The great names of French literature

The French language has never been better represented than by its great writers. Whether novelists or philosophers, romantics or humanists, the great names of French literature have spanned the ages, and their fine words with them.
16th century

François Rabelais (1494-1553)
An emblematic figure of the Renaissance, Rabelais is one of the best known humanists of his day. In his broad comic tales of two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, he is edging towards a renewal of philosophy and an exaltation of mankind within the idealist movement of the era.

An anecdote
The French expression “le quart d’heure de Rabelais” means that it’s time to pay up. It originates in a comic incident from the writer’s life. One day he was in Lyon and wanted to travel to Paris. He had no money and so he marked several sachets of sugar “Poison for the King” and left them lying prominently around. He was arrested and taken to Paris, thus getting a free ride. King Francis I laughed so hard when he heard about it that he happily paid for the trip.

Must read
"Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel" (1532), La vie très horrifique du grand Garga ntua, père de Pantagruel" (1534)

 

17th century

Molière (circa 1622-1673)
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known as Molière, has certainly left a permanent mark on French theater. As both actor and author, he remains the brilliant godfather of French comedy. Five centuries after he lived his plays are still performed more than any others.

An anecdote
According to legend Molière died on stage while playing one of his best known characters, the hypochondriac (le malade imaginaire). In actuality he died at home a couple of hours after the performance.

Must read
L'école des femmes (1662), Le médecin malgré lui (1666), L'avare (1668), Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), Le malade imaginaire (1673)

La Fontaine (1621-1695)
Jean de la Fontaine has left his imprint on French history with the stories about talking animals that bear his name. The Fables of La Fontaine are still read and taught to children. Though they appear slight at first, these fables offer profound insights into man, his nature and moral behavior.

An anecdote
Various well-known French sayings such as "La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure" "Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point" "Aide-toi, le Ciel t'aidera" were all invented by La Fontaine.


Must read
Fables (1668, 1678, 1693)

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
A prolific writer of large-scale plays and novels. An emblematic figure of his time, he celebrates the greatness of man.

An anecdote
Corneille unintentionally inspired a new adjective, "cornélien". A reference to his literary output, it signifies a literary power and density.

Must read
Le Cid (1636), Cinna (1641), Polyeucte et Horace (1642).

18th century

Montesquieu (1689-1755)
A thinker widely considered as the father of liberal philosophy. Montesquieu’s ideas were ahead of their time, such as his theory of power-sharing, which, he maintained, is the basis of all democracies. His main work, De l'esprit des lois, has strongly influenced French and European constitutionalism.

An anecdote
Although he was born into a bourgeois family and was the son of a baron, Montesquieu never lost sight of the social realities of his time. Perhaps because his parents chose a beggar to be his godfather, Montesquieu went on to write that "to do great things, you do not have to be such a great genius: you must not be above other men but with them."

Must read : Lettres persanes (1721), De l'esprit des lois (1748)
The century of the Enlightenment is much too rich in great works to cite only a few at random. It gave birth to the American and French Revolutions and remains the symbol of intellectual, philosophical and political renewal.

Voltaire (1694-1778)
Could be the symbol of this era's trailblazing energy. A philosopher, writer and poet, he knew glory but also prison and exile. A free-thinker, liberal and staunch democrat, he wrote around 50 books.
 

An anecdote
Rightly or wrongly, Voltaire is credited with this phrase so typical of his thinking: "I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Must read
Candide ou l'Optimisme (1759).

19th century

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Considered as the greatest writer of the French Romantic movement, he has given French literature some of its finest works. A novelist, commentator, politician and academician, Hugo is buried at the Pantheon, the last resting place of many great men.
 

Must read
Dernier Jour d'un condamné (1829), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Les misérables (1862), Quatre-vingt-treize (1874).

20th century

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
A philosopher, writer and famous advocate of Existentialism, Sartre left a titanic body of work. He was also the classic example of a politically committed intellectual, notably when he joined the French Resistance in 1941.

An anecdote
In 1964 he turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature on the grounds that no man should be canonized during his own lifetime.

Must read
La Nausée (1938), L'existentialisme est un humanisme (1945), Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (1951).

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Among the brilliant names of French literature, Camus, the philosophical writer, is distinguished byan intense humanism. Opposed to both communism and religions, he never stopped championing his view of the human condition.
 

Must read
L'étranger (1942), Caligula (1944), La Peste (1947).

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