The best things in life are free.
That’s never been more the case for French bookworms.
Thanks to the popularity of e-readers and digital conversion projects, there’s a ton of French books in the public domain that you can télécharger (download) without paying a penny!
You might think “public domain” means “boring” or “irrelevant.”
But French literature has a rich history of challenging the standards and aesthetics of its time.
Whether you’re reading to improve your French or just to reward yourself for all your hard work, you can find old French books that are as edgy and provocative as any being published today.
Whether you rejoice at innovative language or vampires are more your thing, you can treat yourself and make your friends jealous by loading up on novels that are only available for free (or at all) to readers of French.
Whether you’re a beginning reader or a seasoned bibliophile, French literature that’s still fresh and relevant is literally at your fingertips!
What’s more, you don’t even have to look too hard, because I’m giving you a head-start sampler of what’s out there.
12 Free French E-books You Can’t Afford to Miss
1. “Le Diable au corps” by Raymond Radiguet (1923)
Radiguet rubbed shoulders with the hippest of the Modernist crowd, including Picasso, Hemingway and Jean Cocteau. He might have eventually become as famous as these guys if he’d lived past age 20, but he left behind a surprisingly substantial body of work that included two novels and some poems. “Le Diable au corps,” which takes place against the backdrop of WWI, depicts a teenage boy’s affair with a married woman. It caused quite a scandal at the time but has since been recognized for its literary merit. The contrast between the lightness and naïveté of adolescence and the seriousness of the war makes Radiguet’s story a compelling read.
2. “Chéri” by Colette (1920)
Colette was a novelist known for her vivid depictions of love and sensuality. Oddly enough, her earliest work was written under the watchful eye of her jerk husband, who would lock her in a room to force the creative process and take credit for her novels himself. Thankfully, she walked out on him and became hugely successful under her own name. “Chéri,” considered one of her best works, tells the story of an affair between a young man and an older courtesan. In it, Colette played with gender roles by making a man the pretty, pampered object of desire.
3. “L’Enfer” by Henri Barbusse (1908)
A man takes a room in a boarding house and discovers that through a hole in the wall he can see everything that’s happening in the adjoining room. Thus begins a voyeuristic journey of discovery for the protagonist of Barbusse’s novel. Far from a purely titillating account of lovers’ encounters and private moments, “L’Enfer” is a philosophical exploration of intimacy and the human search for happiness. It was popular at the time of its publication and its frank, conversational tone and eyebrow-raising subject matter should make it appealing to modern audiences as well.
4. “Confession de minuit” by Georges Duhamel (1920)
In a tortured but captivating voice — reminiscent of the characters of Gogol and Dostoyevsky — Duhamel’s hero, Salavin, recounts how he was fired from his job under extremely odd circumstances and how this marked a major change in his life. Salavin’s penchant for rich detail and his willingness to reveal personal quirks make him entertaining in the manner of a drunken stranger whose rambling you actually want to hear. “Confession de minuit” is the perfect book to download and lose yourself in on a stormy afternoon, provided you do so safely indoors!
5. “Le Mystère de la chambre jaune” by Gaston Leroux (1908)
You’ll immediately recognize the title of Leroux’s most famous work, “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,” but he’s also known for having written one of the first “locked-room” mysteries. “Le Mystère de la chambre jaune” follows Joseph Rouletabille, a reporter investigating an attempt on the life of a famous scientist’s daughter. The police are baffled, as the assailant seems not to have escaped the scene of the crime, a secured room with a barred window, but rather vanished into thin air.
6. “Ourika” by Claire de Duras (1823)
“Ourika” tells the story of a Senegalese woman who’s raised in the household of a French duchess. She’s treated as one of the family, and is at first unaware of the inferior status her race gives her in the eyes of others. The portrayal of the character is sensitive, complex and ahead of its time. “Ourika” both calls attention to race and gender divisions and explores the effect these divisions have on the individual mind.
7. “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain-Fournier (1913)
“Le Grand Meaulnes” is the only novel by the writer Alain-Fournier, but it’s a heck of a novel. It follows the lives of two boys who meet as teenagers in a country town and become friends. One of them goes off on his own one day, gets lost and stumbles upon a strange place where he meets the girl of his dreams. “Le Grand Meaulnes” is a simply written, beautiful tale that doesn’t just bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, but blends the two deftly together.
