the 101 favourite novels of Le Monde readers

Le Monde called its readers to vote for their five favourite novels, with no major surprise in the results, except maybe Harry Potter coming up top. Before Voyage au bout de la nuit and (the predictable) A la recherche du temps perdu. And a complete unknown, Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as 12th and first science fiction book. Above both the Foundation novels (16th). And Dune (32nd). And Hyperion Cantos (52). But no Jules Verne! In a sense, it reflects upon the French high school curriculum on literature that almost uniquely focus on French 19th and 20th books. (Missing also Abe, Conrad, Chandler, Dickens, Ishiguro, Joyce, Kawabata, Madame de Lafayette, Levi, Morante, Naipaul, Rabelais, Rushdie, Singer, and so many others…) Interestingly (or not), Sartre did not make it to the list, despite his literature 1953 Nobel Prize, maybe because so few read the (appalling) books of his chemins de la liberté trilogy.

I did send my vote in due time but cannot remember for certain all the five titles I chose except for Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (2nd), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (74th) and maybe Fedor Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov (24th). Maybe not as I may have included Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’ensorcelée, Iain Pears’ An instance at the fingerpost, and Graham Greene’s The End of the affair, neither of which made it in the list. Here are some books from the list that would have made it to my own 101 list, although not necessarily as my first choice of titles for authors like Hugo (1793!) or Malraux (l’Espoir). (Warning: Amazon Associate links).

8 Responses to “the 101 favourite novels of Le Monde readers”

  1. Emmanuel Charpentier Says:

    I also have been surprised by the results of this pool. And shocked to discover that neither the critics nor the readers thought to even mention such masterpieces as “Gargantua” or “Jacques le Fataliste”. your explanation (by the french secondary curriculum content) is probably a bit short for such blindness…

    Céline’s place, IMHO, comes from a contradiction between his (undisputable) writing talent (and technique : what a stylist !) and what he uses this talent for.

    Having wrestled a bit with this quandary, I came to the conclusion that Céline’s writing resonates with us because he is crazy, but with genius enough to demonstrate (in a “show, don’t tell” fashion) why and how one becomes crazy (this is especially obvious in “Mort à crédit” and “Féérie pour un autre temps”). Our reactions to his works are probably tainted by this dissonance between appreciations of his writing and his discourse.

    In other words, Céline makes us feel how close we are/were to become someone (our current) we would despise or hate. Not a comfortable thought, hence the intensity of the feelings he evokes…

    • I am clearly itpicking but these two great books are more philosophical tales than novels (in the modern sense). And this also includes _Candide_. Other branches are missing as well, like the picaresque (_Vida del buscón llamado don Pablos_). And the oldest roman, _Genji Monogatari_, is also absent. As are Chinese classics, like _Dream of the Red Chamber_…

  2. FOULLEY JL Says:

    I would have included at least three novels or short stories from German literature to my list:
    -The magic mountain (Thomas Mann)
    -Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse)
    -Dream Story (Arthur Schnitzler)

    • Yes, as well as
      – Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Robert Musil)
      – Berlin Alexanderplatz (Alfred Döblin)
      – Die Blechtrommel (Günter Grass)

  3. drewancameron Says:

    I started to compile my own list of 20 favourite novels last year and then abandoned the project because I realised that if I ever published it I would be publicly flogged: my crime being that there wasn’t a single female author whose book I genuinely wanted to put in there. It seems that the Le Monde readers did a little better but might still need to accept a light flagellation.

    • Yep. It is also very Occident centred… Since the list I produced here is incomplete, bypassing for instance Marguerite Duras or Françoise Sagan, let me point out that the proportion of female authors in the original list is 15%. As author, Virginia Woolf should have made it into the list but “too many” of her books were cited, leading to her absence. I was also surprised by the absence of Madame de La Fayette La Princesse de Clèves, which is a “classic among the classics” and which had gained renewed popularity when Sarkozy made a nasty jibe at it. But who remembers Sarkozy in 2020…?! As noted in this side entry from Le Monde, a different ranking system would raise the proportion of female writers to 21%. From a statistician’s perspective, it would be of interest to know the proportion of female writers in the “classics” (after agreeing on the perimeter of the term). From a machine learner’s perspective, it would also be of interest if some of the recent novels appearing rather intriguingly in the list were the result of social media campaigns. Le Monde mentions (but does not name) two authors who called their readers to join the vote (but whose votes were dismissed after the said call). From a psychological perspective, I wonder at the reason for this strange fascination for lists…

      • drewancameron Says:

        Ah yes, re: (who’s afraid of) Virginia Woolf, the effect of having multiple works to divide the vote must be substantial for a few different authors. FWIW I like Virigina Woolf quite a lot, but just like James Joyce, I find these works lack enough narrative drive to land them in amongst my favourite.
        One other question I had, as an outsider to French culture, is with regard to Celine: does the popularity of his work track the popularity of “right of center” politics in the way that the popularity of Ayn Rand’s work seems to in the US?

      • I am not certain of the political spectrum of the readers du Voyage. The man was a vociferous antisemist and an avowed collaborator of the Vichy regime, to the point of fleeing to Baden-Baden, then Sigmarinen, with the Laval government in 1944, to being sentenced to national indignity and one year in jail by a French civil court in 1950, so I do not think he gets any more sympathy from the center-right than from the left. But Le Voyage appeals to many for its anti-military and anti-establishment accents, besides its style, as being “the” book about the First World War butchery. By its instinctive anarchism, the book also appealed to anarchist readers, to the point that the journal Le Libertaire supported him during his trial in 1949-1950. If anything it looks like he was much closer to US libertarians than to political anarchists.

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