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If you are French, you haven't necessarily read Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, ... but you know their names.

How famous are those authors outside of France? Do people with a minimum education know about them, say in the USA?

  • Yes, they are internationally famous though precious few people have actually read their works these days. – temporary_user_name Aug 19 at 1:11
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    In my experience, Hugo is known to all educated Western English speakers and Flaubert to any with any training in literature. The others you mention are only known to those who specialize in literature (at the undergraduate level), are very widely read, or are classic French enthusiasts. I'm speaking of people 35 and under but I suspect this covers the previous generation too. – Luke Sawczak Aug 19 at 5:14
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    I’ve been reading Gide, and while I’ve talked to other people who have read him, they seem rare especially outside of certain groups. The same goes for a lot of other writers. Everyone knows Proust though, and at least the educated know important figures like Voltaire and Rousseau. – Maroon Aug 19 at 7:20
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    Surely Hugo is in a class of his own with "Les misérables", adapted umpteen times in film and made very popular with the musical. But then again the story was and remains very powerful. Two translations into English were published the same year it came out in Belgium and in France. I recommend David Bellos' "The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables" to get an idea of the incredible hit the novel has been. Interesting video of Bellos talking about Hugo's novel in the bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris (youtube.com/watch?v=oypGwRdOXdI). – user21018 Aug 20 at 5:47
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People with a minimum of education, anywhere, are not at leisure to know too much about their national literature, much less so about the literature of some other land¹. I have no handy information as pertains to a consideration of the question on a world wide basis but I believe to be reliable a few notions on it that I could glean as far as goes its treatment relative to the USA.

In the USA the public at large is much more likely to know about French literature through the cinematographic renderings of archetypal popular masterpieces such as Les Trois Mousquetaires and Les Misérables but also of less popular works such as Madame Bovary, the works of this latter type having a much smaller impact on that public. I think the works themselves will be famous, but not the authors whose names remain utterly obscure in comparison to such names as Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner.
The salient masterpieces from the past are still of interest, however they can't appeal but to an extremely restricted readership; can be counted among those the following works (réf.);

  • Beauty and the Beast, Madame de Villeneuve (1740)
  • The Tales of Mother Goose, Charles Perrault (1696)
  • The Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire (1857)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais, (16th Century)
  • In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (1913-1927)
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1856)
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
  • The Masterpiece, Émile Zola (1886)
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (1862)

It seems that there is still alive in the USA a certain interest for the more philosophical type of literature France had to offer in its past, that is an interest in quintessential works such as Les essais by Montaigne, Les pensées by Pascal, Candide by Voltaire; of course, one must not look beyond the bounds of that same limited and select readership referred to above to be witness to this influence, the extent of that readership being, I think, quite understandable.

¹Relative to this interconnection between "minimum education" and "corresponding culture" the book of Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (1957) makes for enlightening reading as it captures somehow a trend peculiar not only to British society on which the analysis it puts forth is founded but as well Anglo-saxon civilisation and more generally western civilisation for which it remains essentially relevant; the insight it brings to this question of what education for what culture, in my opinion and that of others, perdures as a reality to this day and is still one of the bases for thinking in the domain of cultural studies.

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If I believe the character played by Erich von Stroheim in the Jean Renoir movie "La grande illusion", the French literature stands on the top of the literary world.

I was not able to get the exact words put in the mouth of von Stroheim (commandant von Rauffenstein in the movie) by Renoir, but in a famous dialogue with a French captain prisoner (capitaine de Boëldieu) played by Pierre Fresnay, EVS says something like: "Bien entendu en Allemagne, nous avons des écrivains et des poètes et nous pouvons en faire une liste, avec Goethe, Schiller, puis après il faut chercher un peu, tandis que pour les français, vous avez Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Hugo, Zola et tant d'autres que la liste est presque infinie".

  • That's a comparative evaluation of French literature but not a statement of how this literature, in particular its classics, is perceived by a somewhat extensive public in the world (minimum of education), or if not in the world in an important country (Germany, Russia, the USA, Spain, …). – LPH Aug 22 at 15:52
  • @LPH The rigidity of your comment is fascinating. – Bazin Sep 3 at 8:47
  • What do you contest in this comment, more specifically? – LPH Sep 3 at 8:54
  • Hmm, everything as a matter of fact. Your legalistic point of view is in fact a reduction of perspective. – Bazin Sep 5 at 14:45
  • I don't know what to say to you ; sticking to the point is such a basic principle in the domain of discussion that you can't escape the penalty of not heeding it. If what you explain in your answer had been a preparation, an introduction to the subject, even if not fully justified, there would have be ground enough for abstaining from comment such as mine (that could be deemed too severe then); but that's not the case. Note that I didn't downvote; however I've been personally downvoted for errors much less flagrant than this one ; I meant only to make you aware of this point, no more. – LPH Sep 5 at 15:14

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