5. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1856)

French novels feature quite a lot on this list, principally because French is the only foreign language I know well enough to read in. But that’s not the only reason. Many of the great French writers have a moral and artistic outlook that forms a good counterpoint to the English tradition: there is no way that a nineteeth-century English author could have written Madame Bovary. It is the novel of adultery, and it ushered in a new treatment of sex in literature, with the consequences of which we are still living. Flaubert presents one simple narrative and concentrates all his resources on delivering it in the most powerful way possible. Everything – the famous descriptions, the scalpel-sharp language, the plotting – focuses on Emma’s disastrous marriage and escalating despair, and comes to a climax with her death, recounted in three chilling words: Elle n’existait plus. There have been so many attempts to render the story on stage or screen, all of them doomed – which makes me wonder if some novels are just too perfect ever to be adapted.

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