Great Books from Different Traditions: France (I)


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

This is one in an occasional series in which Mr. Carrigan, throughout this year, will be making lists of Ten Great Books of different traditions, cultures and countries and explaining his reasoning behind his choices.

Most Americans tend to think of the French as great romantics, wining and dining their partners and whispering seductive and lilting phrases into each other’s ears. Indeed, just about any phrase or sentence uttered in French—it is a Romance language (even though that word has nothing to do with our use of the same term), after all—sounds more seductive and alluring than the same phrase or sentence spoken in just about any other language. The trilled “r”s, the clipped and passionate phrasing, and the breathless delivery bring even the dullest philosophical terms to life and turn food and sex into activities without which life cannot be sustained.

In addition to a beautiful and sensuous language, France has bequeathed to us a magnificent literature, without which the world’s literature would be impoverished. As the French language developed, so did France’s literature. As with many European nations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, villages and urban centers slowly overthrew Latin as the language of the people and began to develop a vernacular in which various poems, epics, and legends could be sung and told. Although Latin remained as a language of commerce and religion, court poets, troubadours, minstrels, and chivalric poets traveled the countryside singing tales of ladies’ love, knights’ valor, and love affairs between kings and ladies. Village folk entertained themselves with fables depicting the foibles of the nobility, and legends such as the Chanson de Roland and Aucassin and Nicolette circulated widely, celebrating the ideal of chivalry in bawdy tales of adultery. In fact, much of French literature celebrates human carnality, the pleasures of the flesh, and the joys and miseries of adultery in ways that no other literature does. Although they were written just seven years apart, The Scarlet Letter (1850) could never have been written in France, just as Madame Bovary (1857) could never have been written in colonial America. (In “The Kugelmass Episode” in Without Feathers, Woody Allen places Emma in modern-day New York in the life of a literature professor who’s teaching her story. She drives him crazy.) French literature has given us the Marquis de Sade as well as The Story of O, Colette’s Gigi and Raymond Queneau’s Zadie at the Metro, Rousseau’s Heloise and Anais Nin’s Little Birds of Erotica.

The literature of France is diverse, and choosing ten great books is tremendously difficult. In fact, there will be a part two to this column. I have selected ten books for this list that are still in print and can be found easily in a bookstore or a library; in fact, there are several translations of each of these titles readily available. I have not included a number of books on this list. For example, apart from Pascal’s Pensées, there are no works of philosophy on the list. However, the list of such books is long and would include Descartes, Second Discourse, Rousseau, Social Contract, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. Diderot’s Encyclopedia is not on the list (it’s not easily available in English and not complete) nor is his Rameau’s Nephew. Stendhal, Gide, Lafayette, Mauriac, Malraux, Hugo, and Dumas, among others, do not make the list. Poets are missing: Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, among others. Literary critics such as Sainte-Beuve, Hyppolite Taine, Roland Barthes, and George Poulet are also missing. As with every list, there will be some argument about which titles might best represent an author. The ones I have selected are not necessarily the most well known or the ones taught but do capture the author’s major themes. At least one of these books is not very well known, but it is a precursor to Flaubert and late nineteenth-century French novels. The sheer volume of the writing I have left out in this short list requires another column, and it certainly indicates the rich lodes of French literature to be mined by all readers.

Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel—The great late medieval and early Renaissance epic of that depicts the dawning of the modern age. The appetites and excesses of the two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, are infamous and depict a world turned upside down. This carnivalesque tale, with its earthy and grotesque characters, symbolizes the revolution occurring during Rabelais’ time—the movement from a religious view of life to a more humanistic view of life—as well as the overturning of political authority and the growth of new working classes.

Voltaire, Candide—One of the greatest satires of all time, Voltaire led the way in questioning the authority of the Church. He wrote the story of Candide and the philosopher Pangloss as a response to the philosopher Leibniz’s assertion that the early eighteenth century was the “best of all possible worlds.” In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake in 1756, Voltaire challenges Leibniz’s assertion and demonstrates that this is indeed not the best of all possible worlds.

Montaigne, Essays—Michel de Montaigne invented the essay, and he used the form to range freely over a huge number of topics, from the education of children—which he thought should be restricted to a study of philosophy—to lies, idleness, cannibals, and books. The longest essay on his Essays is an Apology for Raymond Sebond (and here, of course, the word “apology” is used in its true sense of “defense,”) in which he offers one of the clearest philosophical treatises on the relationship between reason and religion in the Renaissance. The key quality of Montaigne’s essays is sincerity; he uses the form to examine and to judge subjects in which he himself is personally interested and, in so doing, encourages others to take up this form and proceed in the same manner (which Addison and Steele did in eighteenth century England and Joseph Epstein is America’s Montaigne). Above all, Montaigne relentlessly probes his own experiences for truth. The great nineteenth-century philosopher Nietzsche proclaimed that “joy on earth has truly increased that such a man has written.”

Pascal, Pensées—Blaise Pascal began his life as a mathematician and is known well for his work in geometry, known as Pascal’s Theory. Later in life, Pascal joined the religious community known as the Jansenists, and produced his most famous late work, a collection of aphorisms, or pensées (thoughts). Much like Montaigne, Pascal examined the relationship between faith and reason, but unlike Montaigne, Pascal, being the good priest that he was, landed on the side of religion and emphasized humankind’s vulnerable nature and its need for God. At the same time, Pascal, thought that the rational faculty and the imagination were significant human attributes. Pascal is most famous for his wager regarding God’s existence. “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is . . ..”

“’God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.”

“Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

“Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. ‘That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.’ Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.”

In one of his most well-known pensées, Pascal shows at once the strengths of the human character and its dependence on God: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing . . . It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

Zola, L’Assommoir—Zola is the father of literary naturalism, a movement that holds a mirror up to nature and reports not just on the scene reflected in the mirror (which Flaubert did with his realism) but on the sordid details and the grime, grit, and grotesquery of everyday life. If Zola had written Les Miserables, Jean Valjean’s crawling around in the Paris sewers would have been even more horrific because his story would have had no redemption; that is, he would have had no choices in his life, and even a small glimmer of redemption would have been dashed by the force of circumstances. Although Germinal is perhaps Zola’s most read book, many of his other novels in his Rougon-Macquart cycle are more gripping. In L’Assommoir, the laundress Gervaise Macquart, who appears once again in Nana and other novels in the cycle, struggles to find happiness in working-class Paris. After years of struggling as a laundress, Gervaise saves enough money to open her own laundry business. It appears as if she will be able to pull herself and her family out of the abject poverty in which they have been living. Yet, as her business grows, her husband, Coupeau, a zinc worker, falls off a roof and injures himself, leaving him unable to work. He spends his days, and Gervaise’s money, at L’Assommoir, a bar at whose center stands a gigantic alcohol still. As in many Naturalist novels, machines represent the horrors of industrialization and are indeed metaphors for a process that dehumanizes society. (Zola uses the railway and trains in La Bête Humaine to make the same point.) This powerful and inhuman machine sucks the life form those around it.

In L’Assommoir, the packed working-class slums, the pulsing still, and even the greasy, steamy laundries determine the fates of their inhabitants. As hard as Gervaise works to pull herself out of poverty, the labyrinthine streets of her neighborhood trap her in their web, squeezing the life out of her and her family. This environment eventually defeats her will, even though for a short time her physical will seems strong enough to defeat the forces that drain the life from her. The increasing industrialization that creates the alcohol still, the urban slum, and the proletariat poison simple relationships, leading to death, debauchery, and degradation.

Next week, five more great French novels.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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