The French have given us more than just good wine and sweet treats… turns out they have a way with words, as well.
You really can’t discuss literature without mentioning a few of the French greats. And why not get some reading in while you’re planning your Paris trip?!
It’s hard to imagine where would we be without one-liners like ‘Love is a reciprocal torture’, right? Thanks for your optimism, Monsieur Proust…
Read on below to see my take, (in no particular order!) on the 12 best French authors of all time. If I’ve missed any, you’ll have to let me know in the comments below!
If you recognize the name Albert Camus, it’s most likely because you have heard of (or maybe read!) his groundbreaking novel, The Stranger. The book really delves into Camus’ thoughts on existentialism and the philosophy of the absurd, two things he spent his entire life studying and writing about.
Camus was also one of the regulars at the infamous Parisian café, Café de Flore (it’s not our favorite cafe, but it certainly has a lot of history). Camus could often be spotted there rubbing shoulders with the next author on our list, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Favorite quote: “Still, obviously, one can’t be sensible all the time.”
Sigh. One of the things that this French author is most famous for may not be his amazing literary and philosophical works, but his love affair with fellow philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. (You may say it’s mushy, but I’m telling you: it’s hard not to be romantic in Paris)!
But I digress, Sartre and de Beauvoir did challenge the cultural and social expectations expected of them in both lifestyle and thought, and they did this together.
What is important to take away from both Sartre and de Beauvoir is that you are in charge of your own destiny, no matter where you come from. A good read to get started is his novel called No Exit.
Favorite quote: “I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become.”
Simone de Beauvoir
Sartre cannot be mentioned without giving recognition to his fellow scholar, Simone de Beauvoir. There’s power in numbers, is there not?! De Beauvoir is not a writer to ignore. Her rich corpus includes writings on ethics, politics, and for what she may be the most famous for: feminism. The Second Sex (one of her most recognized books), in which she “produced an articulate attack on the fact that throughout history women have been relegated to a sphere of “immanence,” and the passive acceptance of roles assigned to them by society.” (source.)
Oh, YES! Get started on The Second Sex ASAP and start getting informed!
Favorite quote: “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself”
Well, we gave you a little taste of what Marcel Proust is all about already, and that’s just the beginning of what you’ll discover if you begin reading the classic French author. Proust is probably most well known for his novel In Search of Lost Time. The massive work is a whopping 3,200 pages, meaning it may take you more than a few Sundays curled up on the couch to finish.
Cake lovers rejoice: the guy uses the famous madeleine cake to compare involuntary memory to voluntary memory…WOAH. Now all you have to do is let us buy you some real, live, Parisian madelines, to FULLY understand!
Bonus for those of you planning to visit Paris – this legend is buried in the legendary Père Lachaise cemetery.
Favorite quote: “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.”
Ah, Mr. Hugo. Ever heard of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame? You have French author Victor Hugo to thank for that masterpiece. And no, we’re not talking about the Disney classic. You also have him to thank for the incredible Les Miserables… and no matter how you felt about THAT movie, it’s easy to see why the story is so timeless.
So, read these books if you haven’t yet! and next time you find yourself in Paris, take a wander around (with us, for example, and with a special discount if you use promo code AUTHORS while booking) and see what you can recognize from the stories!
Favorite quote: “To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.”
French poet Charles Baudelaire is perhaps most well known for his book of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). Baudelaire’s works were the jumping off point for many other very well respected French poets such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Said protégés have called Baudelaire a ‘true god’ and the ‘king of poets’, if that gives you an idea of how well loved this guy is.
Crack open a copy of The Flowers of Evil and get back to us with what you think: god? king? Or just full of the feels?
Favorite quote: “…and the lamp having at last resigned itself to death. / There was nothing now but firelight in the room, / And every time a flame uttered a gasp for breath / It flushed her amber skin with the blood of its bloom.”
