Fanny (1931) and César (1936) by Marcel Pagnol

Marcel Proust is a French author I adore, I’ve read most of his plays when I was a teenager and I have such a fond memory of it. My favourites are a trilogy set in Marseilles in the 1920s, namely MariusFanny and César (the names of the three main characters). To sum it up, it follows Marius – the son of César, owner of the local bar on the port – who is torn between his love for Fanny, who sells shells for a living, and his desire to travel the world. I adore these characters and relate so much to them, to the point that reading the plays made me cry, when I still haven’t seen them on stage (it’s going to be so much worse). Anyway, it’s my dream to see them on stage one day. Marcel Pagnol usually writes about the south of France and I really enjoy that, because I don’t know that part of my country very well.
Antigone by Jean Anouilh (1946)

I read this play for a class when I was younger and adored it. This play in one act is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and Sophocles’ own play about Antigone. She is the daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta and the main character in this story, in which she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices. Oedipus’ s
ons, Eteocles and Polynices, had shared the rule jointly until they quarrelled and Eteocles expelled his brother. When Polynices came back, he attacked the city of Thebes with his army and both brothers were killed in battle; Polynices is considered a traitor and can’t get a proper burial, but his sister Antigone defies this rule. This play was originally produced in Paris during the Occupation and was published after the Second World War. What’s interesting about it is that it depicts an authoritarian regime and the play’s central character, the young Antigone, mirrored the predicament of the French people in the grips of tyranny. I’m fascinated by Greek mythology, so of course I’m always interested to learn more about it, but seeing it reflected in French history is so clever and what makes this play great to read and see.

There are still so many French classics I want to get to and writing this blog post motivated me even more to finally get to them. Who knows? I might have more recommendations next year!

French classics I want to get to as soon as possible:
If English isn’t your first language, what are your favourite books in your language?  Can you read in another language? Have you ever read French classics? If so, which ones?

Lots of love,

Les Misérables: a book, a musical, a movie, and what it means to me

Me hugging Les Misérables, because hugging your favourite books is good for the soul.

Hello, beautiful people!

As you probably already know, I am completely obsessed with Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, as well as the musical and its movie adaptation. I had read the abridged version of the book when I was twelve and absolutely loved it, but this year, I decided it was time to read the unabridged version. I finally did so this month, and I fell in love with it all over again, except that it’s even more powerful than it used to be. Today, I just wanted to talk to you about my story with Les Misérables (it’s been thirteen years in the making. yup.) and to try to tell you why I love it so much.

What is Les Misérables about?

Les Misérables is a French novel published by Victor Hugo in 1862 and it’s really emblematic in French literature. It describes the lives of miserable people in 19th century France, both in Paris and the countryside, following more specifically Jean Valjean’s life, a former convict.

My story with Les Misérables

I remember hearing about Les Misérables for the first time when I was about seven or eight. A teacher in elementary school once said ‘Come on Cosette, go fetch us some water’ as a joke, before explaining where the reference came from. For some reason, it always stayed in my mind, until I was twelve and had to read the abridged version for a class. We were supposed to read it for January or February, but once my parents bought me the book in October, I devoured it, stayed up way past my bedtime to read it, and became completely obsessed. My schoolmates complained a lot about having to read it, and I went through it twice. I fell in love with Victor Hugo’s writing, the characters and the story. Now, as you probably already know, I’m French. What most of you don’t know is that I come from the north of the country. The first book of Les Misérables is set there, most of it in Montreuil-sur-Mer (my actual hometown is the place where the fake Jean Valjean’s trial takes place, it was fate). I’ve been to this town for as long as I can remember, walking along the battlements and the old castle. Every year, Montreuil-sur-Mer has a sound and light show, a sort of reenactment of Les Misérables, as part of the story is set there. I begged my parents to go the year I first read the book and they took one of my brothers and I. It was a very cold summer evening (it’s the north of France, after all), but while I was freezing, seeing the characters alive in front of my eyes amazed me and I have such a fond memory of it. That’s how I first became obsessed with Les Misérables.

As you can see, I definitely didn’t know about the musical… Until they decided to adapt it into a movie. I saw a lot of gifs on Tumblr and decided to start listening to the songs, which I completely fell in love with. I didn’t see the movie right away, because I’m not sure they showed it in my hometown or I had someone to watch it with me, and it was years until I finally did. I was already obsessed with Eddie Redmayne by then and you know… He’s playing Marius’ part in it (hence 60% of my love for Marius). Anyhow, I watched the movie and fell in love all over again (it was also a weird experience the first time, because I started watching it in a train with lots of noise…). I listened to the songs for months on end and I still listen to them at least once a week. 

