(asked by Jessica from Singapore)
Your blog is great! I was wondering whether you could recommend some books by contemporary French authors? I like reading translated novels from authors of a country. I think reading could help us understand the French way of thinking!
Which authors are popular in France? And do you think any of them are translated into English? What English books are popular in France?
And first of all, thanks for the kind word.
While I really like this question and completely agree with the part about literature from a country helping understand about a local way of thinking, it will be very hard for me to answer this question in an objective manner as personal taste will have a big influence on the answer.
So first, what contemporary French author can I recommend?
Well, first of all, I have to say that French literature is not currently going through its greatest time. All the great writers and intellectuals of the 20th Century are dead, and the ones of the 21st haven’t really emerged yet. Also, I’m not really sure what contemporary French writers are easily available in English. Let’s see what Amazon suggests.
Keep in mind that this list is definitely not comprehensive and is based on these criteria: they’re alive, they’ve been translated into English, they’re at least half-decent, I have read them.
- Frédéric Beigbeder
- Tonino Benacquista
- Didier Daeninckx
- Philippe Djian
- Benoît Duteurtre
- Jean Echenoz
- David Foenkinos
- Michel Houellebecq
- JMG Le Clezio
- Marie Nimier
- Amélie Nothomb
- Daniel Pennac
- Michel Tournier
- Antoine Volodine
Of course there are more, but this is a start. What I can advise is to read things about them, as whether you’ll be interested in them or not greatly depends on your tastes. And I added a widget at the end of this post that will allow you to order books from these authors on Amazon if you wish (yes, I do get a small commission of a few cents per sale, which helps paying for this blog’s hosting).
Also note that the most popular French writers are not on this list, because I simply think they’re utter crap. I won’t even mention their name as they’re an embarrassment to French literature.
As to what English language authors are popular in France right now?
Mmmm…. Well, I’m not really sure actually. Thinking about it, I haven’t read many contemporary English writers lately (and as I read them in English, I don’t really pay attention to what’s popular in translation). Let’s see what amazn.fr tells us.
As I’m typing this, the best selling English fiction book (translated into French) on amazon.fr is by Douglas Kennedy (I read a book from him once: meh…), he’s number three. He’s followed by Lisa Kleypas at the number six position (I have no idea who this person is) and Kathryn Stockett (number 11, I don’t know her either).
If anyone wants to add their two cents, please feel free. By that I mean that if I have forgotten an important contemporary French author who has been translated into English please feel free. If you just want to plug in your favorite one, be careful, I could mock you if I feel that he or she sucks.
And I mentioned a few lines ago, here is a small widget from which you can buy some of the books by the aforementioned authors (make sure you buy from those links if you want to help me pay the bills for this blog, I will be very grateful)
Beigbeder over Levy, yay for you! : )
I’m in the odd position of being a person who hates reading books in translation, while simultaneously studying to be a translator. ; ) It’s the poor quality of some translations that made me start thinking “I could do better than that!” It feels important to me to honour the accomplishments of some of these writers that I respect so much by doing really good translations of them. Hopefully my abilities will live up to my passion…that remains to be seen. ; ) I know you feel (like many) that French literature is in a slump right now, but there are some lovely gems out there. Reading them (in French) makes me feel like shouting “Yes! That’s how it’s done!” You just have to try writing a novel yourself to see how hard it is.
It’s also worth pointing out that a much larger number of books are translated from English into French as opposed to vice versa. English-speakers tend to prefer not to read translations, so Jessica is a bit of an oddity. ; ) My theory is that it’s the stilted, unnatural language that turns us off, and if translations were more readable in the target language, they would be more popular.
“Suite française” by Irène Némirovsy is a wonderful book which was masterfully translated (she’s not on your list because of being dead…) It was very popular a few years ago. Another popular one is “The elegance of the hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, which I haven’t read - but I’m ready to bet that the translation itself is well done, as in well-written.
Shhh… Levy is one of the authors (and I use the term “author” pretty lightly here) that shall not be named on this blog.
On the other hand, I believe that Beigbeder is one of the best French writer of his generation. Some French people hate him, but it’s mostly because they know him as a socialite, not a writer.
I understand your position, as mine is exactly the same. I hate reading translations, and well, translator is one of the many jobs I have had in my career (I never translated literature though).