George Sand isn’t who who may think she is…because this George is actually named Aurore! The French author was forced to publish her works under the ‘nom de plume’ (French for pen name!) of George in order to begin actually making money off of her works. At the time, women as writers were generally looked down upon, and Sand found herself really struggling to be paid and recognized justly. While Sand may be also known for her lovers (Alfred de Musset and Frédéric Chopin to name a few), her writings need to be appreciated. She mastered the rustic novel, with her real life experiences in the French countryside serving as her inspiration. I suggest you pick up her novel The Devil’s Pool to get started!
Favorite quote: “Life in common among people who love each other is the ideal of happiness. ”
Okay – bear with me as I go into detail but, when famous French painter Paul Cézanne is your best friend, you must be pretty cool (at least in our opinion). Who’s Cezanne do you ask? That’s a story for another time (but hey, want to join us at Orsay? Use promo code AUTHORS to receive a 10% discount).
The key thing to know here is… he was writer Émile Zola’s BFF. He has multiple published novels, short stories, and plays under his belt.
Beyond that though, Zola is perhaps most famous for his involvement in the Dreyfus case, arguably the biggest scandal in 19th century France To make a long story short, Captain Dreyfus was a French captain who was wrongly accused of giving top secret information to the Germans.
Zola saw this wrongfulness, and penned a seething letter to the French president accusing the government of antisemitism. The letter was published on the front page of a Parisian newspaper. The letter entitled J’accuse (I accuse) was read by thousands and caused a deep divide in France between conservatives and liberals.
Eventually (and by eventually we mean about 8 years later) Dreyfus was exonerated by the French court. This would have never happened without the powerful effect of Zola’s letter. Pay tribute to the great by reading one of his greats, namely I accuse!
Favorite quote: If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.
Literary critic James Wood once said of author Gustave Flaubert, ‘Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him.’ Another French literary star on our list (Guy de Maupassant) was his protégé, and famous Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov counts Flaubert as inspiration as well. Not too shabby Mr. Flaubert! This French novelist is most well known for the classic Madame Bovary. If you haven’t read it, you have our permission to start.
Favorite quote: “One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and to not accept the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.”
A list of the best 10 French Authors of all time would not be complete without the great historian and author Voltaire. He is most well known for his involvement in the Age of Enlightenment intellectual movement that took place across Europe in the 18th century. A good book to start with if you would like to dive into the world of Voltaire is called Candide.
Sidenote, something we can appreciate about Voltaire: he was known for his unhealthy obsession with coffee (and frankly, we can relate.). He reportedly drank up to 50 cups per day! When you’re out trying to enlighten the world with your philosophies I guess a lot of caffeine is necessary…
Sidenote: this legend is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, which we just happen to touch upon in our Secrets of the Night tour through the Latin Quarter – just in case you want to hear even more about what makes Voltaire so special. Oh and psst, use promo code AUTHORS to receive a 10% discount.
Favorite quote: “Fools have a habit of believing that everything written by a famous author is admirable. For my part I read only to please myself and like only what suits my taste.”
Guy de Maupassant
We already mentioned that French author Guy Maupassant was the protégé of Gustave Flaubert, but there are a few other important things to know. Maupassant is considered to be the father of the modern short story. And, get this: Maupassant’s stories have been the inspiration for countless movies… in terms of numbers, he is second in number only to Shakespeare. To be on the same list as the great Shakespeare? This means something in our book! Our recommendation? Bel-Ami.
Favorite quote: “They had moved closer to one another to watch the dying moments of the day, this beautiful bright May day.”
Nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, author Colette can not be left off our list. Colette is most known for her stories of love, an the pain that can sometimes come along with it. It is said that her greatest strength as a writer is her ability to take hold of the reader through descriptions of smells, sounds, and tastes, making them feel like they have completely entered into her written world. Colette’s most famous work is her novella Gigi, so I suggest you give that a peak first!
Favorite quote: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”
Well, there you have it! My list of the 12 Best French Authors of All Time.
Want to learn more with us by joining a few of the tours we mentioned above? Visit our Tours page to check out what we have to delight you with in Paris. Use that promo code AUTHORS to receive a 10% discount!
I hope after seeing our list, you feel inspired to get out there and start reading!
This article was originally published 16 January 2016 but has been updated for accuracy.