Writing a Sequence of Great Novels

16 Jul

I’ve just finished reading The Rebels by the Hungarian author, Sándor Márai. Its atmosphere was pleasingly surreal and it contained some wonderfully executed set pieces. Márai wrote a number of novels in the 1930s and 1940s that weren’t translated into English until comparatively recently and so only now are being discovered by modern readers. I was impressed enough with The Rebels to try another.

There are numerous books that I’ve enjoyed reading, and a smaller number that I’ve loved. I have my favourite authors, of course, all or most of whose works I’ve read. Some writers have even written several books that I hold in the highest regard (Perec, Sebald and the deeply unfashionable, Graeme Greene, for example). And then there’s that select band of writers to whom I’ve referred before and who, from the outset of their writing careers, published one fine novel after another. I’m sure that readers of this post will have their own contenders in mind (please feel free to share them on this blog). Many would argue for Austen or Dickens, say (authors for whom I admit a blind spot). I would choose the first five novels by William Golding. The composition of Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall and The Spire seems to me an unrivalled achievement. More obscure and largely out of print are the first five novels of Rex Warner. The Wild Goose Chase, The Professor, The Aerodrome, Why Was I Killed? and Men of Stones form a hugely impressive sequence. These books have in common a quality that I admire, each is different from its predecessor. It’s a great joy as a reader to discover these sequences, reading them one by one and remaining spellbound. Omitting A Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell’s novels remain a formidable presence. More recently, Magnus Mills looked like he might be a contender with the publication of his superb first and second efforts, The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express. I read each of his next four novels with an increasing sense of disappointment.

This refers to published novels, of course. Golding wrote three earlier novels, I believe, before he eventually found a publisher with Lord of the Flies. I recently re-watched Five Minutes with Iain Banks on BBC iPlayer. Banks noted that he’d also written several novels before The Wasp Factory was published. The interview was notable in two other regards. The interviewer cheerfully declared that he was only part of the way through The Wasp Factory. You’d have thought he’d have finished reading that slim volume before interviewing its author. I was also struck by how full of life Banks seemed so soon before his premature death. If we relaxed the rules a little and ignored earlier, inferior works or later works when the writers powers were diminishing, there’d be further contenders. Some writers manage to have their earliest work published. Others don’t. Some writers, like Banks and Orwell, die early so we never find out if their writing would have trailed off. Some simply stop writing novels altogether (E.M. Forster, for instance, for whose novels some might make a claim).

There’s a further connection here. In creating these sequences, some writers appear to exhaust their novelistic resources. Upon completing The Spire in 1964, Golding published no new novel until Darkness Visible in 1979. The same was true of the brilliant comic novelist, Michael Frayn. He wrote five superb novels between 1965 and 1973, then nothing until 1989 (he did, though, write a series of highly regarded plays). I don’t have time for a 15-year drought. I’d probably be in my box before I got anything else finished…

The creation of such a sequence must be what every writer aspires to, I should have thought. As far as my own works are concerned, there are three that I’ve disowned and a further two novellas which remained unpublished. If by some miracle, then, my war novel were to find a sympathetic publisher, it would be my ‘first’ fictional work. I’d be loath to make any great claims for my own work but it’s the best thing that I’ve written and my readers seem to have liked it so far (see here). And that would make the work in progress my second. It’s coming along quite nicely and is certainly different from the war novel, that’s for sure. Time will tell.

I’m dipping into the Icelandic Sagas at present then I’ll be turning my thoughts to what to read over the summer break. Márai is a possibility. I’ve yet to read Mills’ latest novel. I’m not sure that I’ll be giving him a seventh chance…


The work of the great Norwegian sculptor, Gutsav Vigeland – surely influenced by the Icelandic Sagas

All text and image © PSR 2013


2 Responses to “Writing a Sequence of Great Novels”

  1. Mari Biella July 21, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Hi, Paul – for some reason WordPress has stopped sending email notifications to me when new posts are added to the blogs I’m following, so I didn’t read this post until today. I’m going to have to delve into the intricate inner workings of the WordPress system to see if I can rectify the situation…

    Writing a sequence of great novels is surely what we all aspire to. Orwell and Graeme Greene would certainly figure on my own personal list of favourites, especially the latter: I’ve read ‘The End of the Affair’, ‘The Power and the Glory’, and ‘Brighton Rock’ countless times, and never failed to find something new and intriguing with each reading. I can’t say that I’ve read anything by Rex Warner, so I’ll have to see if I can hunt down some of his books, though if he’s become so obscure in recent years this may prove tricky… I’m a fan of Dickens (as I am of Victorian literature in general) and would certainly add him to a list of my own great ‘serial novelists’. Only ‘Oliver Twist’ strikes a slightly false note to my mind, but this may be due to changing tastes – the Victorian tendency toward sentimentality is not much in favour these days!

    I should have thought it would take far less than a ‘miracle’ for your war novel to find a publisher, though admittedly I have very little idea exactly what publishers are looking for these days… Still, if you persist I’m sure you’ll get somewhere eventually (and I shall be pestering you for a signed copy!).

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves July 21, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments.

    Ah, ‘The End of the Affair’, ‘The Power and the Glory’… what a writer Greene was! If you’re going to seek out Warner, ‘The Aerodrome’ is the easiest to find and the best place to start. The blurb on the mock-up of my war novel describes it as ‘a dialogue with the ghosts of Rex Warner and Joseph Heller’, so he’s been a big influence on my writing. And you may remember what that local village was called. Everything’s there for a reason! Thanks for the words of encouragement and for being a member of that tiny band of readers/writers who have faith in my fictional endeavours. It’s nearly reached double figures!

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