38. La Dame aux camélias, Alexandre Dumas (1848)

From one of the most fertile decades of world literature comes La Dame aux camélias, a story so often retold and rehashed that it’s easy to lose sight of the novel that started it all. I think it’s by far the best version, although obviously Verdi gave it some great tunes. The story is simple enough: a nice young man, Armand Duval, falls for a high-class prostitute, Marguerite Gautier, but social differences drive them apart and (spoiler alert) she dies from tuberculosis. There’s so much in that simple outline – sexual innocence and experience, the lure of the demi-monde, the self-sacrificing ‘tart with a heart’ – that it rapidly assumed mythic status and set the adaptation ball rolling. But what makes the novel so great is not just the story – it’s the way in which Dumas tells it, through an unnamed narrator who hears Armand’s confession. Like all the great nineteenth-century French novels it’s rich in detail, and it doesn’t shy away from sex and money. If you’ve only ever seen film, stage or musical versions of the story, I urge you to go to the source. (By the way, I’ve realised that at this point the ranking of novels is pretty pointless; I can’t say that any of my top 40 are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than each other. So please take the chart positions with a large pinch of salt.)


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Filed under My top 100 novels

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