A Beginner's Guide to French Philosophers and Writers

A Beginner's Guide to French Philosophers and Writers

Want to impress your clever friends with your knowledge but have an embarrassing gap when it comes to French writers? Look no further than our beginner’s guide to France’s most esteemed thinks and authors - or at least the ones who are name-dropped the most often! You’ll come out armed with some key facts and interesting information tidbits to amaze and awe your listeners.


  1. Albert Camus

Albert Camus was born in 1913, in Algeria. He attended the University of Algiers, where he studied philosophy, where he became involved in leftist politics and joined the Algerian Communist Party. He later shifted towards more anarchist and libertarian socialist ideas.

His first collection of essays, "L'Envers et l'Endroit" (The Wrong Side and the Right Side), was published in 1937. 

He gained widespread recognition with the publication of his novel "L'Étranger" (The Stranger) in 1942, which is considered one of the most important works of existentialist literature. 

The novel explores themes of alienation, absurdity, and the meaninglessness of human existence.

During World War II, Camus joined the French Resistance and worked as a journalist for the underground newspaper Combat. After the war, he continued to write and publish prolifically, producing works of fiction, essays, and plays that explored existentialist themes, moral dilemmas, the complexities of the human condition and the quest for meaning in an absurd world.

In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in a car accident in 1960, at the age of 46.

If your interested in reading more on this French writer, you can find my in-depth blog post here!


Albert Camus Quote Print



2. Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust was born in 1871, in Auteuil, France. He was a novelist, critic, and essayist best known for "À la recherche du temps perdu" (In Search of Lost Time). 

Proust was born into a wealthy bourgeois family, and his upbringing was marked by a strong emphasis on culture, literature, and social refinement. He struggled with his health from a young age, suffering from asthma and other chronic illnesses. These health issues would greatly impact his life and work, often confining him to a reclusive lifestyle.

He published his first book, "Les Plaisirs et les Jours" (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories and essays, in 1896.

"In Search of Lost Time," published in multiple volumes between 1913 and 1927. It is an immense and sprawling exploration of memory, time, and the intricacies of human experience. His prose style is characterized by long, labyrinthine sentences and rich sensory detail and established him as a master of psychological introspection.

Proust was principal player in prominent Parisian literary and social circles, with friends such as writer André Gide and composer Gabriel Fauré. However, he also led a somewhat reclusive existence, preferring to work in solitude and devoting himself entirely to his writing.

He died in 1922, at the age of 51.


3. Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821, in Rouen, France. Born into a bourgeois family, he initially studied law but soon discovered his passion for literature.

Flaubert's literary career began with his early works of fiction and drama, but it was his novel "Madame Bovary," published in 1857, that catapulted him to literary fame. "Madame Bovary" is a work of realism, portraying the life of Emma Bovary, a disillusioned provincial woman trapped in a loveless marriage and yearning for romantic fulfillment. The novel caused a scandal upon its publication due to its frank depiction of adultery and societal hypocrisy.

He then devoted years to crafting his next major work, "Sentimental Education" (1869), a sprawling novel that explores the lives and loves of its characters against the backdrop of political upheaval in mid-19th-century France.

His commitment to precise language and meticulous attention to detail earned him a reputation as one of the greatest stylists in the French language.

Flaubert was also a prolific letter writer and essayist, offering insights into his creative process and literary philosophy. He maintained friendships with other leading writers of his time, including Émile Zola and Ivan Turgenev, and his correspondence provides a window into the intellectual and cultural milieu of 19th-century Europe.

He died in 1880, in Croisset, France.




4. Jean Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905, in Paris, France. He is renowned for his contributions to existentialist philosophy, literature, and social theory. 

Sartre's philosophical journey led him to develop existentialism, a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom, responsibility, and the subjective nature of human existence. In his seminal work "Being and Nothingness" (1943), Sartre explores the concept of "existence precedes essence," arguing that human beings are defined by their actions and choices rather than any predetermined essence or nature.

