Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!


Chers amis francophiles (et vous savez qui vous êtes), today is the French national holiday, Bastille Day, celebrated every July 14 to commemorate the storming of the notorious French prison during the French Revolution. It's therefore the perfect day to share some of my favorite French reads, old and new.

Just about my favorite classic French novel is Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses- what better portrait of pre-Revolutionary upper class decadence is there than this delicious tale of love, lust and ambition among the aristocracy?

If you've seen the wonderful film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, you have some idea of the wonderful treat you're in for here.

I first read it in French in college and found this epistolary novel eminently readable and superbly enjoyable.

The best and richest period of French literature, though, has to be the nineteenth century. Classic authors like Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert are can't-go-wrong favorites; if you like Dickens or Trollope you'll be very comfortable.

For poetry, you might try 20th century masters like Jacques Prévert and Paul Éluard; my favorite volumes of French poetry are Prévert's Paroles and Éluard's Capitale de la douleur; they're very different in style but each wonderful in its own way.

I love Prévert for his rhymes and lyricism, and Éluard for his verbal elasticity and skill with modernistic verse. I can spend hours reading either book.

Prévert was also the screenwriter for the wonderful movie Les Enfants du Paradis, (Children of Paradise) about a 19th century troupe of theatrical performers. The movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France under very difficult conditions, and the screenplay is full of double meanings and coded politics- besides being an incredibly heartbreaking love story and beautiful portrait of a lost world.

Moving on to contemporary literature and another heartbreaking love story, I can't say enough good things about Sebastien Japrisot's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) about a young woman who simply will not accept that her lover has been killed in the bloodbath of World War 1. Full of twists and turns and told from the point of view of one very scrappy and determined woman, it's a page-turner with characters you'll remember for a long time.

Lovers of French literary fiction will want to pay attention to the Prix Goncourt, celebrating the best in French novels every year. A recent nominee was Phillippe Grimbert's unforgettable Memory, about secrets from the Holocaust.

Another recent prizewinner in the world of French letters was J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Wandering Star is one of his recent novels.

In the world of graphic novels, French artist and writer Joan Sfar has made a splash with his delightful The Rabbi's Cat series. Not for children, these books follow the adventures of a talking cat and his rabbi owner in Algeria and then, in volume 2, all over Africa. He also wrote and illustrated a children's graphic novel, Little Vampire, which is delightful.

Lucy Knisley's French Milk is a light little romp through Paris, a graphic memoir peppered with photos of the City of Light.
But just about my favorite book of drawings of Paris comes from artist Jean-Jacques Sempé. His sketchbook A Little Bit of Paris is just a feast for the eyes.

For nonfiction, the following are some of my favorites:

Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, a very accessible and sympathetic portrait of the doomed queen;

Otto Friedrich's history Olympia: Paris in the Age of Monet, a great history for those interested in the art and social history of the 19th century. Olympia is actually one of my all-time favorite books about France- full of wonderful detail and insight into the trends, fashions and culture of that most formative period of French history.

Bernard Clayton Jr.'s out of print cookbook The Breads of France and How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen is both a treasure trove of recipes and a tour of every region and province of the country- a cultural as well as a gastronomic gem.

Finally, Jean-Benoit Nadeau's The Story of French is an entertaining and readable account of the history of the French language- its origins, its influences and its future.

Can you tell I love the subject? I could go on and on. Happy Bastille Day, and Vive la France!