[A loose translation of a recent piece on Télérama, Les 10 livres préférés de 100 écrivains francophones, 12 March 2009]
What are the works by our authors’ bedsides? Well, not surprisingly, we find Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du temps perdu‘, but also Faulkner’s ‘Absalom! Absalom!’, and of course, ‘La Princesse de Clèves’ (with all due respect to some). We present to you the 100 winners over the next ten days (a set every day). This should make some fascinating reading, especially in view of the Salon du Livre being held in Paris at the moment.
What are your ten favourite books? This is the simple question we asked a hundred writers. We do not intend to carry out a scientific investigation; rather, we hope to gain a modest understanding of where, literally speaking, the French and Francophone writers of today come from. Under the auspices of which great authors do they place themselves? Which books, undisputed masterpieces or lesser works, nourished them, and continue to do so? To put it simply, which books are on their bedsides, their favourite books? When dark omens announce the disaffection of the public for literature, clearly there are no more effective promoters for reading than the writers themselves.
The choices we were given by the hundred authors comprise a formidable diversity – over three hundred titles were cited. And in many of these lists of ten books (and sometimes eleven or twelve or more, because some authors refused to stick to the restriction out of a sense of rebellion, or because it was impossible to choose merely ten), there was a pleasant admixture of both literary heavyweights and slighter, more cosy books that are not so popular.
Obviously the writers didn’t limit themselves to any linguistic pigeonhole. Thus, among the twenty most cited favourite authors, we find foreigners such as Faulkner, Dostoyevksi, Virginia Woolf, Joyce and Kafka, in the same breath as Flaubert, Céline, Stendhal or Rimbaud. These selections also highlight the preponderance of prose fiction; there were a few poets listed (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, …); and other than Shakespeare and Beckett, the world of theatre was generally absent (and even Beckett was preferred more for his novels than his dramatic works). And only one person included a comic in his list of ten titles: Pierre Assouline (the biographer of Hergé) mentioned one of the adventures of Tintin, The Blue Lotus.
We would also point out that contemporary writers are not absent, although they appear rarely in the lists. Yves Bonnefoy, Jean Echenoz (Ravel), Pierre Michon (Vies minuscules), Parick Modiano (Un pedigree) and Philippe Sollers (Paradis) appear, unsurprisingly, amongst our “great contemporaries.” Alongside them, perhaps more unexpectedly, are Jean-Jacques Schuhl (Rose poussière among the preferred books of Chloé Delaume), Xavier Houssin (16, rue d’Avelghem, chosen by Régis Jauffret) or Alain Mabanckou (Verre cassé, cited by Gilbert Gatore), but also Pierre Pachet and Renaud Camus… And, among the foreigners, Philip Roth, García Márquez, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee and the admirable W.G. Sebald (who died in 2001)…
One shade dominates above all: that of Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu cited by a third of the writers. In second position, but far behind Proust, is Ulysses by James Joyce, who appears in the choices of thirteen out of the hundred writers surveyed. Then comes the diptych by Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The triumph of Proust does not really surprise the essayist and teacher Olivier Decroix1
As Julien Gracq wrote, A la recherche du temps perdu is a kind of fertile ground for writers. It is an inexhaustible book, a work that never ends, very diverse, with some aspects anchored in the nineteenth century, and in other ways perfectly modern. The inexhaustible character is also related to the large freedom of Proust, who mixed essay-like passages with reflections on art or on writing, and autobiography to boot. Lastly, this is a book which one can read several times and at different stages in one’s life, and in which one can make new discoveries, as though it had never been read before.
Two years ago, the Times had made a similar list based on the preferences of a hundred and twenty-five Anglo-Saxon writers (English, American, Australian, …), who chose Tolstoy as their favourite author, whose two great novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace were respectively first and second amongst the most quoted books. In the top five were also found Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Nabokov’s Lolita, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shakespeare followed, as did Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, La Recherche, the stories of Chekhov, and the grand and marvellous Middlemarch by George Eliot. Closely observing this synthesis, one of the commentators pointed out that the collective preference, as it appears in this list, goes clearly to large dramatic novels that speak about love and death, and are propelled by unforgettable characters.
