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Dave Astor

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The French Connection Between Old Books and Current Events

Posted: 12/08/11 04:06 PM ET

Nineteenth-century French novels have a lot to say about our 21st-century world. And I'm not just talking about Jules Verne books that predicted some of today's technological advances.

I'm also talking about Honore de Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, which features a selfish rich guy like many of the wealthy in 2011. And Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, with its overzealous police inspector reminiscent of the cops who broke up the admirable Occupy encampments. And Emile Zola's Germinal, with its abused working class. And Zola's Ladies' Delight, in which a "big box" store crushes mom-and-pop businesses.

The topicality of these and various other 19th-century French novels is one reason why I think they rival that century's superb literature from England (Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, etc.); Russia (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, etc.); and the United States (Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, etc.). Plus many of these French novels are great reads!

Stendahl (pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle) was a pioneer of realism in early-19th-century French literature with The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, but it was Balzac and Zola who are better known for showing fictional characters in the context of the real-world milieu that (along with heredity) shaped their personalities and actions.

Balzac and Zola were also much more frank than their 19th-century English, Russian, and American counterparts in depicting sexual situations -- meaning the two French authors were very 21st century in that way. The bedroom scenes in Balzac's The Magic Skin and Zola's Nana and The Beast in Man may not be quite "NC-17," but they're certainly a solid "R"!

This dynamic duo also made the imaginative leap of putting the same characters in multiple novels. For instance, painter Claude Lantier is a secondary character in Zola's The Belly of Paris before Claude's somewhat older self becomes the main protagonist in Zola's The Masterpiece -- one of the best books ever written about a "starving artist" starved for recognition.

Balzac called his overlapping novels (including the great Old Goriot) "The Human Comedy." Zola's interconnected, "naturalistic" novels came under the heading of the Rougon-Macquart series -- after the multigenerational family branches depicted in a cycle of 20 books. Multigenerational sagas are certainly a staple of modern literature, as exemplified by John Steinbeck's East of Eden and more recent novels such as Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

But I'm focusing too much on Balzac and Zola! There was also Gustave Flaubert, who wrote the acclaimed Madame Bovary; Victor Hugo, who mesmerized readers with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the aforementioned Les Miserables; and Guy de Maupassant, who was best known for short stories such as "The Necklace" but penned novels, too.

Of course we can't forget Alexandre Dumas, author of the revenge epic The Count of Monte Cristo and the swashbuckling The Three Musketeers. Indeed, Dumas' novels were more varied than he's often given credit for. His The Black Tulip, for instance, managed to make a Dutch flower competition highly exciting. And the partly black Dumas used his memorable Georges novel to address racial tensions -- an issue still very much with us today.

Men unfortunately dominated 19th-century French literature. One exception was George Sand (pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), who authored novels such as Mauprat and Consuelo. This 1800s woman had a modern sensibility when it came to things like gender roles.

Then there was Colette, whose first book was published in 1900 and thus qualifies for inclusion in this post if one believes centuries end in a "00" rather than "99" year! Her Claudine at School debut is the tale of a teen girl that I liken to Charles Dickens' The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in that both were laugh-out-loud early novels by authors who upped the seriousness quotient in their subsequent, more sophisticated books. Colette's psychologically astute novels, which often addressed the place of women in society, still speak to us strongly in 2011.

Yes, the 1800s were quite a time for authors in France -- and their work continues to resonate long after their deaths.

Which 19th-century French novels are your favorites?