Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Long books

I thought that given I have a lot of extra time on the train to work (not by choice), I would at least try to take advantage of it by reading longer novels than I have in the immediate past.  Which has, in turn, led me to think more about long-form creative works, primarily long novels.  I never had much patience for book-length poems (minor exceptions granted for Homer and Dante).  In fact, I recently dipped into bp nichol's The Martyrology and frankly found it unbearable.  I will probably slog my way through Pound's Cantos, but really do not enjoy it at all (but it took me so long to find at a reasonable price that I feel sort of compelled to finish -- and then sell it off again!).  I'll have a few comments on how the long-form novel has changed over time towards the end of the post.

I'm not entirely sure what was the longest book or book series I have read.  It's probably a toss-up between Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (12 novels!) and Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels (6 quite long novels).  I actually skipped right over Trollope's Barsetshire series, but will probably get to that some day.  The 3 volume edition of Burton's translation of 1001 Nights is certainly long, but not quite in that league.

Anyway, this is a bit on my mind as I just wrapped up Dostoevsky's The Idiot and am partway through Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It can feel like quite an accomplishment just reading such a long work, though some go more smoothly and/or quickly than others.  I found myself fairly bored by The Idiot (and wondering whether I would have liked it more as a young man than as a grumpier middle-aged man).  But Anna Karenina is going fairly well so far.  Obviously, the achievement of reading a long novel is nowhere near that of writing even a short novel (or play),* but it is still an achievement, particularly in the current era where attention spans are so short. 

Drawing a somewhat arbritrary line at approximately 600 pages for "long" novels, these are the long books (mostly novels) that I can recall reading, though a series that adds up to over 600 pages can also be included if so desired.  They are listed in rough order of completion (that is, when I completed reading them):

1001 Nights (Burton trans.)
Zelazny The Chronicles of Amber (tho' generally not worth counting SF/fantasy series)  
Ariosto Orlando Furioso
Boccaccio The Decameron
Herman Melville Moby Dick (reread in 2015 before seeing Lookinglass's version)
Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov
Dante The Divine Comedy

Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago
(an odd combination of memoir and non-fiction -- the original in 3 vols is far too long but the abridgement looks like it has promise)
Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers
Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
Malory Le Morte D'Arthur

Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel 
John Nichols New Mexico Trilogy (The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, The Nirvana Blues) (the third is so oddly different from the first two)
George Meredith The Egoist 
Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy
Charles Dickens Bleak House
Anthony Trollope the Palliser novels

Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook (may reread one of these days)
James Joyce Ulysses
(twice)
Thomas Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow
Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (twice)
Cervantes Don Quixote 
Henry Fielding Tom Jones
Lawrence Durrell Alexandria Quartet

Vargas Llosa The War of the End of the World
Paul Goodman The Empire City 
Armistead Maupin Tales of the City
   (read 6 of the 9 books in the series -- may get back to this though wasn't that crazy about #5 and 6.)
Rushdie Midnight's Children
Anne Sexton The Complete Poems
Frank O'Hara The Collected Poems
Saul Bellow The Adventures of Augie March

V.S. Naipaul A House For Mr Biswas 
Davies The Deptford Trilogy
Paul Blackburn The Collected Poems
Leslie Marmon Silko Almanac of the Dead

Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene
Ford Madox Ford Parade's End 

Davies The Salterton Trilogy 
Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixon: A Novel
Don DeLillo Underworld

Davies The Cornish Trilogy 
Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance 

Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible
Powell A Dance to the Music of Time (read while living in Cambridge, UK)
Roberto Bolano The Savage Detectives
  (This certainly felt like 600 pages, even if it came up a bit short.  Did not care for it.)
Skvorecky The Engineer of Human Souls 
George Eliot The Mill on the Floss
Dostoevsky The Idiot
Tolstoy Anna Karenina 
Mahfouz The Cairo Trilogy
Proust A Remembrance of Things Past (what a long and largely unrewarding slog)
Robert Creeley Collected Poems 1945-75
Gunther Grass The Tin Drum
Dostoevsky Demons
Alexander Herzen My Past and Thoughts 
Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky
Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy
Dos Passos The U.S.A. Trilogy 
Maugham Of Human Bondage
George Eliot Middlemarch 
David Foster Wallace The Pale King (paperback is just a few pages sky of 600)    
William Makepeace Thackeray Vanity Fair
Karen Tei Yamashita  I Hotel
Murakami 1Q84 (not worth the effort to read this)
   
Next are long books in my immediate future (off my extended TBR
pile):

Ezra Pound The Cantos
Louis Gluck Poems 1962-2012
William Faulkner The Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) 
Rezzori The Death of My Brother Abel
Arnold Bennett The Old Wives' Tale   (one of the few books I was assigned to read in undergrad but just couldn't -- oops)  
Grossman Life and Fate
Tolstoy War and Peace
Doris Lessing Children of Violence (Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, The Four-Gated City)
Anthony Trollope The Way We Live Now
John Updike The Rabbit novels
John Fante The Bandini Quartet 
Musil The Man Without Qualities  

In the distant future but with a reasonable chance** I will get there:

