French 101: The Best Books for Bastille Day

Posted by Christopher Urie

Image by MustangJoe from Pixabay

This Bastille Day, let’s raise a glass of fine (French) wine to some of the most influential French writers of the 20th century. Their thoughts and words helped to shape storytelling, invent new, mystical places, and highlight the hardships of the human condition. These authors have spun tales of fantasy, adventure, and existentialism—and we love them for it. So grab a bottle, relax on a chaise longue, and crack open a book by one of these literary masters. Vive la France!

Henri Charrière, Papillon: Henri Charrière is a unique case on our little list. Not really a writer by profession, he still had a spectacular story to tell. His unbelievable autobiography Papillon is one of the most exciting and engaging true stories I’ve ever encountered.

It follows Charrière from his imprisonment in a French penal colony in South America through his daring eventual escape. Charrière writes with such determination, skill, and poignancy that Papillon feels more like a thriller than an autobiography. But, sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones that are true.

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: Dumas is synonymous with French literature itself. Whether you’re familiar with his work, or pronounce his last name like a Shawshank Prison inmate, you’ll want to dip your reading toes into his most famous work.

As one of his most popular stories, The Three Musketeers has been copied and melted and morphed every which way throughout the years. But, unsurprisingly, the original is always better. Dumas writes the adventures of his swashbuckling heroes with an eloquence that has almost disappeared from the genre.

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Debatably the father of the modern Steampunk movement, Jules Verne remains one of the world’s most beloved authors. France has a storied history with literature of the fantastic and imaginative, but while much has faded into obscurity, Jules Verne’s work remains one of the foundations of all fantastic literature.

With every one of his stories a classic, you really have no wrong place to start, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be his most beloved work. So beloved in fact, that a few fans have taken to tattooing a squid and submarine on their arm. (Ed. note: Guilty! *raises arm*)

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables: Today, the name Victor Hugo evokes images of French revolution and belted Broadawy songs. While he did not write the long-lived musical-slash-movie of the same name, he did write the original novel, a true triumph of human spirit in the times of suffering.

Like Gone with the Wind, Les Misérables meticulously places you in a specific period of time while regaling you with stories of romance and redemption—and it’s far enough removed from the play that the novel takes on a life of its own.

Albert Camus, The Stranger: If the fantastic, true, or adventurous don’t suit your reading style, then you might want to consider something more cerebral from Albert Camus. His most known work is a cornerstone in existentialist literature.

The Stranger is a bleak account of a murder on a beach and the removal from society that results. It is a short, but powerful story that has more in common with Cormac McCarthy than many of the other authors on this list. But, if you’re looking for something to set you apart at a Bastille Day reading party, you can’t do much better than The Stranger—intellectual pretension optional.