When I decided to read more of French literature this year, I thought I will look for a French anthology, something similar to ‘The Norton Anthology of English Literature’. I hoped that Norton would have a French anthology. I thought I will use this anthology as a base for exploring French literature. But, unfortunately, sometimes our best laid plans come crashing down. I discovered that Norton didn’t have a French anthology. Even more surprisingly I didn’t find any other French anthology in English translation! I was totally surprised. But an interesting thing happened during my search. I stumbled upon a book called ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans. Without thinking twice I got it last week. Initially I thought that I will browse it a little bit and read one or two pieces and keep it for reference. But after reading the introduction and the first few essays in it, I couldn’t put it down. I also didn’t want to read it fast and so read a few essays everyday for the past week. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘One Hundred Great French Books’ has two-page essays on a hundred French books which the author Lance Donaldson-Evans thinks are a good place to start while exploring French literature. As each essay is two pages long, the book has a perfect two hundred pages (not including the introduction and the afterword). In each essay, Donaldson-Evans manages to squeeze a lot of things in – an overview of the book and its writer and historical and contextual information about the book. The essays are in chronological order of publishing year. It starts with ‘The Song of Roland’ from the eleventh century (which is regarded as probably the first French book ever) and ends with Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Possibility of an Island’ which was published in 2005. Donaldson-Evans has made sure that he has included only books which are available in English translation. This might have resulted in some great books not being included, but it was wonderful news for me. The big stars from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are all there. But starting from 1950, many of the authors were unfamiliar to me. It probably says more about me than about the books included. This part also had many of the books that I wanted to read, because of the unique themes and plots and because of the experimentation in style and storytelling. Some of the authors who were part of the ‘Le Nouveau Roman’ and ‘OuLiPo’ literary movements are included in this part and so it is no wonder that their books are extremely attractive and appealing.
When I read the essays on some of these experimental works I felt that some of these French writers had taken, what we might call a regular novel structure – a plot which had a beginning, a middle and an end – which resembled, if we may use an analogy, a simple and perfect square and then had done all kinds of things to it – folded it and created a triangle or snipped off the corners and created an octagon or squeezed it a little bit and created a parallelogram or pulled the edges and smoothened it into a perfect circle or twisted it totally out of shape into a strange or even an impossible object like an Escher painting or a Penrose triangle or a Möbius Strip, so that we have to really challenge the limits of our imagination and think topologically to see the resemblance between the new exotic object and the original innocent square. It is interesting what these experimental writers have done – taking something simple and creating something wild, exotic and unexpected out of it. I myself – I can’t wait to get acquainted more with some of these exotic literary flowers.
If we look at ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ through a 21st century lens, the following things are revealed.
- The selection is heavily tilted towards recent centuries – there are 39 books from the 20th/21st centuries, 23 books from the 19th century, 11 books from the 18th century, 10 books from the 17th century, and 17 books from the 11th to the 16th centuries.
- There are just 10 writers featured who wrote in French but who were from other countries (11 if we include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was Swiss before he became French).
- The two omissions that came to my mind were Alain-Fournier (and his book ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) and Aimé Cesairé (the book describes him as Martinique’s greatest writer while recommending books by other writers from Martinique). Also not a single native Algerian author writing in French is mentioned (though Albert Camus, who is not native Algerian, is there).
- There are 23 women writers featured out of which 11 are from the post Second World War era. This is no surprise. The interesting thing however is that the first woman writer featured in the book is France’s first woman poet Marie de France from the 12th century. A more interesting writer for me was Christine de Pizan from the 14th / 15th century, who is regarded as probably the first woman writer from Europe (and probably the world) to earn her living by writing. She must have been one hell of a pioneer during her time.
- The book doesn’t stick to the main literary genres – novels, short stories, plays, poems – but also includes biographies, philosophical discourses, comics, murder mysteries (how can Georges Simenon be left out? ), essays, travelogues, spiritual texts and books on film. So there is something in it for everyone.
- This is the last of the numbers, I promise. Out of the 100 books mentioned in the book, I have read just 5 (shame on me!). I really need to redeem that.
I made a list of new-to-me writers and books, based on Lance Donaldson-Evans’s book, that I hope to read soon. The most interesting books on that list are these :
- The Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre – It is the French version of ‘The Decameron’ but has only 70 stories, hence the title. Written Marguerite de Navarre, a Renaissance princess who was the sister of the French king, the story is about five men and five women who have to take refuge in a monastery because of floods. They amuse themselves by telling stories and after each story they have a discussion about it – in some ways it was a predecessor of today’s book clubs. How can one resist a book about a medieval book club?
