Long works of fiction — collections of novels that tell the stories of one or more characters — have been features of the literary scene for a long time. The oldest I can think of and that I’ve actually read in English translation is the Japanese epic “The Tale of Genji”, that Lady Murasaki wrote in the 11th century AD — stories of the loves and battles of a charismatic prince.
In the western world, the 18th century English novel “Tom Jones” fills three volumes. But apart from a major exception I’ll get to shortly, series of novels didn’t come to prominence till the 20th century. Here are a few examples:
- “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy.
- The underrated “Parade’s End” about World War One by Ford Madox Ford.
- The “Regeneration” trilogy also about World War One by Pat Barker.
- “The Sword of Honor” set during World War Two by Evelyn Waugh .
- The twelve volume “Dance of the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell
- A series about Frederica Potter and others that starts with “The Babel Tower” by A. S. Byatt.
- The Snopes trilogy by William Faulkner.
- “The Deptford Trilogy” by the Canadian Robertson Davies.
- The mountaintop in the form is doubtless Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”.
- A proliferation of multi-novel series is now available on the internet as ebooks and often in print. I’m now reading the first novels of two: one by Christopher Gray, the other by Robert Hobkirk.
To me, it’s remarkable that so many novel sequences are available, when up-to-date folks tell us that the number of readers is going down and that people concentrate only in short spurts. We can usually find more to life than what current statistics tell us.
Novel sequences can bring readers several benefits:
- Prose versions of whole societies while they focus on several lives.
- Worlds to lose ourselves in and explore.
- They give authors and readers space and scope to explore thoroughly characters and situations.
- Like other works of art, they can inspire readers and writers to stretch themselves.
In regard to the last point, I can mention that a five-novel series of my own called “Witnesses” is available as an ebook on kindle and as paperback on Create Space. The first novel is called “In the Time of the Scythians” Links: as ebook and as paperback
As for the exception I referred to, the German writer Goethe wrote a multi-volume novel called “Wilhelm Meister”. He divided his novel into two parts: Wilhelm’s “Apprenticeship” and his “Years of Travel”. He worked on it for decades, from the 1770’s through the 1820’s. His labor received a reward, for it’s now considered the first novel about a person’s education or “bildungsroman”. It came to be regarded highly after his death. Schopenhauer, for example, called it one of the four great novels. He said: “Where we were looking for pleasure, happiness and joy, we often find instruction, insight and knowledge, a lasting and real benefit in place of a fleeting one. This idea runs like a bass-note through Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister; for this is an intellectual novel and is of a higher order than the rest.” (quote from wikipedia).
Goethe didn’t follow novelistic conventions. He relied on narrative, “telling” rather than “showing” and didn’t take the trouble to devise a plot. A couple of features stand out for me as I move into re-reading the second volume of the “Apprenticeship”. Goethe and his hero both enjoyed the privileges of the upper middle class — money, confidence, ease of movement. but he had a wide rather than narrow view of society. He included in his story members of the old German aristocracy and also working people, actors, and gave a sense that society worked well, in spite of numerous complaints. Apart from a band of vicious robbers. all contributed to the welfare of the whole. An old, eccentric, impoverished harpist and his young female companion Mignon stand out as creations of a first-rate artist. At least as an author, Goethe appeared to lack the snobbery that we often associate with exceptionally fortunate people.
A related feature is the spirit of the piece. Even in the midst of crisis, Wilhelm acts as if all will go well and works to impart his assurance to others. I found his kindness to Mignon and the harpist especially memorable during my first reading of this story and look forward to reading again a sublime moment that comes later on.
This work has more to offer than I’ve hinted here. I have no doubt that as is the case with other long novels, readers will make their way to Wilhelm Meister for inspiration and a writer’s knowledge of life…even in today’s world.