The best way to digest bûche de noel and eggnog and get your brain out of hibernation mode is with some literature to make you think. Here are some French feminist titles that have been translated into English, providing astute observations on French society throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
1. The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe) — Simone de Beauvoir
This is one of the core feminist texts to read at some point during your life — the earlier the better. It was groundbreaking writing at the time, analyzing and critiquing the Occidental idea of “woman,” as well as the inequality between two of the genders (male and female).
Beauvoir’s frustration is on full display here, which is understandable when you consider she started writing in 1946, when French women had just won the right to vote and birth control was to be illegal for another 20 years.
2. An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing (Un appartement sur Uranus) — Paul B. Preciado
Uranism is a concept first coined by the writer Karl Heinrich Ulrich in 1864, which describes a third sex and the lifestyle of those who “love differently.” This is the jumping off point for Preciado’s memoir (in the form of essays), as he develops the concept to imagine living free of all gender and political constraints.
Whilst the book intelligently explores Preciado’s transition from Beatriz to Paul, it goes much further than gender transitioning, exploring the role of museums in shaping trans culture and the modern-day technological appropriation of women’s uteruses. (This book becomes available in English in January 2020.)
3. The Lesbian Body (Le corps Lesbien) — Monique Wittig
The Lesbian Body, also referred to as Les Guérillères, is Monique Wittig’s most popular selling title. But approach this one with a very open mind as it is also one of her most abstract pieces of writing. The satisfaction comes with recognition that the genre-defying format successfully mirrors the many lesbian feminist struggles against patriarchal oppression.
Bits of it have dated badly, like using slavery as a metaphor in white feminist writing, but there are several interesting theories that stand the test of time.
4. Looking Backwards (Journal à rebours) — Colette
Looking Backwards contains two volumes of Colette’s personal essays, many of which were unpublished at the time of release. We see glimpses of Colette as a child in some, as well as her departure from, then return to, an occupied Paris as a result of the Second World War. Her observations of the city at the time include being poor and having to tactically survive, opinions on fashion and recipes included in her newspaper articles.
A gentle read that is full of observations from an unparalleled French charmer.
5. A Winter’s Promise (La Passe-Miroir series, Book 1 in The Mirror Visitor Quartet) — Christelle Dabos
This award-winning, fantasy-fiction series has taken France by storm, with some recent excitement surrounding the release of the fourth and final book in the series.
Enter a universe of floating “ark” cities, each with their own intricate societal system. Ophelia must leave her home for a different ark, as part of an arranged marriage. The worldbuilding here is strong — complex but not so much that you get buried in details — and Ophélie is a wonderful heroine to get behind.
6. The Girl Who Reads on the Metro (La fille qui lisait dans le métro) — Christine Féret-Fleury
This charming fairy tale is a love letter to books and perfect for anyone looking for some escapism. Juliette lives in Paris and half-heartedly carries out her job in real estate, until one day she gets off at the wrong métro stop and falls upon a mysterious bookstore that matches books with the people who most need them. Enter a host of delightful characters who bring some much-needed magic into Juliette’s life.
7. The Lady and The Little Fox Fur (La femme au petit renard) — Violette Leduc
A beautiful novella that follows a lonely and impoverished sixty-year old woman who lives in Paris, in a tiny apartment on the top floor. Topics such as disappointment, loneliness and hunger are treated with sensitivity and compassion under Leduc’s skilled penmanship.
Paris proves to be a parallel character and not just a pretty backdrop, displaying a range of emotion and bouncing off the protagonist’s behavior.
8. The Years (Les Années) — Annie Ernaux
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*pulls out megaphone* THIS IS WHAT A NOBEL PRIZE WINNER LOOKS LIKE. Her memoir-as-social-history is nothing like I ever read before. It’s part fiction, part autobiography & truly revolutionary by introducing a whole new mode of storytelling. It’s narrated in a collective “we” (there’s no place for “I”) and follows a whole generation from WW2 to 2006. The Years is no plain and simple memoir, it’s a portrait of French society. Ernaux intertwines personal recollections with wider cultural, political and technological shifts. A lot of praise l know I know, but to me this is such an accomplished work of literature and it’ll take me a while to recover from it.
A fascinating journey through France’s shifting culture, exploring abortion rights, consumerism, immigration and unemployment, The Years is an autobiography, starting with the author’s birth in 1940 into a working-class family, right up until 2006. Ernaux mostly uses the collective “we,” sometimes switching to the third person “she,” thereby going against the long-standing and sexist rhetoric that women’s writing only dealt with either domestic or romantic issues.
9. Sunday and Other Stories (Dimanche) — Irène Némirovsky
If observations of social class are your thing then you should get your hands on this gem-like collection of short stories as soon as possible. Written between 1934 and 1942, Némirovsky beautifully captures tense mother-daughter dynamics, husband and wife power struggles, as well as the behaviour of the French bourgeoisie before.
Set against a backdrop of Parisian bars and apartments, before moving onto the lives of French men and women during the Second World War, this is exquisite writing from a woman at the peak of her career, which was so tragically cut short.
Featured image: Stock Photos from Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock