10 Famous French Authors and Their Incredible Lives
French authors have left a lasting imprint on world literature. Many of their books became legendary, such as The Little Prince or Les Misérables, and the incredible stories they shaped, together with the innovative language they used, have changed the lives of generations of readers.
But on top of writing extraordinary novels and poems, French writers have also lived truly extraordinary lives, which are often not well known by the general public. In this article, you’ll get to dive into the works and biographies of these giants.
Here are 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about famous French authors:
Victor Hugo lived on a street named after him
Emile Zola changed the course of the Dreyfus Affair ("J'accuse !")
Albert Camus: The absurd death
Guy de Maupassant hated the Eiffel Tower
Romain Gary is the only person to win the Goncourt Prize twice
Honoré de Balzac was addicted to coffee
Marcel Proust wrote a 856-word long sentence
Paul Verlaine committed a crime of passion
Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter “e”
Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word “surrealism”
01. Victor Hugo lived on a street named after him
“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is one of the best-known French writers and the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Les Misérables, and The Last Day of a Condemned Man. As a leading figure of the Romantic movement, he created the "Cénacle" in 1827, a literary coterie gathering young authors and whose seat was his apartment. Widely considered a literary genius at an early age, he was elected to the French Academy in 1841.
Known for writing novels, poems and plays with a cause, Victor Hugo engaged in several political battles, like the one against the death penalty or the Second Empire led by Napoleon III. This last combat got him exiled to Jersey in 1848, then to Guernsey for about 20 years, where he produced the richest part of his literary work. Upon his return to France in 1870, Victor Hugo was welcomed as the symbol of Republican resistance to the Second Empire.
On his 80th birthday, 600,000 admirers cheered him in front of his house, located on Eylau avenue in Paris. The same year, the avenue was renamed after him, “avenue Victor Hugo”, while he was still living there. “I saw for the first time my boulevard”, wrote Hugo in his collection of biographical notes and essays, Things Seen. Therefore, Victor Hugo lived in a street called “Victor Hugo” and letters were addressed to him as follows: “To Mr. Victor Hugo, In his avenue, in Paris". Fancy, isn’t it?
02. Emile Zola changed the course of the Dreyfus Affair ("J'accuse !")
"One day, France will thank me for having helped to save her honor."
Already in his lifetime, Emile Zola (1840-1902) was considered one of the most popular French authors and journalists who ever lived. A leader and theorist of the movement of Naturalism in literature, his novels, such as L'Assommoir, Germinal, The Ladies’ Paradise, Nana or The Monomaniac, display a methodic, almost scientific description of his era. He uncompromisingly analyzed the men of his time and never ceased to engage in social causes - the most famous of which being the Dreyfus Affair. It started in 1894, in a France marked by a stiff revival of anti-Semitism. Dreyfus, a French officer of Jewish origin, was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to France’s archenemy, Germany, and subsequently expelled from the army and sentenced to life imprisonment in Devil’s Island.
Committed to fighting injustice, Zola decided to defend the disgraced officer. On January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore, he published an open letter addressed to the President of France, Félix Faure, entitled “J’accuse !” (“I Accuse!”), in which he destroyed the false accusations against Dreyfus. This pamphlet came as a bombshell. It divided France and the French people into two irreconcilable parts: the “Dreyfusards” (Dreyfus’ supporters) and the “anti-Dreyfusards”. The French author was condemned for defamation, and had to flee to England to avoid imprisonment.
It’s only in 1906, after countless twists and turns, that Alfred Dreyfus was finally rehabilitated and reintegrated into the army - an outcome that Zola, who died four years earlier, never got to know. Nonetheless, his commitment and relentlessness resulted in the denunciation of anti-Semitic practices and the release of an innocent man. Hats off, gentleman!
03. Albert Camus: The absurd death
“The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Born in French Algeria, Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a philosopher, author and journalist. From his involvement in the Resistance during World War II to his denunciation of the Soviet Union, Camus demonstrated a constant political activity throughout his life. Philosophically, he stayed on the margins of the main movements of his time, opposing both Marxism and Existentialism, and fighting any overarching ideology aimed at dissociating men from their human condition. He was also involved in the defense of North African Muslims and antifascist Spanish refugees.
