In search of the perfect French novel – Prix Goncourt

Photo © Clay Banks, Unsplash

If you’re looking for a great new book, consider a French novel, a novel you can read in French or English. The books that won the Goncourt Prize (Prix Goncourt) are a good starting point.

The most prestigious

France is a country renowned for its literacy, winner of more Nobel Prizes in Literature than any other. But when French authors aren’t fantasizing about a Nobel, they dream of winning the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious of French literary prizes.

Hervé Le Tellier, winner of the 2020 Goncourt Prize. Photo © Académie Goncourt, Facebook

Le Goncourt is the most important of the “Big Six”, the others being the Femina Prize, the Renaudot Prize, the Interallied Price, the Medici Prizeand the grand prize of the French Academy. The Goncourt holds a place of choice in the same way as the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom and the Pulitzer Prize in the United States; earning it gives such a boost to sales that “it can make the author an instant millionaire”.

Awarded for the first time in 1903 for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”, the Prix Goncourt rewards the best novel each year. Other prizes are awarded for poetry, biography, short story and first novel. There is also a price voted by thousands of high school students, from a dozen novels selected by the Académie Goncourt.

Photo © Drouant, Facebook

Who chooses?

The winners are chosen by the 10 members of the Goncourt Academy, a group of highly respected French writers. While their deliberations are shrouded in secrecy, it is known that they meet monthly over a meal in a special oval-shaped room at the Drouant restaurant in Paris. And they even have special silverware! As members leave the Academy, their silverware is passed on to the person replacing them, with the names of each engraved on the handles.

Photo ©


Any good prize needs some controversy, and the Goncourt has had its share, starting with the fact that 90% of its winners are men. Not Colette? No Yourcenar? Unfortunately, these great authors are absent.

And they are not alone. While the list of winners includes some of the most important names in modern French literature, such as Proust, de Beauvoir and Modiano, the list of missing is equally notable, including Camus, Sartre and Celine.

Some suspect that horse trading between members may be a reason for their patchy record. Academy members serve for decades, unlike the Pulitzer and Booker, which makes side deals possible. And they have been suspected of sometimes currying favor with the government, as when Vuillard The agenda won in 2017. It did not go unnoticed that the book was published by Actes Sud, whose CEO had recently been appointed Minister of Culture.

And the august members of the Académie Goncourt can sometimes be deceived. Authors are only allowed to win the Goncourt once, but Romain Gary has decided to try a second time. He creates the false identity of Émile Ajar, with his cousin playing the role of the “reclusive” author, and wins again. The truth wasn’t discovered until after Gary’s death.

Find the perfect reading

Most of the Goncourt Prize winners have been translated into English and provide an excellent introduction to modern French literature. Some even became movies, like the 2016 winner The perfect nannyor 1975 The life to comerecently made into a Netflix movie starring Sophia Loren.

For those ready to dive, here is the list of all the winners of the Goncourt prize, while the winners of the related high school prize can be found here.


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