In addition to his philosophical writings, Sartre was a prolific playwright, novelist, and essayist. His plays, including "No Exit" (1944) and "The Flies" (1943), often grapple with existential themes such as alienation, authenticity, and the absurdity of human existence. His novel "Nausea" (1938) is considered a classic of existentialist literature, portraying the protagonist's existential crisis and search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent world.

Sartre was politically engaged, aligning himself with leftist and Marxist causes. He was a vocal critic of colonialism, capitalism, and authoritarianism, and he famously declined the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, stating that he did not wish to be institutionalized or co-opted by bourgeois society.

His lifelong partner was the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Together, they formed a central intellectual partnership and were influential figures in French intellectual and literary circles.

Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, in Paris.



5. Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908, in Paris, France. She was a pioneering feminist philosopher, writer, and existentialist thinker whose work profoundly influenced 20th-century thought on gender, ethics, and existentialism. 

Beauvoir published her seminal work, "The Second Sex" (Le Deuxième Sexe) in 1949. It was a groundbreaking examination of women's oppression and the construction of gender roles. The book, which is considered a foundational text of modern feminism, challenges traditional notions of femininity and argues for women's liberation from societal constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre was both her life partner and intellectual equal. Their relationship was characterized by mutual respect and intellectual collaboration.

Beauvoir was a prolific novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her novels, including "She Came to Stay" (1943) and "The Mandarins" (1954), often explore themes of existentialism, freedom, and the complexities of human relationships.

Beauvoir’s work was driven by her passion for leftist and feminist causes. She advocated for women's reproductive rights, access to education, and economic independence, and she was involved in various social justice movements throughout her life.

Simone de Beauvoir in 1986, in Paris.



6. Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914, in Gia Định, French Indochina (now Vietnam). She was a prolific French novelist, playwright, filmmaker, and essayist. Her work is characterized by its experimental narrative style, intense emotionality, and exploration of themes such as colonialism, cultural identity, memory, and desire. Raised in colonial Indochina, Duras's childhood was marked by the complexities of cultural identity and the harsh realities of colonial life.

Her first novel, "Les Impudents" (The Impudent Ones), was published in 1943. However, it was her semi-autobiographical novel "The Sea Wall" (1950) that brought her widespread acclaim. Set in colonial Indochina, the novel explores themes of isolation, survival, and the impact of colonialism on personal and familial relationships.

Duras enjoyed experimenting with narrative form and structure, pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Her best-known work, "The Lover" (1984), is a semi-autobiographical novel that blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, exploring themes of love, power, and forbidden desire.

She was a prolific playwright and filmmaker. She wrote and directed several films, including "India Song" (1975) and "Hiroshima mon amour" (1959), which are renowned for their evocative imagery and exploration of memory, trauma, loss and the passage of time, reflecting her own experiences as a woman, a colonial subject, and an artist. 

Marguerite Duras died in 1996, in Paris. 


7. Guillaume Apollinaire

Guillaume Apollinaire was born in 1880 in Rome, Italy. He was a French poet, playwright, art critic, and novelist of Polish descent, raised in France and Italy. He became an influential figure in avant-garde literary and artistic circles.

Apollinaire's literary career began with his early poetry collections, such as "Alcools" (1913), which showcased his innovative use of language, typography, and imagery. He was a leading figure in the Surrealist and Cubist movements, and his poetry often experimented with form, rhythm, and visual layout, breaking free from traditional poetic conventions.

As an art critic and essayist, he championed avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp. His essays and reviews were instrumental in shaping the reception and understanding of modern art in early 20th-century France.

Apollinaire's most famous work is perhaps his play "Les Mamelles de Tirésias" (The Breasts of Tiresias), first performed in 1917, which combines elements of surrealism, farce, and social satire. The play explores themes of gender identity, sexual liberation, and the absurdity of war.

Apollinaire enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, mingling with artists, writers, and intellectuals in Parisian cafes and salons. He was a charismatic and flamboyant figure, known for his wit, charm, and unconventional personal style.

Apollinaire died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, at the age of 38.

Guillaume Apollinaire Quote Print

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