The Greatest Books of the 20th Century, as Seen from France

The Greatest Books of the 20th Century, as Seen from France

France has a long and brilliant literary tradition. It has won more Nobel Prizes in literature than any other country, and French writers have brought us concepts like existentialism, structuralism, and absurdism. Impressive stuff indeed!

But what do the French actually read? Do they curl up at night with Being and Nothingness or do they prefer a sexy romance novel? The editors at Le Monde decided to find out.

The Stranger.

‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus, published by Gallimard. © Public Domain

What Do You Remember?

In 1999 Le Monde teamed up with Fnac, France’s largest bookseller, to survey readers about the 100 greatest books of the 20th century. But rather than asking for the “best” or the “most important” books, they tried to make their survey more personal. So, the question they asked was, “Which books have remained in your memory?”

It’s no surprise that the resulting list was dominated by French titles, which made up about half of the total. But plenty of other countries were represented—the US, the UK, Italy, Russia…even Albania!

As expected, the Top 100 was filled with French classics. The Stranger? Check.  In Search of Lost Time? Check. Journey to the End of the Night, Man’s Fate, The Second Sex? Check, check, and check. It has all the heavy literature a reader could want.

Journey to the end of the night.

Journey to the end of the night. © Amazon

Let’s Lighten Up

But there are also fun reads. How about detectives? Some of the greats are there, like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe. The list also includes the children’s favorite The Little Prince, science fiction with The Martian Chronicles, and Tolkien’s delightful The Lord of the Rings.

And let’s not forget the comics! No list of French favorites would be complete without Tintin and Asterix, and both of those beloved characters are there (sadly, Spiderman did not make the cut.)

Little Prince.

The Little Prince. © Pubic Domain

A Bit of Controversy

To construct their survey, Le Monde and Fnac first worked with booksellers all over France to come up with 200 candidate books. Survey respondents were then asked to pick from this list. But critics note that no authors from Asia or Africa were included, nor were some outstanding French-language writers from Canada and Switzerland.

And then there were the hard decisions, because each author was only included once. Picking Camus’ The Stranger over his The Plague was a tough but reasonable choice. But who the heck thought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was Agatha Christie’s best work?

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. © Pubic Domain

Ever the Language Barrier

Many of the books were originally published in English and then translated into French. It is interesting to compare their ranking on the French list to The Modern Library’s 100 best English-language books of the 20th century. It shows how some books translate well into French and some don’t. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, for example, made the top 10 for both French and English-language readers. By contrast, James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses was No. 1 on the English-language list but dropped all the way down to No. 28 for the French. It seems that its many puns and allusions got lost in translation.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath. © Pubic Domain

Your Next Great Read

Whether you are comfortable in anglophone world, or would like to try reading à la français, these lists will give you a wide choice of books to keep you busy. Happy reading!

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Keith Van Sickle is a lifelong traveler who splits his time between California and Provence. He is the author of the best-sellers "One Sip at a Time" and "An Insider’s Guide to Provence.” Keith’s observations on life in France can be found on his website

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  • Dr Mark Haywood
    2021-04-21 19:39:24
    Dr Mark Haywood
    All of the above works are fiction! Non fiction shapes ideas and perspectives on the world, prhaps more so in France than anywhere else. I think the above list tells us more about the limited parameters of the survey than about the influence of French writers on C20th thought, perception and analysis of society.