The last week of September finds free speech-loving book crusaders celebrating Banned Books Week, bringing support to such dangerous titles as the Captain Underpants series and Tony Morrison’s Beloved.
Banned and challenged books are opposed on various grounds, but one major unspoken truth is that in so many cases they are simply, secretly wonderful. There are some that make the list of livres condamnés that have less lit cred, but quite often, the books contention rests on the fact that the author has managed to capture a truth behind a sensitive topic, evoking strong reactions and sentiments from the readers.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) quite a number of banned books were published or written in France. Even more banned books are set in France. We’re not judging any of them for being salacious, lewd, or inciting, but we do recommend that you read them to decide for yourself just how risqué they are.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Now regarded as one of the finest examples of 20th century literature, it seems that after many attempts to get it originally published, it was finally a French pornographic press that took a chance on the novel. After appearing on the shelves, it was banned in France for a short time because it was considered too obscene. The portrayal of a sexual relationship between an adult and a child quickly was further banned all over the world. In the end, the enduring regard for the story and the true literary appeal of Lolita doesn’t lie in the audacity of Dr. Humbert Humbert’s feelings, but in the madness of the narrative.
Candide by Voltaire
Candide (or L’Optimisme) is a classic for its ruthless depiction of Church, government, and everything in between. Voltaire’s quick wit and humor make it easy to laugh along as the protagonist, Candide, is slowly drained of his originally sunny outlook on life for a more, shall we say, pragmatic world view.
Even Voltaire knew that his story would rattle some nerves and the satire was secretly published in 1759, following which it was promptly banned for its only lightly disguised religious blasphemy and political dissent. Today, Candide is considered one of the most-taught French works and is widely regarded as one of the “mainstays of the French Lit canon.”
Notre Dame des Fleurs by Jean Genet
Originally published in French, “Our Lady of the Flowers” is a pretty trippy read into the life of a drag queen on the dark side streets of Paris. Genet, a celebrated French writer, never meant the story to be pornography, and yet its original audience seemed to consist solely of erotica collectors.
Published in 1943, this work of “death and ecstasy” was heralded by none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, literary critic and encouraging existentialist, and is worth a read if you don’t mind the disjointed (but poetic) stream-of-consciousness style.
Got any favorite banned books or shocking French stories? Share with us in the comments!