And yes, I should have pointed out that about half of the books published in France are actually foreign books.
I must admit that I’ve never read neither Irène Némirovsky nor Muriel Barbery, and I admit that I’m afraid to read the latter as I have the strange feeling that she may be part of the “that shall not be named” category. Although I may be wrong.
ah Muriel Barberry! I have read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” and it was alright; if you like reading about a lot of dead authors. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s not terrible especially if you are looking for french to english translations. I’m not a big fan of the plot itself, or the characterizations.
This might be on your “thou shalt not name list” but Lawrence Cosse wrote a book “The Good Novel” which I thought was pretty good. It had more of a plot line than “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” and more focus on character development and less on “I’m a student of literature.” Though Cosee references many prior literary novels (good novels? understand? ha…).
Suite Francaise was amazing, I wish she had been able to finish it, but obviously that is not the most tragic event of her life.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember seeing any of the listed authors in a local bookstore. Jessica may have to order them online.
I have a stack of French novels that I have not read, but they’re mostly late 20th C works and not translations. I tend to read the translations when I just feel like reading, and the original work when I feel like learning. My French is not good enough that I can truly enjoy a novel, I’m too busy trying to understand the grammar usually. But I’ll get there someday!
You mean Laurence Cossé, right?
Well, no, she doesn’t belong in that list (those authors are the ones that are hugely popular but worth crap - actually less than crap - quality-wise, most of us write better than they do).
Back to Laurence Cossé, I don’t know her at all (just saw her face on wikipedia, she vaguely looks familiar, but it could be because she looks like 90% of old bourgeoises from West Paris).
Also, I see that she’s published by Gallimard, so she can’t be totally bad (Gallimard doesn’t only publish good stuff, but they don’t publish crap).
Fred Vargas !
Well, I have never read Fred Vargas, so I can’t tell what she’s worth, but I gotta admit I’m a little suspicious, as she is hugely popular and is never ever mentioned in literary publications.
But I give her the benefit of the doubt, because she writes thrillers and thrillers are rarely mentioned in literary publications, regardless of their quality.
However, she’ll remain on my “suspicious but with the benefit of the doubt” list for the meantime.
I quite enjoy reading Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L’Élégance du hérisson) and Delphine de Vigan’s No and Me (No et moi) - they’re not particularly “heavy” but imho, delve nicely into the topic of French society of today. I nearly want to add Tahar Ben Jalloun (I got to know him through my French classes) but although his body of work is in French (then translated to English and other languages) he is Moroccan and he touches a lot on Moroccan culture and their lives as immigrants instead.
Re the English authors popular in France, I think it’s funny that Lisa Kleypas is ranked highly - she’s a romance novelist - and Kathryn Stockett wrote this bestselling book called The Help. I have seen quite a lot of Harlan Coben around, and I do quite like his suspense/thriller offerings.
Yes, I should have mentioned Tahar Ben Jelloun, possibly the best African writer alive.
I see concerning Lisa Kleypas. Well, it’s not surprising that she’s highly ranked is she writes romance. Best sellers are rarely good books, and good literature rarely sells a lot. Popularity and quality are two separate things.
Is Tatiana de Rosnay among the not-to-be-named? Because she’s available in English too.
I read FB’s «L’Amour dure trois ans» and loved it. Now I’ve got three more of his sitting on my shelf, ready and waiting for a moment when I feel like being shown exactly why my own writing is shit. ; ) There was an article by him in the free onboard magazine on my flight home from France (and yes, there another one ABOUT him in there as well….and his picture was on the cover….lol). His article was just a simple description of an hour spent people-watching in CDG airport, and it inspired me to spend the rest of the trip home writing a thing which I keep meaning to see if I can get published, sometime….
Okay, I think I should be about to win “Commenter of the Year” any time now - would love to write more about my favourite authors but there is supper to prepare!
No she’s not part of the not-to-be-named (don’t make me name them… Ok, the three main ones are Marc L. Guillaume M. and Anna G.) although I’ve never read her so I’m not sure what she’s really worth.