His books are steeped in his existential anxieties and his endless questioning about human condition. His views contributed to the rise of Absurdism, a philosophy inviting to embrace the inability to find any purpose in a fundamentally absurd human existence. This theme inspired Camus’ “absurd cycle”, a series of novels, plays and essays including The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, Caligula and The Misunderstanding.
In 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the second-youngest recipient in history. Three years later, while returning to Paris after celebrating New Years Eve with his family in his home in Lourmarin, he died in a car accident after the driver, his friend Michel Gallimard, crashed into a tree. The French author was 47 years old.
04. Guy de Maupassant hated the Eiffel Tower
“I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower ended up boring me too much.”
Henry-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, commonly known as Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), was a journalist and writer of novels and short stories (such as Bel Ami, The Horla, Une Vie) that brilliantly mixed realism with fantasy. Most of his works have a pessimistic consonance, as Maupassant insisted on portraying the cruelty, stupidity and selfishness of the human race.
Although he lived for several years in Paris, Maupassant has repeatedly admitted to hating the Eiffel Tower. Like many fellow authors and artists, he thought of the iron monument to be a desecration of the beauty of the French capital. Ironically enough, he often had lunch in one of the restaurants located on its first floor. After a journalist asked him why he would eat in the Eiffel Tower if he disliked it so much, the French writer replied: "It is the only place in the city where I do not see it".
He ended up leaving Paris, and eventually France, because of the iconic tower: “It could not only be seen from all over, but it could be found everywhere, made of all sorts of known matters, exhibited in all the shops and show windows, an inevitable and racking nightmare. It was not the only thing, though, that created in me an irresistible desire to be alone for a while, but everything that has been made in and over it, and even around it”, he wrote in The Wandering Life.
05. Romain Gary is the only person to win the Goncourt Prize twice
“With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold.”
Born Roman Kacew in Vilnius, Lithuania, Romain Gary (1914-1980) emigrated to France at the age of 14. He studied law and was later enlisted in the Free French Air Force during the Second World War. After the war, he joined the diplomatic career, during which he wrote many of his most famous books. Haunted by the war and the angst of aging, the French writer described the complexity and turmoil inherent to human relationships in emblematic books such as Promise at Dawn and The Dance of Gengis Cohn.
In 1956, he received the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France, for The Roots of Heaven, the story of a crusading environmentalist who fights to save elephants from extinction.
In 1974, in search of renewal, he decided to write a new series of novels using a pseudonym. In 1975, without knowing the real identity of the writer, the jury of the académie Goncourt awarded its prestigious prize to Emile Ajar for The Life Before Us, the story of a Muslim orphan boy living under the care of an old Jewish woman, in post-war Paris. This is how Gary became the first and only writer in history to win the Goncourt twice.
06. Honoré de Balzac was addicted to coffee
“Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.“
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of the initiators of Realism in literature. In 1834, he had the idea of grouping all of his novels in an organized whole, which would eventually turn into one of the most fantastic efforts in the history of literature: the Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), a masterpiece gathering more than 2,000 characters in 91 different works, in which he aimed to paint the “social species” of his time.
As you could already guess, Honoré de Balzac was a hard worker, and like many hard workers, a huge fan of coffee. He wouldn’t let anyone prepare his beverage because he followed a very precise recipe, mixing three varieties of coffee beans - Bourbon Island, Martinique and Yemen mocha - before boiling the decoction for hours in order to obtain a caffeine concentrate capable of keeping him awake all night. He even wrote about the effects of coffee in his Treatise on Modern Stimulants.
During the last years of his life, the French author actually slept very little. He would spend entire nights writing and drinking coffee. Legend has it that Honoré de Balzac could sometimes drink up to 25 coffees a day! We can say that Balzac was, in a way, the Georges Clooney of the 20th century. Coffee… What else?
07. Marcel Proust wrote a 856 word-long sentence
“We are all of us obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a few little follies in ourselves.”
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is widely regarded as one of the most influential novelists of all times. His immense work, In Search of Lost Time, comprising seven volumes published between 1913 and 1927, is based on a deep psychological reflection on the relationship between literature, memory and time.
Early on, he suffered from asthma attacks which forced him to take long rest periods. This seclusion prompted him to write down his thoughts and feelings, which he expressed through long sentences that stretched over entire paragraphs. This method has often been interpreted as a way for the author to fight the destruction occasioned by the passing time, and to express in writing what he could not say orally because of his breathing impairment.
