The best books about modern art, culture, and political conflict in France

Who am I?

I’m a poet, literary critic, translator, and biographer, and I grew up partly in France. I became obsessed with Max Jacob when I was twenty. Max Jacob—mystic, poet, painter, and suffering lover—took hold of me, and I found myself writing poems to him, in his voice, in my sketchbooks. They were among my first published poems: he redirected my life. A few years later I stumbled into writing his biography, never imagining that it would take thirty-five years: it came out from W. W. Norton in 2020, along with my most recent book of poems So Forth. I teach Comparative Literature in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

I wrote...

Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

By Rosanna Warren,

Book cover of Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

What is my book about?

My book is about art, religion, anti-Semitism, and queer life in France in the 20th century.

Max Jacob (1876-1944) was a French poet and painter: Jewish, Breton, and a homosexual. Best known for his radical prose poems, The Dice Cup, he was Picasso’s first French friend, creating with him the nucleus of Modernist art in Montmartre before World War I. After a vision in 1909, he formally converted to Roman Catholicism (with Picasso as his godfather) in 1915. An ardent Catholic, he spent fourteen years as a lay associate of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, where the Gestapo arrested him in February 1944. He died in the Nazi transit camp of Drancy, the day before his scheduled transport to Auschwitz.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I

Why did I love this book?

A perpetually useful and inspiring book. Shattuck’s study of modern art in France came out in 1955 and remains a lively source for understanding how key artists—Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire—absorbed and reshaped traditions in writing, painting, and music, and launched the ethos of avant-garde aesthetics in the 20th century. A master storyteller, Shattuck situates his artists in their time, place, and culture with novelistic flair.

Book cover of Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait

Why did I love this book?

One of the most moving accounts I know of how literary creation takes place. With extraordinary sensitivity, Steegmuller reveals the mind and soul of the perturbed young bourgeois, Gustave Flaubert, and shows him growing, bit by bit, page by page, into the writer who set new terms for the art of the novel for the next hundred years. Art remains a mystery, but Steegmuller brings us uncannily close to the heart of it.

By Francis Steegmuller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flaubert and Madame Bovary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Francis Steegmuller's beautifully executed double portrait of Madame Bovary and her maker is a remarkable and unusual biographical study, a sensitive and detailed account of how an unpromising young man turns himself into one of the world's greatest novelists. Steegmuller starts with the young Flaubert, prone to mysterious fits, hypochondriacal, at odds with and yet dependent on his bourgeois family. Then, drawing on Flaubert's voluminous correspondence, Steegmuller tracks his subject through friendships and love affairs, a trip to the Orient, nervous breakdown and tenuous recovery, and finally into the study, where a mind at once restless and jaded finds a…

The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings

By Arthur Rimbaud, Mark Polizzotti (translator),

Book cover of The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings

Why did I love this book?

Rimbaud is the inescapable, volcanically talented, revolutionary poet of late 19th century France, the boy who had mastered the classical idioms and forms of the art by the time he was fifteen, and by age eighteen was reinventing poetic language both in the prose poems of Illuminations and in visionary irregular lyrics. He stopped writing poetry at age twenty, but the poems he left behind helped to open the door to modern poetry around the world.

By Arthur Rimbaud, Mark Polizzotti (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Drunken Boat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new translation of the best and most provocative work by France's infamous rebel poet.

Poet, prodigy, precursor, punk: the short, precocious, uncompromisingly rebellious career of the poet Arthur Rimbaud is one of the legends of modern literature. By the time he was twenty, Rimbaud had written a series of poems that are not only masterpieces in themselves but that forever transformed the idea of what poetry is. Without him, surrealism is inconceivable, and his influence is palpable in artists as diverse as Henry Miller, John Ashbery, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith. In this essential volume, renowned translator Mark Polizzotti…

The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Henry Rousso, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Book cover of The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

Why did I love this book?

A classic, dramatically original study of conflicting French interpretations of the German Occupation in World War II and the anti-democratic regime of Vichy. Rousso shows how de Gaulle tried to unify the country after the Liberation by celebrating a myth of widespread French Resistance and obscuring the extent to which French collaboration enabled the horrors of the Shoah and the destruction of democracy. Rousso follows the story as it played out in the ensuing decades as more and more evidence of collaboration came to light, and ideological conflicts stretching back to the Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th century shook the county once again. At a time when authoritarian governments and xenophobia are rising around the world, Rousso’s book offers a timely lesson and a warning. 

By Henry Rousso, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Vichy Syndrome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Liberation purges to the Barbie trial, France has struggled with the memory of the Vichy experience: a memory of defeat, occupation, and repression. In this provocative study, Henry Rousso examines how this proud nation-a nation where reality and myth commingle to confound understanding-has dealt with les annees noires. Specifically, he studies what the French have chosen to remember-and to conceal.

Book cover of The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach

Why did I love this book?

An expert in French fascism, Kaplan meticulously documents the career and the fate of the anti-Semitic, collaborationist novelist and journalist, Robert Brasillach. He was one of the few prominent intellectuals executed after the Liberation in France. His trial in late 1944 and execution in February 1945 put on the public stage the drama the country had just experienced: the Occupation, collaboration with the Nazis, the Resistance. As Kaplan presents it, Brasillach’s eloquent defense lawyer, the equally eloquent prosecutor, and Brasillach himself articulated the collision of visions of what it meant to be French and what it meant to be a patriot (or a traitor), arguments that still agitate France today. 

By Alice Kaplan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Collaborator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On February 6, 1945, a 35-year-old French writer and newspaper editor named Robert Brasillach was executed for treason by a French firing squad. He was the only writer of any distinction to be put to death by the French Liberation government during the violent days of score-settling known as the Purge. In this book, Alice Kaplan, author of the memoir "French Lessons" tells the story of Brasillach's rise and fall: his emergence as the golden boy of literary fascism during the 1930s, his wartime collaboration with the Nazis, his dramatic trial and his afterlife as a martyr for French rightists…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, modern art, and World War 2?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, modern art, and World War 2.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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