The French writers, on the other hand, at least those that we interviewed, tend towards the great modern works of the twentieth century rather than the large romantic frescoes preferred by the Anglo-Saxons. So we find Joyce and Kafka and Woolf who express more doubt than assurance in the supremacy of the character, and the interest is less in pure narrative. As Olivier Decroix says:
All these authors, including Celine and Rimbaud, are seized with an interrogation on the subject. What is a character? What is a point of view? Who is speaking? The character, according to their lights, is always threatened. They are authors who raise the question of identity. They authors who question reality by delivering some deformed image, unreal, to try to say something new, something unprecedented.
These questions on the personnages and the perception of the world that were current throughout the 20th century thus remain fully alive today for French writers, continues Olivier Decroix. He adds:
I am struck by the thought that, fifty years ago, in her essay L’Ere du soupçon, Nathalie Sarraute cited Flaubert, Proust, Dostoyevsky among the authors on whom a writer must base himself to make a break from the literature of the nineteenth century and create a new novel. A half-century later, one finds the same trio as though the idea of what is new, what is modern, has not changed at all. As though one has not abandoned the notion of questioning the character, such as exists in realistic fiction.
But perhaps we should stop the analysis there. Let us not draw general conclusions from choices that are often deeply personal and unique. We should not forget that as we share their ten favourite books, a significant number of authors emphasised that had they created their lists a few days before or later, they would have been quite different. Finally, let us point out an unexpected and sympathetic curiosity: the presence of La Princesse de Clèves among the “winners”, in a very high place. Without doubt, this work by Madame de La Fayette has received sincere attention from a number of authors, and benefited especially from the news of repeated attacks made on it by Nicolas Sarkozy since February 20062. This assumption is corroborated by the progress of sales of the novel in bookshops: from seven thousand copies a year, its sales, in the three pocket editions by Gallimard, abruptly doubled last year, causing the unexpected reprinting of the novel.
The most cited authors
Marcel Proust (33 times)
William Faulkner (24)
Gustave Flaubert (23)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (16)
Virginia Woolf (15)
James Joyce (14)
Franz Kafka (14)
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (13)
Samuel Beckett (11)
Arthur Rimbaud (11)
Mme de La Fayette (9)
Léo Tolstoy (9)
Malcolm Lowry (9)
William Shakespeare (9)
Herman Melville (9)
Primo Levi (9)
Georges Bataille (9)
Jean Giono (9)
Charles Baudelaire (8)
André Breton (8)
Albert Camus (8)
Miguel de Cervantès (8)
The most cited books
A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust (33 times)
Ulysses, Joyce (13)
Iliad and Odyssey, Homer (9)
La Princesse de Clèves, Mme de La Fayette (9)
The Sound and Fury, William Faukner (8)
Absalon, Absalon!, William Faulkner (8)
Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire (8)
Sous le volcan, Malcolm Lowry (8)
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantès (8)
L’Education sentimentale, Gustave Flaubert (7)
The Bible (6)
Fictions, J.-L. Borges (6)
Journal, Franz Kafka (6)
Moby Dick, H. Melville (6)
Les Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (6)
Une saison en enfer, d’Arthur Rimbaud (6)
Anna Karénina, Léo Tolstoy (5)
Correspondance, Gustave Flaubert (5)
The Divine Comédy, Dante (5)
Les Liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos (5)
The Master and Margerita, de Mikhaïl Boulgakov (5)
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Chateaubriand (5)
Récits de la Kolyma, Varlam Chalamov (5)
Si c’est un homme, Primo Levi (5)
Voyage au bout de la nuit, L.F. Céline (5)
(Nathalie Crom, Télérama n° 3087)
1. Olivier Decroix is the notable author of the essay “Le Romantisme” (with Marie De Gandt, Bibliothèque-Gallimard) and of the annotated edition of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (FolioPlus-Classiques)
2. Apropos the presence of this novel in the entrance examination to the civil service, Nicolas Sarkozy said that it was useless to learn, and was no doubt put in the examination syllabus by an imbecile or a sadist. He himself, he said, suffered on account of it.
Update: 19 March: It appears that the French are out in force to show their dislike for Sarkozy. How do they demonstrate it? Why, by reading La Princesse de Clèves! Check out the story here.