I read a lot, but until recently I hadn't actually read many French novels, even the "great" ones, in French. I did get all the way through Remembrance of Things Past in English, the Scott Moncrieff version; but Nancy Mitford, who learned French as a child and lived most of her life in France, believed out that Moncrieff took all the humor out of Proust. And Proust's transformation of the obviously-- to me-- male love interest "Albertine" into a woman and his pretense that the narrator wasn't gay, while gossiping a great deal about others who are, were like fingers scraping on the blackboard.
I tried to read Le Rouge et le Noir in college. It starts with a shy little boy crying and he goes on crying. He turns out to be the hero. I disliked him at first sight. I had also read Madame Bovary as a child (my father was a professor) and that probably warped my ideas, as the main character that interested me was Emma's little daughter, and the first chapter I read was the end of the book. I detested Emma for what she did to her girl! Even reading it as an adult, I kept wanting to just shake Emma for being so selfish. Then I read a few Balzac novels last year. He's a great writer, all right, but it is so hard to find anyone you like in his novels, or at least it has been for me. Reading his biography by Stefan Zweig, I understood that a bit better. Balzac spent his whole life social climbing (adding a de to his name along the way) and writing frantically to pay his bills. He never had a real family life and you can tell.
So I started Nana by Zola with low expectations. But it's so good! I am reading it in the métro and can't put it down. The differences between French literature and English literature are somewhat staggering for the naive, like me. I see why it was considered shocking for young girls to read "French novels." In the first chapter, the theater owner Bordenave calls his theater "my brothel" and we see a crowd of respectable and not so respectable Parisians at opening night of a musical that sounds fun to watch, about the gods of Olympus. Lucie Stewart, a demi-mondaine, "an ugly little woman in her forties... but so lively and graceful that she had a great charm," says to her friend the journalist, about Nana, "On m'a juré que tu avais couché avec." [They swore to me you slept with her.] In the last scene, the beautiful Nana appears in see-through gauze as Venus, nude "with a tranquil audacity," so that you can see the "golden hairs in her armpits" (!). Even though she can't act and can't sing, the audience succumbs to her charisma and sex appeal.
In the evenings this week, I've been watching the BBC production of Bleak House. It's funny and also significant to notice the difference between the respectability and even puritanism of British and American novels of this period-- Trollope and Thackeray, Dickens and Hardy, not to speak of Austen, Brontë and Gaskell-- and the French novels. I think it says something profound about the two societies as well. But I don't know which is more realistic, in the end. To paraphrase something I read once, fiction is more about sex, less about children. Real life is the reverse.