Wednesday, November 6, 2019

19th century French fiction crammed into one post

What happens next?  The French novel, French fiction as we know it, finally comes to life in a blast of coffee-fueled energy.  Balzac, Sand, Stendhal, Hugo, then Dumas, Flaubert, Verne, and then Zola and Maupassant, just to stick to the most famous, lots of terrific books that are still widely read and have all kinds of continuity with the French fiction written today.

I’ll blast through them myself, just making a few notes about reading them in French.  Heaven knows if you want to know what I think about Flaubert, that is easy enough to find.  Much of this is familiar to anyone who has taken advanced French.  These are familiar writers, familiar texts.

1.  Almost all of these writers are ideally suited for the punishing or educating of French schoolchildren.  They have written texts of a variety of lengths and difficulties allowing all sorts of clever paths connecting this book to that.

Start Balzac with one of his many short stories or novellas, with Colonel Chabert, move up to Eugénie Grandet, end with Père Goriot.  Maybe put that one on the Bac.  I read one of the possibilities in French, “The Elixir of Long Life” (1831), my fortieth work in the Human Comedy, and the first and only in French.  It is a Don Juan story that otherwise goes pretty much where you would guess from the title.

This year, the big 19th century novel on the Bac is Stendhal, The Red and Black.  The standard shorter Stendhal is Vanina Vanini, which I have not read.  Italian stuff.  For Sand, it’s La Marquise (1832), where the title woman is in charge, pursuing the actor she desires, not a masterpiece but an antidote to the masculinity of a lot of French fiction.  For Flaubert, it’s the Trois Contes (1877), or maybe just the first and easiest story, “A Simple Heart.”  What a triumph, when I finished it – I had read Flaubert in French.  And my French was not that good.

2.  So what do we do with Hugo?  His novels are monsters.

First, there is “Claude Gueux” (1834), a heart-wrenching story about a prisoner, friendship, cruelty, the death penalty – distilled Hugo, champion of the powerless.  As art, if that matters, I thought it was better than the propagandistic novella Diary of a Condemned Man (1829).

Second, French pedagogists have carved up Les Misérables (1862) into many books, not just into abridged editions of a variety of lengths, but more curiously into rearrangements of the novel, often focused on specific characters, so that there is Cosette’s Les Misérables and Gavroche’s Les Misérables.  There is a book titled Jean Valjean (A Journey around some Misérables), like it is a city or a park.  One can imagine an entire Hugo-based curriculum.

There is at least one of these for Balzac, too, The Novel of Vautrin, pulling together scenes featuring Balzac’s great proto-superhero character from many novels.

I don’t know that I approve of this butchery, but I am amazed that it exists.  It is an interesting idea, taking a novel like Les Misérables and returning to it from different directions.  I don’t know that any French teacher is really doing this, but the books exist, and are in print right now.

3.  Zola’s short story “Le grand Michu” (1870) surprised me because of its multiple connections to later French fiction, the whole line of French schoolboy stories, and also to Jean Vigo’s 1933 anarchic masterpiece Zéro de conduite.  The riot at the end of Zola’s story is enacted by Vigo and his little maniacs.  No idea if this is in English.

4.  I discovered that I have more to say, or can babble at greater length, about Guy de Maupassant than I had realized, so let’s cut all that and write more about Maupassant some other time.  He is obviously perfect for infliction upon schoolchildren and French language learners.  His French, at least in his newspaper stories, is pretty darn easy.


  1. Nice summary.

    I really don't like these abridged versions of classics. What's the use of that? If it's just to know the story, watch a film version.
    There are plenty other books to choose if Les Misérables is too difficult for students of that age.

  2. I'll have to read “Le grand Michu” -- I've always loved Zéro de conduite.

  3. I should also mention that "Le grand Michu" is very short. But so many great French themes are packed in - school, food, revolution.

    The idea of chopping up Les Misérables for the classroom - no, I don't like it, either. I understand the theory, I think. But it would be better to read it all, but like a series, over time, over years. I like the idea of returning to a book, as part of literary education.