In Sodom et Gomorrah, published in 1921, he wrote one of the longest sentences in French literature, made of 858 words. Hard to believe, isn’t it? You can read it here (in French).
08. Paul Verlaine committed a crime of passion
“Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and branches, and then here is my heart that beats only for you.”
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) is the author of some of the most well-known poetry books in French literature, such as Poèmes saturniens, Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles - the latter, written during his years of relationship with Arthur Rimbaud. It’s in 1871 that Verlaine met with Rimbaud, who was sixteen and had just moved to Paris. Verlaine fell in love with him and soon left his wife Mathilde Mauté to follow the young poet on his trips across Europe. What followed were two years of a stormy relationship, marked by recurring dramas and high consumption of opium, absinthe and hash.
On the night of July 8, 1873, Rimbaud joined Verlaine in Brussels. The few days spent together were stormy, Verlaine thinking of returning to London and Rimbaud refusing to go with him. On July 10, Verlaine drank excessively and went out to buy a six-shot revolver with a box of cartridges. After yet another argument during which Rimbaud told him that he wanted to leave him, Verlaine shot his lover twice after shouting at him, "That's it for you, since you're leaving!" One bullet struck Rimbaud above the left wrist joint, the other touched the wall. On August 8, 1873, Verlaine was sentenced for serious injury to two years in prison and a 200-francs fine.
In 2016, more than 140 years later, the revolver used by Verlaine against his companion was sold at auction for a whopping €434,500. Fortunately, this gun has caused more ink than blood to flow.
09. Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter “e”
“To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”
Georges Perec (1936-1982) was one of the most remarkable French writers of the twentieth century. He reached literary fame in 1965, after the publication of Things: A Story of the Sixties, in which he described in a very meticulous way the mundane events of his daily life. Perec was particularly fond of literary devices and experiments, from constrained writing to plays of words, from endless lists to absurd classifications. They enabled him to tackle with grace some very heavy, recurring topics, such as disappearance and the quest for identity, tracing back to Perec’s trauma who lost all of his family in the Holocaust when he was a child.
In 1969, he took up an unprecedented literary challenge: a 300-page lipogrammatic novel entitled A Void, made of regularly built sentences, but using only words that do not include the letter “e” - the most frequent vowel in the French language. In an interview (in French) about this incredible literary endeavor, Perec said: “When we write, we usually pay attention to the sentences, we try to modulate our sentences. We pay attention to the words, we pick our words. But we hardly pay attention to the letters, that is to say the graphic supports of writing. If we decide to deprive ourselves, to make an element disappear in this alphabet, and instead of 26 letters, we decide to only have 25, a real catastrophe is meant to occur, as soon as the letter we choose is important”. Incrdibl, right?
10. Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word “surrealism”
“It is high time to relight the stars.”
Guillaume Albert Vladimir Alexandre Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky, commonly known as Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), was one of the most influential poets of the early 20th century (Alcools, Caligrammes), as well as a calligraphist and author of erotic short stories. Theorist of the “New Spirit”, he was a good friend of Pablo Picasso, with whom he shared a passion for the emerging Cubist movement.
In 1916, while fighting with the French army, he was injured by shrapnel that hit his right temple. After a long and painful recovery, he published the collection Les Mamelles de Tiresias, which he qualified as a “surrealist drama”. He used the term “surrealism” for the first time in a letter to Paul Dermée, a Belgian writer and friend of his, in which he tried to name the new literary movement he was initiating: “All things considered, I believe indeed that it is better to adopt surrealism than supernaturalism that I had first employed. The word “surrealism” does not yet exist in dictionaries, and it will be more convenient to handle than supernaturalism already used by MM. the philosophers”.
This marked the beginning of Surrealism. If Apollinaire coined the term, it is only a few years later that André Breton, with his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), would lay the conceptual groundwork of the movement. Deeply influenced by the works of Freud, surrealist authors would develop unconventional literary techniques and explore all of the facets of the unconscious mind in search for creativity. The word “surreal” appeared in the English language in the 1930s as a backformation of “surrealist”. It is still widely used today, almost a century later, as a slang for “weird” or “irrational”. Do you also use this word a lot? Now you will know where it comes from.
Pamela Benais, French UX Writer and Localization Expert at Wix
Feet on the ground and head in the clouds, I love the power of words. Keen on music, dogs, books and food.