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!


bermudaonion said...

I'm so impressed that you can read in French! We lived in France for two years and I could read enough French to get by, but never enough to read for pleasure. Viva la France!

Anonymous said...

Happy Bastille Day!

Thanks for sharing your list with us. Now I have some great books to add to my list that probably would've taken longer to find without your help.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful list! And I love the watercolor on A Little Bit of Paris. It looks like a good book to help daydream about trips to France.

Charles said...

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical prinicples. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Even love stories can be used as a platform for morality and ethical considerations. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

We live in an age of vulnerability. Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews (and others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote "Jacob's Courage" to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"

Darlene said...

What a great post! I'm interested in French literature but never know what to read. Thanks for sharing some of your favorites.

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for sharing some of your favorites, Marie! I've seen the movie Dangerous Liaisons, but I hadn't known it was based on a book.

I need to get back to Les Miserables. I started it one summer between school terms and then once school started, had to set it aside. I never did get back to it. I've always regretted that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marie, the French Film Festival is underway at the MFA, so you can fill your eyes with French film until end of the month.

Kathleen said...

Thank you for the post. I have a friend who is fluent in French and spent several years living in Switzerland. I will definitely share your list with her.

LorMil said...

Wandering Star, Dangerous Liasons and A Very Long Engagement are excellent books.

What a great post this is!


Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

Great list! I posted a link to it on my French Connections list and am going to incorporate several of these into my list as well.

Thanks for visiting Rose City Reader and leaving a link to this!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Thank you for this excellent list.