7 Novels that Explore the Complexity of Modern France
France today is diverse, energized and full of paradoxes. So is its literature. Consider these 7 books as the French head to the polls.
In college, I did my thesis on the French writer Michel Houellebecq, a polemic figure who provokes a love or hate reaction in his fellow countrymen. Houellebecq’s bestselling The Elementary Particles (hailed by The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani as a “deeply repugnant read”) posits cloning as an escape hatch from bachelorhood; his first novel, Whatever, explores the financial value of the unattractive underclass. His novels are often bleak to the point of nihilism, misogynist, and morally insensitive, but they are also compassionate, ironic, and deeply smart, and it is the vulgarity of Houellebecq’s contradictions that makes him truly French. The country that gave us “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” was also the first country in Europe to ban the Islamic face veil. The France that produced the Lesbian coming-of-age drama, Blue is the Warmest Color also produced Le Pen.
In the final days of the French election — now a runoff between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen — here’s a selection of books that celebrate a diverse, complicated, and many-sided France.
1. The Mersault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud
A stunning novel that grapples with Arab identity and the effects of colonialism in Algeria, Daoud gives a voice to the nameless Arab killed by Albert Camus’ fictional antihero, Mersault, in “The Stranger,” by reimagining the story from a grieving brother’s point of view.
2. Chanson Douce, by Leila Slimani
Dubbed the French “Gone Girl” and recipient of France’s top literary prize, The Goncourt, Moroccan-born Slimani’s harrowing second book about a killer nanny brings up difficult questions about culture and class.
3. Les Premiers, by Xabi Molia
This satirical novel about superheroes in contemporary France is an irresistible send-up of the current climate in French politics and culture. (And don’t miss the author’s trenchant collection of poems written from the point of view of Nicolas Sarkozy, “Grandeur de S”.)
4. Submission, by Michel Houellebecq
It is 2022 and a new Islamic party has come to power in France. All women must wear the veil, polygamy is encouraged, and a middle-aged, pitiable lecturer is offered an impressive promotion if he converts.
5. The End of Eddy, by Edouard Louis
Widely hailed for its unflinching, yet sensitive portrayal of a man questioning his masculinity, this book about physical and psychological violence swept Europe with a Knausgårdian force.
6. De Nos Frères Blessés, by Joseph Andras
Although he refused it because he feared the attention would distract him from his writing, Andras was nevertheless awarded the Goncourt in 2016, France’s highest literary prize, for this novel inspired by the true story of an anti-colonial communist executed during the Algerian war.
7. Hello, Sadness, by Francoise Sagan
An indulged teenager’s summer vacation on the French Riviera with her father and his mistress is ruined by the arrival of an intelligent, older rival for her father’s affection. This beloved book about a domestic ménage-à-trois couldn’t be more French.