8. “Le Prisonnier de la planète Mars” by Gustave le Rouge (1908)
An example of early French science fiction that pushed the envelope beyond the writing of Jules Verne, “Le Prisonnier de la planète mars” chronicles the travels of a young engineer to the mysterious red planet. In this wildly imaginative work, Le Rouge creates what I bet will prove to be the most bizarre fictionalized version of Mars you’ve ever encountered. Just for the sake of mentioning it, there are vampires on Mars, and if you enjoy this offering from Le Rouge, you can continue on to the sequel, “La Guerre des vampires.”
9. “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel (1914)
While Roussel is considered something of a cult taste, he holds a highly influential place in 20th century literature for his playful experiments with the writing process. “Locus Solus,” created from one such experiment, centers on a wealthy man showing his friends a series of bizarre inventions and curiosities he has collected on his estate. Roussel delves heavily into descriptions of these items, creating a rich tapestry of many stories woven into one another. Its otherworldly qualities may appeal to fans of the Spanish language writer Jorge Luis Borges, or to those just looking for something truly different.
10. “La Vampire” by Paul Féval (circa 1856)
Move over, “Twilight”! Here’s the first in a French vampire trilogy that includes “Le Chevalier Ténèbre” and “La Ville-Vampire.” While more in the classic tradition of vampire fiction than Le Rouge’s sci-fi blend, it has its share of cross-genre complexities as well. The story unfolds on a large scale that places it in Paris at a specific point in history, painting the scene of a city at unrest among rumors of a vampire at large. Féval was primarily a crime writer and his corresponding sensibilities are apparent in “La Vampire,” which at times reads like a mystery or police drama.
11. “L’Écornifleur” by Jules Renard (1892)
“L’Écornifleur” is narrated by Henri, a lazy young poet and an expert on living off of other people’s money. The book follows Henri’s relationship with the Vernets, a bored couple who find in him a pleasant distraction. Though Renard’s novel never veers too far from the playful romp it is, Henri’s thoughts and actions have the potential to surprise and even shock. As his behavior becomes more and more questionable, he continues to work his charm, not just on the Vernets but on the reader as well. “L’Écornifleur” is casual enough to be a beach book, but might just stay with you long after you’ve left the beach.
12. “Lettres écrites de Lausanne” by Isabelle de Cherrière
A novelist and woman of letters, Isabelle de Cherrière wasn’t afraid of telling people how she really felt, even if it meant giving them a piece of her mind. She was keenly interested in social politics, particularly the role of women in society and waxed philosophical in a writing style that was witty, amusing and occasionally over-the-top. “Lettres écrites de Lausanne” offers an up-close and personal glimpse at the social order of the time, from the point of view of someone who had a stake in it.
The selections above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to French e-books in the public domain. Here are a few more authors whose work you’ll find readily available and gratuit (free):
The work of one of France’s best-loved writers is plentiful and easy to find. If you’re not eager to jump right into one of his longer novels, try his poetry or “Claude Gueux,” a short story based on a true event. It explored succinctly the themes of social injustice that would later appear much expanded in his famous “Les Misérables.”
Incredibly prolific, Sand published dozens of books during her lifetime and many of them have been converted into free e-books. She was known for her socially charged writing and working-class sympathies. Try starting with “La Mare au diable” — if you like that, she’s got a lot more!
Baudelaire was a major French poet. His famous and influential “Les Fleurs du mal,” a gritty set of poems that take you through the streets of Paris in the 19th century, is available to read whenever the mood strikes you.
Proust may be the most quintessentially French of French writers. An author of the salon variety, he wrote one of the longest and most famous works known to humankind. But does anyone actually read it? Mais oui! Whenever you feel you’re ready to tackle it, the first volume of the massive “À la récherche du temps perdu” is waiting just for you!
Another prolific French writer, Dumas has a huge catalog of work available online. He was incredibly popular during his lifetime and continues to be widely read. Even if you haven’t read any Dumas yet, you’re probably already familiar with some of his stories, like “Les Trois mosquetaires” or “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.”
More Work Available in Free French E-books
You can also find work by Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne and Émile Zola.
How to Tap Even Further Into the Practically Endless Supply of Free French E-books
As we’ve already established, there are a ton of free French e-books online. While we’ve been focusing on public domain books so far, there are also some newer books that are made available for free by the publisher.
Even if you don’t have an e-reader, you can almost always download books in a format that allows you to read them on your computer or another device, as long as you’re not specifically trying to download a book made for a device outside of your region.
So once you’re ready to go searching for free French e-books on your own, here are a few places to start:
You can check out the French-language section on Project Gutenberg, which offers multiple download options for each book, including Kindle and epub (which is compatible with Nook).
Basically, there’s never any reason to let a lack of funds stand between you and sufficient French reading material. There’s enough out there to keep you busy for several lifetimes, and it’s as good as yours already!
So what will you be reading today?
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