Europe, a continent rich in its variety of languages, has had thousands of men and women down the ages who could, without exaggeration, be called “great writers.” The best French authors make up a significant proportion of that pool.
To select ten French writers is a challenging exercise so it is only fair to mention some of the authors who could just as easily have made the list. We will say that they are honourable mentions. They are:, Anais Nin, Stendhal, Simone de Beauvoir; George Sand, Honore de Balzac, and Jules Verne. What a list that is in itself!
Here is our pick of the top ten French writers, presented in order of their dates.
Voltaire, 1694 – 1778
“Voltaire” is the nom de plume of the French philosopher, historian, essayist and novelist, Francois-Marie Arouet, who was one of the main ushers of the French Enlightenment. He was also a poet, a playwright and a theoretical scientist.
He was a famous secularist, a critic of the Church and an advocate of the separation of Church and State. Taking such a stance and advocating freedom of speech placed him quite a few centuries ahead of his time. One of his achievements was that he transcended the borders of France and became a famous writer internationally, influencing thinkers all around Europe.
In addition to his writings on every area imaginable, including race, slavery, economics, he wrote a number of plays and about fifty novels, including his most famous and enduring, Candice.
Victor Hugo, 1802 – 1885
Victor Marie Hugo was a prolific novelist, poet and dramatist who enjoyed a very successful sixty year literary career with a legacy of enduring works.
Everyone has heard of Victor Hugo’s novels which are among the most famous of all European novels. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, for example, have been filmed several many times and adapted for the stage as plays and musicals.
Charles Baudelaire, 1821 – 1867
Charles Baudelaire was an essayist, art critic, translator and, above all, a poet. He was very influential and was one of the poets that heralded the modern age in western poetry. His most admired, influential and famous work is a book of lyric poetry: Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil).
Such famous poets as Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were influenced by his original, imagist poetry that was set in an urban metropolis and so different from the poetry that went before them.
Gustave Flaubert, 1821 – 1880
Gustave Flaubert was one of the most influential of all French writers in that his novel, Madame Bovary, was something almost entirely new in fiction, and turned the direction of fiction as writer after writer in several countries, including the United States, followed his lead in literary realism. He wrote several novels, as well as a large body of short stories.
Émile Zola, 1840 – 1902
Emile Eduard Charles Antoine Zola was a novelist, playwright and journalist and a central figure in the literary school of naturalism and in the development of theatrical naturalism. He was a legal and political activist and an agent in the exoneration of the convicted army officer, Alfred Dreyfus. He was nominated, but did not win, either of the first two Nobel prizes in literature in 1901 and 1902.
Guy de Maupassant, 1850 – 1893
Henri Rene Albert Guy de Maupassant has been called the ‘father of the modern short story,’ and indeed, with his marvellous stories, inspired by his literary model, Gustave Flaubert, he could be everyone’s favourite short story writer. With his influence the short story took a new turn and that influence continued through literary history, with writers like Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, to the short story as we know it today.
The short story form he developed is characterised by stories that are economic in style and seemingly effortless outcomes, often a twist, like the stories of O Henry. Many are set in the Franco Prussian War, featuring the innocent citizens caught up in it. They depict the futility of the war.
Marcel Proust, 1871 – 1922
Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust was a novelist, essayist and critic. His reputation as one of the most influential 20th Century writers is based on his monumental seven-part fictional work, A la recherché du temps perdue (In Search of Lost Time)
Proust worked as a critic during the first part of his adult life, while also writing short stories and essays, and then, at the age of 38, began writing In Search of Lost Time, the seven parts being published as each one was finished. That went on till well after his death as by that time he had not finished revising the last three. It is a massive enterprise, totalling some 3,200 pages and with more than 2,000 characters.
Some of the top literary names of the time were awestruck by the work. Somerset Maugham called it “the greatest fiction to date” and Graham Greene wrote that Proust was the “greatest novelist of the 20th century.”
Colette, 1873 – 1954
Sidonie-Gabriella Colette, known simply as Colette, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She was also a journalist, actor and famous mime artist. Her stories have a particular appeal in that, with her highly sensuous prose, she puts her readers firmly inside the world of her characters. The result is an intense experience in sympathy with the pain and joy of love that her characters feel. Her most enduring work is the novel, Gigi, which was made into one of the most famous musical films of the 20th Century.
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905 – 1980
Sartre was one of those writers who performed at the very top level in several areas of literature: he was a philosopher, novelist, playwright, literary critic, biographer and screenwriter. He was a major figure in all of those areas, and one of the main figures in phenomenology and existentialism and also one of the most prominent names in 20th Century French philosophy. He was also a Marxist and political activist. He was the author of one of the most famous 20th Century novels – No Exit.
Albert Camus, 1913 – 1960
Apart from being a very fine writer technically, Camus makes this list because of his novel The Stranger (L’Etranger), which is a groundbreaking fiction text, and his other novels, including The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Fall and The Rebel. He was also a philosopher and journalist. He was born, and grew up, in Algeria and later lived in France. Although dying young he won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1957, the youngest writer ever to win the award.
So that’s our pick for the ten best French authors of all time. What do you make of the list? Please do join in the conversation in the comments section below!