To conclude the May theme with the origin of the phrase ‘Mayday’ (Venez m’aider – help me), we’ll look at some French fiction. Here are five must-read gems from one of the most beautiful languages in the world.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)
What the French do best: sex and scandal. Laclos’ novel is written as a series of letters, giving each character their own distinctive voice and their own perspective on the strange events that unfold in some very, very dangerous liaisons. If the plot sounds familiar when you read it, that may be because you’ve seen one of the film versions – think Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich, or Reese Witherspoon in Cruel Intentions. Try this translation.
Madame Bovary (1856)
Flaubert’s most famous novel, about a very unhappy woman in a very unhappy relationship. Emma Bovary is a wonderful creation, the archetypal desperate housewife seeking love and luxury outside a dull marriage. The real gift of the novel is how the author manages to make this silly, greedy, overly-romantic character into one of the great tragic heroines of literature. Inevitably, it all ends in tears – the reader’s as well as Emma Bovary’s. Try this translation.
Camus’ existential novel opens with one of the most famous lines in literature: ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut- être hier, je ne sais pas.’ (Today my mother died. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don’t know.) Meursault is one of life’s outsiders ; his lack of feeling is incomprehensible to most of the people he meets. When he commits an apparently motiveless murder, he is put on trial for what he is rather than for what he has done. (Remember that Lindy Chamberlain made the mistake of appearing cold and unemotional , too.) Try this translation.
Eugénie Grandet (1833)
One of Balzac’s most famous and beautiful novels, part of his magnificent series, La Comédie humaine. Eugénie is a gentle, good-natured country girl who is mistreated by the two men who should protect her: her father and her cousin. Grandet is extremely miserly ; he even begrudges his daughter a candle to light her way to bed. And the girl’s adored cousin Charles is fickle and selfish, unworthy of the affection that she lavishes on him. A poignant story, exquisitely written. Try this translation.
Le Silence de la Mer (1942)
Another novel about intimacy and mutual incomprehension, this work by ‘Vercors’ is set in a France that is ravaged by World War II. A German soldier is billeted in a French family’s home; the owner and his niece despise him, but slowly learn that he is like them – a human being trying to come to terms with the changes that war has brought into his life. Very powerful, very moving – and, for me, very nostalgic (it was on the school syllabus, one of the first French novels that I read!) Try this translation.