Updated: Aug 5
Don't want to fall behind in French over the summer? Adeline's selection of French literature will keep entertained while sharpening you up for the next academic year.
Let’s continue our Summer Reading series and cross the Channel to explore some books you can read in French. They are also available in their English translations but should be accessible in the original version for advanced learners of French. If you have just sat A-Level French or will prepare it next year, these books should be spot on — challenging enough to expand your vocabulary, but not overwhelmingly difficult.
This novel is based on a true story, the one of Charlotte Solomon, a German-Jewish artist born in Berlin in 1917 who died at 26, when she was pregnant. The novel sees the expansion of Nazi Germany, so the context is at times reminiscent of the one in Un sac de billes, which you may have studied at A Level. However, the take is decidedly intimate and the focus in on Charlotte’s life, her loves and her family. The novel is both beautifully touching and terribly heart-breaking.
The style itself is worth commenting on: as the reviewer from the London Review of Books put it “each sentence begins on a new line, giving it the deceptive look of a long poem”. This means most sentences are quite short and the grammar is pared down, which can be a relief if you find that you’re struggling with the lengthy and convoluted sentences some French authors are famous for. On a side note, did you know that the record for the longest sentence in French literature is held by Marcel Proust, who wrote an 856-word long sentence in À la recherche du temps perdu? Of course, the style in Foenkinos’ novel is not simplistic either so you’ll need to pay attention to changes in topics or ellipses, but the shorter sentences can give you the confidence to get started.
L’écume des jours literally means “the froth of days”, and this title reflects the surrealism of the atmosphere in the novel, which is sometimes described as a tale. Even though the world in which it is set seems initially very similar to ours, you will soon discover its quirkiness: the texts opens with a description of the main character Colin trimming his eyelids in the same way we would trim our nails, and drilling a hole in his bathtub once he’s finished taking his bath. This surrealism might be unsettling at first, but it makes for a light and entertaining narrative, even though the plot soon takes a darker turn. The main character’s partner falls ill with a mysterious disease — the couple have to return from their honeymoon early because she has chest pain and is coughing a lot. They eventually find out that this is because she has a water lily in the lung!
If you enjoy highly creative and imaginative works and are happy to “suspend your disbelief”, you will probably like this book a lot, and learn a lot of vocabulary about things you wouldn’t usually come across. If you think you might like the atmosphere but are worried about not always understanding what is happening, it might be a good idea to check out the film version first— Mood Indigo, with Amélie-Poulain star Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris.
Petit pays is more down-to-earth and is deeply rooted in the political context of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel, the main character, is a young boy who spends most of his time playing with his friends. As the story unfolds, his life is disturbed by the fragmentation within his family, as well as by the political turmoil and subsequent war. The eponymous “small country” symbolizes both the world of childhood that the boy has to leave behind, and Burundi itself, caught between Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania.
The reader follows the story through the boy’s eyes, and I think this makes the novel both subdued and incredibly powerful, as his innocence is confronted with the terrible events that take place. This perspective also means the language is rather informal throughout, with some slang vocabulary, but the language is very authentic, so there are phrases and vocabulary that are worth knowing.
This is a very personal selection but if you would like more reading ideas that have been tested and approved by French teenagers, I would also recommend checking out the winners of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. The original prix Goncourt is a prestigious literary prize but this version is awarded by 2,000 French sixth-formers. They often shortlist books that tell sensitive stories in an unpretentious and accessible language, so I would highly recommend their selection.
Blog Post Crafted by Adeline
Adeline runs our Admin Team. With a PhD in English, she can call herself a doctor but can’t write prescriptions!
Adeline manages the staff on our Admin Team, liaising with tutors, clients and applicants. She is responsible for processing the ID, Qualifications, DBS Check and References for all our newly joining tutors, as well as taking tuition enquiries, matching tutors to clients, and supporting tutors and clients throughout the process of tuition.