Strangely “L’amour dure trois ans” is one of my least favorite books from Beigbeder. I guess I like him better when he talks about society than his crappy love life (all of his books are more or less autobiographical but most of them really focus on society not him). And yes, his descriptions of things and mostly people are always awesome. What’s good with him is also that the older he gets, the better he gets, which is a rare thing these days. (I just hope he starts getting a healthier lifestyle so that he doesn’t die too young, I have good hopes, he’s spending more and more time in the South West and less in Paris).
By the way, do you know that he’s just finished shooting the movie adaptation L’Amour dure Trois Ans? I’m not sure what to expect from it. First as I said, I’m not a huge fan of the book, and writers becoming directors rarely have a good track records in terms of making a good film.
Don’t worry about the commenter award, your comments are always good.
Oh thank you. : )
I enjoyed Boomerang by Tatiana de Rosnay, and I was surprised because when I started it I thought it seemed like a thriller-type thing, which I usually don’t enjoy much, but although there was a bit of suspensey stuff and a fair amount of sinister atmosphere, it was mostly a portrait of a decent, normal man getting over his divorce. I thought it was very brave of a woman writer to tackle a subject like that. A male narrator - I don’t think I would dare. The main character was nicely developed and the plot wasn’t completely predictable. I read it to the end, anyway.
I’m going to have to read some of those Beigbeder books sitting on my shelf, then, so that I can compare! Although I have to say that I’m a big fan of books about peoples’ love lives…I’m a guuuurl. ; ) He’s still in Paris every second Thursday Sept - June for Le Cercle anyway - plenty of chances to get into trouble, lol. I went to a taping of it when I was there, so I saw him in person. I had never witnessed anyone sweeping into a room like royalty before that moment. That really is what he did. Anyway, because of Le Cercle I think we can hope that his movie will be good - he does know cinema. I believe he has stated that the movie will be a bit of a departure from the book, or that there will be changes, at any rate.
(I did know that the film was coming, although I had forgotten, so thank you. I’m not sure how I’m going to get it when it comes out if it doesn’t win an Oscar nomination or a Palme D’Or but I’ll try.)
Are you healthier now that you’re in the South-West instead of Paris, Frenchman?
Beigbeder’s main residence is still in Paris, but he seems to be realizing that he’s a better writer when he’s alone in the countryside, which is a great thing.
I met him once (and ran into him in the streets three more times) and while he moves just like all of those Parisian bourgeois who think they own the place, he’s actually really nice when you talk with him.
You may be able to see the film even if it doesn’t become big in North America. You know there’s thing called the internet, right? (no, I don’t imply illegally downloading it, I meant buying the DVD on amazon.fr once it’s out)
And yes, I’m much healthier in the South West, who isn’t? (ok, I’m fatter too, but that’s my own fault, I could walk more)
I just went on amazon.fr to see about a movie that I wanted to watch, and it’s there for sale at 20 euros new, 10 euros used. I was about to click on it to check the overseas shipping price (probably another 10 euros) but then I remembered: European DVD’s don’t play on North American DVD players. I think that even if I had a region-free DVD player I might need a different TV too - that’s what I’m understanding from Wikipedia. Now I’ve just read that about 2/3 of Blu-ray releases are region-free. If I got a Blu-ray player (been meaning to anyway) and if I could figure out which movies would work on it before buying them…or maybe I can get a region-free Blu-ray player…but would I need a new TV…? Anyway, I just wanted to warn anyone reading these comments that it’s not that simple!
Shipping an actual disc in a box across the Atlantic seems a bit silly in this day and age, really. It should be possible to watch it directly off the internet, legally and for a reasonable price. Like itunes - although recently I was unable to buy some music I wanted because it was available only in the “UK store”. It’s frustrating - there’s no technical reason for it, it’s all about copyright and controlling release dates, etc.
The French branch of my family originated in SW France , to be more precisely, in Pau and it was mixed, French and Basque ( mainly basque to be honest 100% ) ! It is nice to know you live close to it. Are you a south westerner by birth ?
Yes, I was born and raised in the South West.
By the way, you can’t say “French and Basque,” Basque people are French (or Spanish) whether they like it or not. Also, Pau is not part of the Basque area although very close to it.
There’s a way to watch any DVD from any “zoned region” in any other “zoned region”: you plug your computer to your TV (or watch it directly on your computer depending on screen is the best) and use software such as VLC that can read any video format in the world.