Balzac Lost Illusions
E.F. Benson The Mapp and Lucia novels 

T.C. Boyle Stories
T.C. Boyle Stories II
Anthony Burgess The Complete Enderby
Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers

Joyce Cary First Trilogy (Herself Surprised, To Be a Pilgrim, The Horse’s Mouth)
Cary Second Trilogy (Prisoner of Grace, Except the Lord, Not Honour More) 
Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Dickens -- all the remaining novels

Elliot Daniel Deronda
Leon Forrest Divine Days

Carlos Fuentes Terra Nostra
William Gaddis The Recognitions

Gaskell Wives and Daughters
Alasdair Gray Lanark
Eric Kraft The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy  (I've read about 60% of the books in this series and will try to start again from the beginning and read it all through -- someday.  Brilliantly funny.) 
Doris Lessing Stories
Munif The Cities of Salt Trilogy
Alvaro Mutis The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (I've read 3 of 7 of the novellas in the series)
Charles Olson The Maximus Poems
Charles Palliser
(you just have to wonder if this is a pen name) The Quincunx
Perec Life: A User's Manual 

John Cowper Powys Wolf Solent
Thomas Pynchon Against the Day
Julian Rios Larva

Philip Roth Zuckerman Bound & Exit Ghost (the original trilogy, which I have read, falls short but crosses the finish line when Exit Ghost is added.  I'll probably have to reread the whole thing when I finally get around to Exit Ghost)
Soseki I am a Cat
Steinbeck East of Eden
Anthony Trollope The Chronicles of Barsetshire
Anthony Trollope He Knew He Was Right
Evelyn Waugh Sword of Honour Trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender)
Edmund White Trilogy (A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony)
Zukofsky A (a book-length poem)
Stefan Zweig The Collected Stories


I guess the biggest question with works of this length is simply if it is worth it.  I actually have more patience with series of novels rather than really outsize novels themselves.  (One exception was Parade's End, which I didn't enjoy at all, and of which I have repressed all memories...)  With few exceptions, I have always wished that novels that run to 600+ pages wrap things up by 500.  When reading Ellison's Juneteenth, it felt like 800 pages (though it was only 400 or so).  I can't begin to imagine reading the whole enchilada (i.e. Three Days Before the Shooting) which runs over 1100!  Of course, only Ellison aficionados would even attempt to read such a thing, so the reviews are all glowing, but I am sure I would find it completely intolerable.

I suspect that I am one of those readers who values plot and yet is also interested in ideas/philosophy buried in novels, which is why Dostovsky and Grossman and to a slightly lesser extent Tolstoy are high on my list of successful long novels.  I am not terribly interested in mimetic recreations of dialogue (or epistolary fiction!), which is how many long novels achieve their length -- one conversation piled on top of another on top of another.  That was actually the biggest weakness for me of The Idiot.  It seemed much more static than any of his other novels and featured such a passive central character.***

It goes without saying that when writers were paid by the word, they had more incentive to go long.  Many of the novels on this list fall into this category.  They tend towards the picturesque, where episodes can be piled up. Interestingly, "character" is not revealed gradually.  It is far more typical that character is announced upfront and simply reconfirmed in episode after episode.  As you can tell, I don't care for novels of this type.  (In my experience, George Eliot is the worst offender in this camp.)  Dickens and to a lesser extent Trollope at least have the decency to pile up new plot points as the page count mounts, even if this sometimes means having to get kind of baroque about the main characters and their travails.

Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a swing towards shorter novels with tighter plots.  Or in the case of the Modernists (with the exception of Joyce), short novels heavily imbued with symbolic import.

This trend towards shorter novels (easier to produce, market and consume) continues today, though there are always a few serious writers who try to stand out from the crowd by writing particularly long novels.


* I have actually written a couple of plays, but have a long way to go until I have even a chance of writing one of my long-delayed novels.


** I could certainly add a lot of other long books, but some of them I am almost sure I will never read.  Joyce's Finnegan's Wake for instance and most likely not The Tale of Genji. These long books are actually on my shelves or are at least not buried too deeply in storage boxes.

***  The real acid test for me is, after having read one of these mega-novels, would I consider reading it again.  I did read Pickwick Papers a second time, but didn't enjoy it as much the second time around.  I read Midnight Children a second time and definitely thought it dragged the second time around.  Either I am more critical on second readings, or I simply feel more time-constrained and value novels differently in my 40s than in my 20s or early 30s.  However, I've read Ulysses twice and would consider reading it a third time.  Also I'm pretty sure I did read Ellison's Invisible Man twice and might read it a third time.  Nonetheless, for the most part, I will hold off on second readings, simply because I have too many other books that need a first reading!

1 comment:

  1. I have only read Moby Dick, well, actually I listened to the audiobook. I am glad I did, thought it was over 20 hours. I listened to the first half, and then time elapsed, so I started at the beginning again. I don't regret that, though I don't think I would ever read it again. I also listened to the audiobook The Passage by Justin Cronin. That was 36 hours. I am contemplating listing to it again. I don't have a problem with a long book as long as the author is not long winded. It needs to have a good plot that moves along, not plods. Books around 600 pages are a good read, around 750 I consider a long read. those over 1000 I wonder whether they should have been two books.

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