Then, back in September… I saw the musical live in West End, in London. It was one of the best moments of my entire life and I cried most of the time, because it was a dream come true. I can’t thank my boyfriend enough for buying us these tickets, I thought it would be way too expensive and didn’t dare to dream going for at least a few years. Now, I’m planning on going back again and again, I know I’ll never be tired of it.

Last but not least, this month, I read the unabridged version of the novel. While it’s 1662 pages long… I read it in three days. I still don’t know how. It is one of the best books I have ever read and it made it into my top 3 books of all times, without even needing to try. I’m already thinking about rereading it over and over again. After I finished it, I rewatched the movie again, have been listening to the songs on repeat again, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Why do I love Les Misérables so much?

Now, that is a complex question, because Les Misérables is a book, a musical, a movie, my entire life. I will never be able to do Victor Hugo’s words justice, nor the musical’s.

I love the book in all its complexity. I won’t lie, it’s not for everyone, because it has long descriptions, a lot of historical facts and it can seem boring sometimes (I guess?). Yet, I love history and being so engrossed in a book that I feel like I time-traveled in a different era. With Les Misérables, I time travel and for me, there aren’t too many words, it’s just fine. Hugo describes everything perfectly to give you a sense of what early 19th
 century France was like, of why these characters act like this or why the plot is going that way. He’s always going back to give a backstory to his characters and because of that, they’re perfectly developed. You all know how obsessed I am with Marius Pontmercy, and I feel like I know everything I need to know about him. He could have been a real person, for all I know. Victor Hugo’s characters are perfectly fleshed-out, he shows you the good, all of the bad, he doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. I got something out of every character in this novel. Les Misérables is about the hardships of life, how you can make the right choices and yet seem all wrong in society’s eyes, how you can still dare to hope and fight for your dreams, to be recognised and even if it didn’t work, at least you tried (that last part isn’t so happy but hey, it’s life). Les Misérables is the story of a society that is still relevant today, a heart-breaking tale, an adventure, a sum of knowledge, a romance, and so much more. For me, you can’t fit it in one genre (it’s considered to be a historical, social and philosophical novel), unless you consider ‘a literary masterpiece’ as one.

One of the other reasons I love Les Misérables so much can seem pretty random, but it’s relevant to my life. Like I told you, I come from the north of France, which always made the first part of the book important to me, because it was set home, in a way. For a long time, it was the part of the story I knew the most, I didn’t know that much about Marius, or Cosette when she was older. Recently, it struck me. I moved to Paris for my studies, to begin my adult life, four and a half years ago. The second part of the novel is set in Paris, Cosette is older, like I was, in a way; the friends of the ABC meet in the Latin Quarter, so close to where I live. It might be one of the cheesiest things I have ever written, but the geography of Les Misérables is the geography of my life, somehow. This story will always be even closer to my heart for personal reasons I can’t exactly explain, but it makes me love the book even more.

For me and many other people out there, Les Misérables also means the musical. I discovered it later, but it’s a masterpiece on its own as well. All the songs are absolutely amazing and now that I’ve read the entire book, I can tell you that all the lyrics have twelve times more meanings than you might think. Every little thing is a reference to a detail of the book. Every time I listen to the songs, I discover a new one. The songs of the musical are moving, unforgettable and even iconic today. The musical has run continuously in London since October 1985, it’s been thirty-two years and the theatre is still full whenever they play it. I first saw the musical as a movie and I love it with all my heart, but when I was about to see the musical on stage… I wondered how they would do it. Let me tell you that the staging is genius, the costumes, amazing, the actors, so talented. It’s perfect. It’s my favourite musical by far, and I’m a huge lover of musicals. I’m sure the musical will still run for a long time, and I know that I’ll go back to see it as many times as I can.

I can’t convey all of my thoughts into proper words, but I do love Les Misérables with my entire body, soul and heart (I’m being overdramatic, but I couldn’t care less). It’s a story that has been following me since my childhood and will never truly leave me. My words will never be able to do it justice, but at least, I tried. Writing this post was a cathartic experience for me, because I know that my words are stocked somewhere and that I will always be able to reread them. If you read this entire post, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your time means the world to me.

Lots of love,