Ah, France—the food, the wine, the style. And of course, the capital: Paris, hailed as the City of Lights and the City of Love. From the famed Eiffel Tower to the enchanting countryside, France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Whether you're busy planning your dream vacation or you're ready for a virtual trip right now, French literature is one of the best ways to become immersed in France’s fascinating history, people, and culture.
Without French literature, there would be no Little Prince or Hunchback of Notre Dame, no Man in the Iron Mask or Tartuffe. Children across the USA continue to refer to an inseparable trio as “The Three Musketeers,” and Les Misérables remains one of the most popular musical adaptations of all time.
Even if you can’t fly to Paris tout de suite, you can escape into French literature, from celebrated classics to esteemed contemporary novels. Covering three centuries of the best French authors and their greatest works, consider this list your personal travel guide. You'll find action and adventure, romance, history, poetry, and more. You don't even need a passport!
Classic French Literature
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). A writer, critic, and journalist known for his keen, unfiltered observations of society. His obstinate nature often caused him more drama than you would find in his work.
Best work: Cousin Bette, the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots revenge against her family.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Essayist, art critic, and one of the pioneer French translators of Edgar Allan Poe. His work was incredibly influential to Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, among others.
Best work: The Flowers of Evil, a book of poems about beauty in a rapidly changing world.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). Writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist.
Best work: The Second Sex, a classic work of feminism that analyzed women's oppression.
Albert Camus (1913-1960). Philosopher, author, and journalist. Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work at the age of 44, making him the second-youngest recipient in history.
Best work: The Stranger, an existentialist novel about a man named Meursault, who kills a stranger on the beach.
Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) (1873-1954). Author, actress, and journalist. Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1948; in 1951, Katherine Anne Porter called her “the greatest living French writer of fiction.”
Best work: La Vagabonde, an autobiographical novel about Colette's time as a dance hall performer in Paris.
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Arguably the best French writer of all time. Dumas was of mixed race—his grandmother had once been a slave in Haiti, and his father was one of Napoleon’s generals. Since the early 20th century, his novels have been adapted into nearly 200 movies.
Best work: The Count of Monte Cristo, the story of a man who is wrongfully imprisoned and later escapes and sets out to seek revenge on the three men responsible.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). A prominent novelist of the romanticism and realist literary movements. Flaubert is believed to have spearheaded literary realism in his country.
Best work: Madame Bovary, about a doctor's wife who takes a lover, with tragic consequences. Released in 1856, the novel was widely deemed immoral and scandalous at the time.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885). A novelist, artist, and dramatist of the romantic movement, and another contender for the he best French writer of all time. Hugo's portrait has appeared on French currency.
Best work: Les Misérables, a sweeping tome about criminal injustices, social inequities, obsession, and misery.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977). A diarist, essayist, novelist, and writer of erotica. Nin began writing her diaries as a young girl and continued for 60 years; many of them have since been published.
Best work: Little Birds, 13 short works of erotica, written by Nin in the early 1940s when she was part of a group "writing pornography for a dollar a day."
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). A young poet—he composed nearly all of his works before the age of 20—credited with influencing much of literature and art in France around his time. Declared “the first punk” by Allen Ginsberg, Rimbaud is known for his contributions to Symbolism.
Best work: "A Season in Hell", his most famous and most personal epic poem.
Françoise Sagan (1935-2004). A prolific playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Sagan's famous first novel was written while she was a still a teenager.
Best work: Bonjour Tristesse, about a teen girl summering with her father, his soon-to-be wife, and an unexpected guest: his mistress.
George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) (1804-1876). A novelist, memoirist, and Socialist. One of the most popular authors in Europe by the age of 27, Sand defied societal conventions and wore men’s clothing in public—which required a permit at the time.
Best work: The Devil's Pool, a novella about a peasant seeking to remarry and find a suitable mother for his child after the death of his wife.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). A dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, and critic, and arguably the most famous existentialist philosopher of all time.
Best work: Being and Nothingness, the most important work of modern existentialism. (For a concise, enlightening account of the philosopher's life and ideas, listen to Sartre in 90 Minutes.)
Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) (1783-1842). A 19th-century French novelist who is widely acclaimed as the founder of literary realism.
Best work: The Red and the Black, about a young man hoping to rise above his modest station in life through hard work.
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778). A writer, historian, and philosopher famed for his wit and his sharp criticism of Christianity. Voltaire fought for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state, becoming a pivotal figure in the Enlightenment movement.
Best work: Candide, a novel about a young man who is exiled from his home and suffers tragedy and catastrophe after falling in love with the wrong woman.
Modern French Literature
Muriel Barbery (1969-). A novelist and philosophy teacher. Her second novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, sold over one million copies.
Best work: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, about a young girl who befriends her luxury apartment building's concierge.
J. M. G. Le Clézio (1940-). A professor and prolific writer, with more than 40 published works. Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008.
Best work: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts, a collection of stories about the underprivileged living in a very privileged region of the French Riviera.
Virginie Despentes (1969-). A writer, novelist, and filmmaker known for her work exploring gender, sexuality, and obscenity’s limits, often with unflinching critiques of social and moral conventions.
Best work: Vernon Subutex, about the owner of a record shop who loses his business and sinks into a life of excess.
Michel Houellebecq (1956-). A novelist, poet, essayist, actor, filmmaker, and singer. Houellebecq is widely credited with the renewal of French literature and widely criticized for his controversial works.
Best work: Serotonin, about an engineer for the Ministry of Agriculture who, after learning of his girlfriend’s infidelity, sinks into depression and abandons his life for the countryside of his youth and a miracle pill.
Marc Levy (1961-). A prolific novelist whose first work, If Only It Were True, was turned into a feature film by Steven Spielberg.
Best work: Just Like Heaven, about a man who falls for a stranger who swears she is a manifestation of her comatose self across town.
Édouard Louis (1992-). A novelist who made his publishing debut when he was only 22. He was awarded the Pierre Guénin Prize for his work against homophobia.
Best work: The End of Eddy, about a young gay man coming of age in a French factory town.
Alain Mabanckou (1966-). A novelist, journalist, poet, and academic. Currently a Professor of Literature at UCLA, he is best known for portraying the experience of contemporary Africa and the African diaspora in France.
Best work: The Lights of Pointe-Noire, a memoir about his return to his childhood home in the Republic of the Congo after more than two decades away.
Marie NDiaye (1967-). A novelist and playwright who published her first novel when she was just 17 years old. She won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in 2009.
Best work: Three Strong Women, about three women who stand up for themselves and say "no" to different things in their lives.
Yasmina Reza (1959-). A playwright, actor, novelist, and screenwriter whose numerous accolades include a Tony, a Laurence Olivier Award, a César Award, and several Molière Awards.
Best work: God of Carnage, a play about the parents of two children who get together to resolve their sons' conflict and end up fighting instead.
Leïla Slimani (1981-). A writer and journalist, as well as a personal representative of French president Emmanuel Macron. She has been awarded the Prix Goncourt, and has sold millions of copies of her works.
Best work: The Perfect Nanny, about a nanny who seems perfect but is hiding a dark side.
Delphine de Vigan (1966-). A novelist who published her first book under the pseudonym Lou Delvig. She has won several prestigious awards, and her work has been adapted into films.
Best work: Nothing Holds Back the Night, an autobiographical novel focusing on her luminous and erratic mother, who struggled with mental illness.
Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, cohost of All the Books, a Book of the Month judge, and above all else, a ravenous reader and listener. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon.