French literature for language enthusiasts – 10 books for every learning stage

French literature offers fantastic learning for language students

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From honing your language skills to gaining profound insights into the nuances of French culture and history, French literature offers a unique and multifaceted approach to language learning. Reading at your own pace and hearing the language play out can work wonders with your vocabulary, grammar, and overall comprehension.

To keep you motivated, it pays to read what you enjoy. To help you out, we’ve selected 10 works of French literature suitable for different learning stages on the CEFR. Each is a compelling read that encourages you to keep your eyes on the page.

How French Literature Aids Language Learning

We’ve previously explored how French TV shows can aid listening skills. Reading comprehension is another significant stepping stone on your language learning journey (start for free today with our flashcards). Happily, French literature is replete with books ideal for language learners.

Wade into French literature, and you will gain a more rounded understanding of vocabulary, absorbing idiomatic expressions and language rhythms that you won’t get from textbooks. Crucially, you have time to replay the words and grab a (no-pressure) translation if necessary.

If you grew up with the tales of Jules Verne or Alexandre Dumas, you’ll know that French literature is stacked with classics. However, not all books get translated for global audiences. One of the many benefits of learning French is opening up the complete universe of Gallic writings and reading as the author intended. The fact you’ll also be progressing your language skills is merely a glistening cerise sur le gâteau.

French is said to be the language of Moliere, but French literature and language has greatly evolved since the 1600s.

The Evolution of French Literature

French literature has a colourful history, shaped by historical events and often at the vanguard of literary movements.

Before printing presses changed the publishing game, French literature was defined by epic poems like The Song of Roland and the 17th-century plays of Molière.

Today, French is routinely called the language of Molière. Yet, the language has changed immeasurably in the ensuing centuries.

Renaissance writers like Rabelais and Montaigne and Enlightenment thinkers from Voltaire to Rousseau helped push intellectual and literary boundaries.

Modern French literature arrived in the 19th century. It was the golden age of French writing, with authors like Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Alexandre Dumas setting the high watermark of French literature. 

The 20th century saw the rise of existentialism, surrealism, and other experimental movements, with writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre reshaping literary expression and embracing avant-garde techniques.

That’s quite the medley of published works to explore. To help you out, we’ve picked 10 brilliant works suitable for different CEFR levels. Mixing genres and eras, there should be a book that will appeal to your inner bookworm and match your language proficiency goals. 

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4 French Books For Beginners (CEFR: A1 – A2)

Let’s start with French literature that won’t have you reaching for the Larousse dictionary every other sentence.

These suggestions are ideal for beginners due to their uncomplicated language and structure, with lots of short stories to boost motivation. Despite that, all four are acclaimed works of French literature offering a layered view of French culture. 

Le Petit Nicolas by René Goscinny

Le Petit Nicolas by René Goscinny is a series of books offering a humorous glimpse into the misadventures of young Nicolas and friends. 

Touching on comforting themes of friendship and family with illustrations by Jean-Jacques Sempé, they idealise the innocence and charm of childhood in 1950s France. Although a little outdated, the series (starting with L’œuf de Pâques) is a gentle introduction to reading in French. 

Le Petit Nicolas (not Le Petit Prince, which you’ll find in the intermediate learners’ section) has been a popular school text for generations. It worked magic with millions of French pupils, and Le Petit Nicolas can do the same for you. 

Tip: René Goscinny is best known for writing the Asterix comic book series. Language learners may find les bandes dessinées (BD), aka comic books, helpful at early learning stages.

Graphics offer context clues that accompany often uncomplicated vocabulary aimed at younger generations. Aside from classic titles like Asterix and Tintin, there are thousands of individual stories and series in BD format from every genre.   

L’Étranger by Albert Camus

Nobel prize winner Albert Camus is a giant of French literature. L’Étranger (The Stranger; sometimes called The Outsider) is not only a masterpiece but an accessible read for French students at the beginner to intermediate stage. 

The short novella is split into two parts and follows a French settler in Algeria (Meursault) after murdering an Algerian. We see through the eyes of the protagonist before and after the murder and discover a lost soul detached from emotion and hope. Threaded throughout are meaty themes of alienation and nihilism.  

Opening with the immortal line “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” (Today, my mother is dead), L’Étranger is not a lighthearted read. But with short sentences and unfussy prose, it’s surprisingly digestible despite the hard-hitting story.

Le Monde named the L’Étranger the finest literary work of the 20th century. It might already be on your ‘must get round to reading one-day’ list. If you’re learning French, you might want to upgrade it to your ‘must-read’ list instead. 

The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant

Guy De Maupassant penned over 300 short stories in the late 1800s. Many are timeless, including celebrated works of French literature like Boule de suif (Ball of Fat) and La Parure (The Necklace).

The economical and uncomplicated language is a hallmark of Maupassant’s writing, ideal for learners at the A2 learning stage. You can typically finish a story on your lunch break.

The best news is that copyright has long expired on his stories; you can read collections of his short stories for free at Project Gutenberg. English language translations are also available online and handy for checking comprehension. 

Start with Contes de la Bécasse (free on Project Gutenberg), a gentle entry into the short stories of Guy De Maupassant. 

La Petite Fille De Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel

French literary classics from previous centuries tend to dominate lists of reading material for language learners. Published in 2005, La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh is a modern classic ideal for early-stage learners.

Monsieur Linh and his child are refugees in France who befriend a widower, Monsieur Bark. The story of a blossoming friendship in old age leaves a warm glow absent from many French novels.  

With unfussy language and observational prose, this novella will please language-learning beginners interested in modern France. Especially as the two protagonists are also separated by language, making it very relatable for language students. 

As a modern text, La Petite fille de Monsieur Linh will also introduce you to French slang and phrases missing from older texts, which can help bring the French to life for novice speakers.  

Le Petit Prince is a classic of French literature and useful resource for language learners

3 French Books For Intermediate Learners (CEFR: B1 – B2)

When you’re ready to graduate from short stories and books with simplistic structures, many absorbing reads are suitable at the B2 intermediate stage.

Books fall into this category because they use everyday language or ditch the formal passé simple verb tense that was standard in French literature for centuries and makes for difficult reading. Others because the prose is uncomplicated.  Here are 3 golden examples.

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is reportedly the most translated book after the bible. Even if you already know the story, the French version tells the story best. 

The dreamy novella is a poetic journey charting the young prince’s interplanetary adventures, meeting diverse characters and learning valuable lessons about love, loss, and friendship.

Published in 1943, this fabled work of French literature works as a child-friendly adventure and a philosophical meditation to tease the minds of adults. 

Because the vocabulary and prose style are approachable, Le Petit Prince is frequently recommended to early-stage language learners. However, the language can be a little offbeat with unfamiliar turns of phrase (interplanetary travel is far from ordinary) and is more easily understood if you’ve reached B1 or above.

That said, it is a staple of French literature for anyone learning the language, including pupils in France. Above all, it’s a captivating tale, and you can see why Le Petit Prince ended up the most translated work of French literature.  

Tip: Consider reading translated versions of your favourite books. If you’re already familiar with the story, you may find connect easier with the vocabulary and syntax.

Zazie Dan Le Métroby Raymond Queneau

Zazie dans le Metro is a cult classic turned into a popular movie (although not good enough to make our pick of classic French films for language learners). It follows the misdeeds of the thrill-seeking Zazie, who has a way with foul language and a tendency to get mixed up in wild adventures. 

A humorous and compelling ride through the absurd and thought-provoking, this is one of French literature’s most comical and uplifting works of the last century.  

Wordplay is an element of Queneau’s writing, making it an insightful read for advanced learners keen to develop their knowledge of idioms and how to play with vocabulary in ways textbooks never reveal. If nothing else, you might gain a mastery of gallic insults that are just about acceptable in polite society.

La Gloire De Mon Père by Marcel Pagnol

La Gloire de mon Père (The Glory of my Father) is a feted piece of French literature recounting the idyllic childhood in Provence during the early 20th century. 

Pagnol nostalgically recounts his family’s move to the countryside, elegantly capturing the essence of French rural life with humour and poignant reflections on his family and the surrounding nature. Depicting halcyon days, the novel evokes romantic images of a bygone France. 

Pagnol is an acclaimed writer with a sharp turn of phrase whose style is accessible to intermediate language learners. If you dream of lazy lavender-filled summers in Provence, this autobiography is for you. 

This book is the first of four volumes to get your language learning teeth into, with a film from 1990 to complete the Pagnol experience. 

French literature for advanced speakers, including translations of classics from other languages

3 Works of French Literature For Proficient Users (CEFR: C1 – C2)

Language learners at the proficient stage — C1/C2 – are nearing the language learning summit and should feel comfortable choosing French language books with an eye on quality rather than accessibility to non-native speakers.

For that reason, our final French literature recommendations for language learners focus on sublime writings that will test proficiency and entice students to dive deeper into the French literature universe.

Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani

Chanson Douce (Soft Song, or Lullaby in English translations) by Leïla Slimani was the bestselling French novel in 2016. The psychological thriller was inspired by the true story of a New York nanny murdering two children in her care.

The critical darling picked up the ultimate prize in French literature, Le Prix Goncourt. Stylishly written with a contemporary edge, it’s an edge-of-the-seat tale that will stretch less proficient speakers yet exemplifies the literary jewels that become available as you reach fluency.

A contemporary book with contemporary language, this globally acclaimed novel is a gripping read for proficient speakers looking to boost their vocabulary.   

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Any list of brilliant French literature should include something from the prolific Alexandre Dumas.

Alongside The Three Musketeers (accessible for beginners), Dumas also gave us the Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Count of Montecristo), an adventurous yarn adored by generations of book lovers in France and abroad.

Retelling the titular Count’s false imprisonment followed by his exquisitely executed revenge, it’s a timeless tale that became a near-instant hit globally.

If you’ve read a translated version, you might be surprised to see this recommended for advanced learners. But, published in 1844, the language has an archaic formality reminiscent of the era. The vocabulary is recognisably modern French, but you may reach for your Larousse dictionary more than expected. 

Part of the problem is that Dumas uses the passé simple verb tense. It was standard in French literature for generations but imbues a stiffness to the writing that doesn’t reflect how French is used today. Moreover, it’s a monster novel (free on Project Gutenberg) with over 1,000 pages to tie you down indefinitely. 

If you’ve watched one of the many movies it inspired or read a version translated into your native language, you may discover a renewed passion for the novel in Duma’s own words. If you’re unfamiliar with the Count of Montecristo, you’re in for one hell of a ride.

Tip: Look out for dual-language readers for popular French literature like the works of Dumas. With each word printed in English and French side-by-side, they can be invaluable for finessing your reading comprehension.

À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust

If you’re looking for French literature that will push your language learning to the limit, look no further than the seminal À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Drawing upon Proust’s life experiences and involuntary memories that highlight the relentless passage of time, a cast of thousands allows Proust to explore the human condition. 

With Proust’s stream-of-consciousness writing that can be disjointed and all-encompassing, it’s not an easy read, even for native French speakers.

If the dense prose isn’t off-putting, you’ll also have to work through over 3,000 pages split into 7 volumes. It’s heavy going and up there with James Joyce’s Ulysses as a book that people start and never finish.

If you can finish À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu in the original French (or even get past page 2), your long hours studying have paid off. Although you can probably find easier ways to lose time!  

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