How do you think I can watch the 200 or so DVDs that I bought while I lived in North America?
Apart from that, yes, I agree with you, not only these zoning and “regionalization” of internet markets is stupid but evil.
Just another way for corporations to control people and suck more bucks out of them. And wait til ACTA is implemented (the EU says it won’t, yeah right, the EU is controlled by lobbies nowadays possibly more so than the US Congress).
I don’t think I’m ready to give up to the French&Basque thing ! You know Adam and Eve were Basques, mind you ! And I did not say Pau is in the Basque area, I just said they were from Pau . Which is a lovely thing, at least for me ! My plan was to take my son to see the city and see the place a tiny bit of him comes from but he seems so completely and perfectly not interested in anything connected to France that I will have to do that with my grandchildren ! .
The idea of paying extra for “region free” DVD players is a rort as well. You can make any DVD player region-free by typing in a special code via the remote control. You have to find the correct code for your model but many have been listed here:
Use at your own risk but I have never had a problem with entering the codes. I collect European films and I am in Australia (Region 4) so I buy off Amazon rather than pay the ridiculous local prices for films that have come about due to parallel import restrictions.
Also, I don’t think you’d need a different television. I can play NTSC format videos although PAL is the native format in Australia. I imagine the opposite would also apply.
Yes, please do give Vargas the benefit of the doubt (and a shout-out to Ms. Nothomb). I absolutely cannot stand Levy, so thank you for not including him. But what on earth is wrong with Anna?!
I do give her the benefit of the doubt. I may even read one of her books one day (although to be honest, when I see my reading list and the time I have for it, it may not be before a few more years).
I gave a shout out to Amélie Nothomb, she’s on the list, isn’t she?
Ok, to be totally honest, I read a book from Anna Gavalda (her first one) and I thought it was ok. Not that interesting, but not that bad either. It’s the sort of cult following she has those days (and the fact that her readers also tend to be Levy and Musso readers) that make me very suspicious of her other books.
I think the same is true for the U.S., most of our new “literature” is crap. (Ex. Twilight -_-)
I’m more into classic French literature, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, etc…but I might try reading some newer authors thanks to this question!
p.s. Katherine Stockett wrote “The Help”. The movie just came out, so now everyone’s reading the book. It’s actually not half bad if you’re into the genre.
Not exactly the same. If you remove the quotation marks to literature, you see that US current literature is pretty good nowadays. (twilight doesn’t qualify as literature, possibly porn for teenage girls, but definitely not literature).
Have you never heard of Bret Easton Ellis, Cormack McCarthy, Don de Lillo, Thomas Pynchon, T.C. Boyle? And I’m forgetting a lot.
Thanks so much for this list. Exactly what I needed. I have a more specific question. I have recently discovered Beigbeder and I love it.
Mainly because it seems so beutifully barren with truths people think but do not say, the irony, the feeling of being instantly drawn into the book (=great for commuting) etc. Which author of this list (or any other, non-francophone) would come closest to him regarding these qualities, do you think?
Glad you like Beigbeder.
None of the other authors is “close to” Beigbeder (I tried to have a as diverse list as possible), and none of the author that write in the same style as him as really good.
However, you may find something you like in Tonino Benacquista (even if I’m sure he’d be pretty pissed that I compare him to Beigbeder). Their writings are very different, but he has a irony and a style that I warmly advise.
David Foenkinos too maybe.
Among non-Francophones, Beigbeder has often been compared to Jay McInerney, but I’ve never read him, so I can’t say for sure. There are similarities between Beigbeder and Bret Easton Ellis too (Ellis being one of Beigbeder’s models)
For delicious irony: Entre les murs and Vers la douceur by François Bégaudeau. The first has an English translation out, but if you want a perfect example of an untranslatable book, that would have to be a top contender - read it in French if at all possible. The second I found to be a pure joy to read. Although it doesn’t really tackle big issues or anything, stylistically it is great, and it’s funny too. I’m working on translating it into English myself, just for the pleasure of it, since it hasn’t been done. I’m half-way through. : ) Heaven knows when I’ll get to the second half, though…
An American author worth reading (in my opinion) : Barbara Kingsolver
Larry - thank you for the hints. I’ll see what I can do with what I already have, then!