Greatest French novelist

This thread has raised some eyebrows due to the OP’s suggestion that Alexandre Dumas was France’s greatest novelist so I thought it’d fun to see what are the dopers’ suggestions for the top spot.

I’ll refrain from voting in the beginning because I’d like to see where this poll is going first.

This was the thread I was refering to http://http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=765746

I’ve not read sufficiently widely to vote so I’ll just mention that Rabelais’ house is well worth a visit.

I read Stenhal’s The Red & the Black and loved it. It felt like a better Catcher in the Rye, if that makes sense.

Read a few others, love Candide by Voltaire - trying to tend to my own garden right now. Beyond that, I never feel I have enough exposure to French lit to comment.

It would be presumptuous of me to express an opinion, since I haven’t read more than a small fraction of these authors, and those only in translation.

But I voted for Victor Hugo anyway, just because.

I mean no disrespect at all to Dumas, whose worked I have often enjoyed.

But would anyone call Robert Louis Stevenson the greatest British writer, or Rafael Sabatini the greatest Italian writer, or George RR Martin the greatest American writer? That’s about how I view Dumas.

I’ve read about 10 of these guys, and put Stendhal slightly above Proust. I like WordMan’s description…

I’ll be watching the results without voting as well. In fact the only French novels I’ve actually read are Camus’ ‘The Stranger’, which I found very good; some Verne and some of Maupassant’s short stories. I’ve only seen adaptations of Hugo’s works, and enjoyed those as well so really should give him a try one day.

My reactions so far.

Hugo is taking a clear lead which isn’t suprising. He was a supremely gifted writer. Again and again, I find myself amazed by his way of conveying colossal, epic visions in a completely natural, flowing language. A bit like this:http://www.koregos.org/Koregos/documents/Fig15094.jpg

Yeah, Rabelais’ books are full of hilarious adventures but also provides a very insightful account of the philosophical, scientific, linguistic and religious debates in Renaissance France (or Europe for that matter). He’s one of my favourites.

Two votes for Stendhal so far, that’s surprising but in a good way. Since you liked The Red & the Black, you can give The Charterhouse of Parma a try. Actually, while I liked the former, I definitely prefered the latter which I found more colourful. It starts with at the Battle of Waterloo for one thing. Then, it follows the main character throughout his adventures in various Italian kingdoms. And there’s also a long passage that finds him in prison, like in The Red & the Black :dubious:.

Please vote if you feel like it. It’s not meant to be a scientific survey, you know.

I’ll wait until tomorrow to cast my vote.

I did vote, I’m the other Stendhalian. :slight_smile: I’ve also read Charterhouse, which I agree is great, and also took and unsuccessful swing at Lucius Leu…Lucian Llewen…ah, whatever. Couldn’t finish it.

I’m the first Stendhalian, actually. I think someone didn’t vote.

I don’t care for Hugo. If you could put a book in a bathroom and tell people to glance through for pages which mention no character on either side of the page, tear that page out, and wipe and have that book both replace the toilet paper roll for a goodly time and end its ordeal with no loss of readability, I’m of the opinion that the author is in dire need of an editor, regardless of how nice his prose might be.

My second pick would have been Balzac. His descriptive passages may have been superfluous, but his cynicism and willingness to get down in the muck, roll around, and tell you just how stinky and sticky the ooze of Paris was is entertaining to read.

I have only read anything by Camus and Jean Genet, whose absence from the list surprises me. It’s not as though I was familiar with French literature and back in the 70s I knew his name rather than most on the list. I guess I moved in a social circle with a lot of young gay and lesbian folk so that may have aided my knowledge.

Ah, a second vote for Flaubert. Good.

Actually, his prose isn’t nice. It is stunning. But OK :D.

Regarding the lengthy passages without characters, there may be a misunderstanding here. Very often, Hugo imbues inanimate objects with a personality, especially massive ones. In Toilers of the Sea, for instance the main character decides to salvage a steam engine from ship wrecked on a nearly unreachable, barren islet. The operation is meticulously described, pages after pages after pages. But what could have been a dry description of a purely technical achievement becomes an epic three-way battle between the lonely man, the elements (sea, rock and weather) and the wreck itself, with savage attacks, lulls in the fighting and shifting alliances. It was a real page-turner.

Similarly, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, it could be argued that the main character isn’t Esmeralda, Quasimodo or Gringoire but Notre Dame Cathedral itself.

The characters are always there but sometimes, they just happen not to be human.

Genet… Well, I had to make choices. And while he definitely has name recognition, I tend to think that he is an important figure but not an essential one. That said, I may have included some personal favourites who could also be described in the same way by some. It’s almost impossible to make objective choices when compiling such a list.

Oops - added vote for Stendhal!

I’m the so-far only vote for Verne. I’m not actually saying I think he’s greater than Hugo, but due to the nature of his greatness, he translates a lot better than most authors, and I don’t read French.

mmm, I’m the only vote for Sartre? Oh well - it was always going to be an existentialist, and I prefer Sartre to Camus or de Beauvoir.

He had a wartime trilogy, yes? I recall reading the first two and loving them, and for some reason being unable to finish the third.

Looked them up. Oddly, reading the description, it seems like the third one would have been the exciting one.

I think I’ve only read Sartre, Camus, Voltaire, and Dumas on the list, and am not qualified to vote. Of those, I enjoyed Dumas the most. The Three Musketeers is of course excellent fun, but The Count of Monte Cristo is epic.

Based on Monte Cristo, I think it’d be closer to calling Dickens the greatest British writer–that is, controversial, but a reasonable opinion. Monte Cristo is beautifully written and is the most profound meditation on revenge and mercy that I’ve ever encountered in any art.

Nice to see Proust getting some love as well. If you have time to wallow a bit, it’s worth reading at least part of Recherche etc…in fact, I may have to pick that up again.

Hated Flaubert, or at least Bovary. If you claim to have read enough Zola to understand him, you’re probably lying. Hugo and Verne only in translation. Verne was a visionary, but I don’t know if he’s known for his writing so much as the general stories.

I enjoyed Maupassant’s Lovecraft vibe. I’ve never read Perec but I respect his skills (he’s the guy who wrote e.g. a book without using the letter “e,” easily the most common letter in French (and English)).