- Letters of a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny – It is an epistolary novel written by a fictional Inca princess who ends up in 18th century France and writes to her Peruvian fiancé. What is not to like in this book?
- Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau takes walks and writes about the reveries he has in beautiful prose. Walks in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland, communing with nature, observing the birds and the flowers and the meadow and writing down one’s thoughts – it is irresistible, isn’t it?
- Nadja by André Breton – The narrator of the story is walking in the streets of Paris when he meets a strange woman. They strike a conversation and talk for a long time. They start meeting often and walk aimlessly on the Parisian streets and sit in cafes and talk. There is more to the heroine than meets the eye, of course. As soon as I read the plot summary, I knew that I had to read this book. It had an eerie resemblance to Dostoevsky’s ‘White Nights’ and Ethan Hawke’s ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’ seem to be similar to it too. This is the kind of plot I love and I can’t wait to read this book. It is also the first surrealist novel written – so that aspect of the book is fascinating as well.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir – I have known about Simone de Beauvioir’s book for a while now, but have never got around to reading it. When I read that she practised what she preached, I realized that she was no ordinary woman. The guru of all modern feminists, I wish she were around today – I would love to sit at her feet as a humble student and ask her to share a little bit of her immense wisdom. I also want to read one of de Beauvoir’s novels, maybe ‘She Came to Stay’ or ‘The Mandarins’.
- Mythologies by Roland Barthes – Barthes’s literary and intellectual essays on popular culture and themes – well, that says it all. I can’t wait to read it.
- Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot – A murder is planned by two women (to kill a third) and it appears that things go well. But the survivor can’t remember anything, her body is scarred beyond recognition and she doesn’t know whether she was the murderer or she was the one who has survived the murder attempt. How much better can a literary thriller get? Want to read it now!
- Missing Person by Patrick Modiano – It is about a man who has forgotten his past and who tries to get it back. While on his quest for the truth, he first discovers that he is one person and then he discovers that he is another person. The plot had an uncanny resemblance to ‘The Bourne Identity’. So I did some research and discovered that ‘Missing Person’ was first published in 1978 while ‘The Bourne Identity’ was first published in 1980. Was Robert Ludlum inspired by this book? We will never know. If will be a shame if Ludlum had lifted the idea from this book without acknowledging it. However, this resemblance makes me more and more confident of a suspicion that I have had for sometime now – if there is an inventive new plot written by a new writer there is almost always a French original out there. Anything new, inventive and experimental – the French have already done it decades back. The others are just inspired by it, copying it or reinventing the wheel.
- The Sand Child by Tahar Jen Belloun – A storyteller tells a story in the marketplace based on a manuscript that he says a woman gave him. The story is about a father who wants to have a son (so that his inheritance will pass on to him smoothly) but has only daughters. So when he has a eighth child who is also a daughter, he does something and then gets a son. What he does, whether the secret comes out and who the mysterious woman who gave the manuscript to the storyteller is – the answer to these questions forms the rest of the story.
- Baroque at Dawn by Nicole Brossard – This novel explores the connection between desire and literary creation. It also has a character called Nicole Brossard, which essentially means that the book has this delicious structure where there are stories within stories and characters move from an inner story to an outer story and then on to the real world and vice versa, the kind of book which will blow your mind. I can’t wait to read it.
I loved Lance Donaldson-Evans’s ‘One Hundred Great French Books’. Starting from the cover which had reproductions of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s ‘The Reader’ (Renoir’s son Jean Renoir’s memoir is one of the books featured inside) and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Leading the People’ (Delacroix’s diary is also featured in the book), to the wonderful introduction (which had an interesting fact – that the Marquis de La Fayette fought in the American War of Independence on the American side), to the crisp essays, to the interesting afterword, to the font, the whole book was perfect. I felt like I was doing a crash course in French literature in a pleasant way, getting introduced to important French books through beautiful, concise essays without the hard parts which are there in an academic course – writing papers and exams. Donaldson-Evans has been a teacher of French literature for more than forty years and his love and passion shine throughout the book. The afterword in the book mentions fifty more French books that the reader might want to explore. If you are new to French literature and would like to explore it this book is an excellent place to start.