MULTIVOLUME SERIES--the family saga, the roman-fleuve (the "river-novel"), the trilogy, or the quartet, for example--resemble, in some ways, individual novels. Some feature a single family or a protagonist, such as John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. Others, such as Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, while centering on one or two principal characters, rely on an ensemble cast, whose members appear and reappear at different intervals. Whatever the approach, the primary characters must be sufficiently compelling to support extended treatment over several books. Some series authors rely on a tried-and-true formula, like that of P. G. Wodehouse: Bertie Wooster finds himself in a pickle; Jeeves suggests a way out; the scheme proceeds, more or less; all comes right in the end, with a twist. The stories in these multivolume series succeed because of plot and style rather than an in-depth exploration of character. In addition, the individual volumes of a series can either be related to one another, or not: many, like the novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, can stand alone; others, like the volumes in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, cannot.
Below we present a sampling of classic literary fiction series by region, focusing on the 19 th and 20th centuries. Is our sampling representative? Not really, but it does contain compelling snapshots of people, places, and eras. While we don't wish to ignore the excellent series in other genres (such as crime writer Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley series or science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books), that's material for another time.
The Rougon-Macquart Cycle (1871-1893)
By Emile Zola
Emile Zola, as famous for his political activism and his role in the Dreyfus affair as for his books, is a great place to start for readers interested in classic series novels. The Rougon-Macquart cycle (subtitled "The natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire") is the collective title given to Zola's series of 20 novels that explore the life of a fictional family living under Napoleon III (1852-1870).
Zola, a realist writer, was primarily concerned with the social and environmental influences that he believed dictated people's fates. Theories of naturalism underlie these novels, which are about two branches of a family stemming from a common ancestress. Each tangled line--one legitimate, one illegitimate--allowed Zola to paint a complex portrait of "a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world." The Rougons, petty bourgeoisie, embody the rising middle class; the Macquarts, disreputable outcasts, experience the negative consequences of the Second Empire's economic growth.
The series opens with The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), and although the novels can be read in order of publication, each can stand on its own. Of those in recent English translations, Germinal (1885) is considered Zola's masterpiece. Through the story of idealistic migrant worker Etienne Lantier, Zola examines the violent coalminers' strike in northern France in the 1860s. The Human Beast (1890), a chilling murder mystery, features Jacques Lantier, a sexual predator modeled on Jack the Ripper. The Drinking Den (or The Dram Shop) (1877), which established Zola's reputation, offers a brutal depiction of poverty through the downward spiral of Gervaise Macquart. Nana (1880) continues the story through Gervaise's daughter, who "rises" from streetwalker to high-class prostitute. Money (1891), which satirizes the financial world of the Second French Empire, is perhaps the most accessible to readers. The cycle concludes with Doctor Pascal (1893), which ties up loose ends from the entire cycle. As might be expected, there are quite a few.
The Palliser Novels (1864-1879)
By Anthony Trollope
Titles: Can You Forgive Her? (1864), Phineas Finn (1869), The Eustace Diamonds (1873), Phineas Redux (1874), The Prime Minister (1876), The Duke's Children (1879)
Like a great deal of 19th-century English literature, the themes of Anthony Trollope's six linked novels are marriage (and its sexual politics) and money. In a society where earning a living through "trade" was considered declasse, numerous chancers of both sexes sought to capitalize on their charm, their sexual attraction, their titles, or their wits for an alliance with a good fortune. As in our day, money was the mother's milk of politics. In mid-19th century England, politics was the battleground where moral struggle was waged, long before it was transferred to the commercial arena. Trollope weaves these strands, along with social commentary, into a fascinating tale.
In the Palliser novels, the traditional ideals of the upper class--decency, cultivation, duty, and honor--are challenged by forces that oppose or compromise them and by the limitations and vices of the characters. The leading characters, Plantagenet Palliser, nephew and heir of the Duke of Omnium, and Phineas Finn, a young MP (member of Parliament) from Ireland, represent the political and social struggles of the period from the perspectives of an insider (Plantagenet) and an outsider (Phineas). Palliser enters the cabinet as chancellor of the exchequer with a passion for reforming the monetary system, and by the...