I’ve written a “Staying Inside Guide” piece for The Wall Street Journal about the novel sequence, highlighting three of my favorite authors who have worked in the genre. Here’s an excerpt.
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The French don’t always have a word for it, but their term for what in English is blandly known as a “novel sequence,” a series of novels tied together by shared characters and an overarching, all-encompassing story arc, is striking: They call it a roman-fleuve, a river-novel. The phrase was coined by Romain Rolland to describe “Jean-Christophe” (1904-12), his Nobel-winning 10-novel sequence, of which he said that it “has always seemed to me to flow like a river.” It has since acquired currency in our own language as well, not least because so many English novelists have also been drawn to the form. Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser novels are at least as well known to English-speaking readers as Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and Balzac’s “Human Comedy” are to the French….
To take on a roman-fleuve in a single go is the literary equivalent of binge-watching a TV series. Under normal circumstances it can seem daunting, but there is nothing normal about life in the coronavirus pandemic, and I suspect that far more readers than usual might feel like plunging into the alternate fictional world of a roman-fleuve, in which it is not merely possible but easy to get happily lost for hours at a time. To that end, I have three suggestions for those who’ve had more than enough of the horrors of the world around them and long to take a vacation from it, at least in their minds….
* * *Read the whole thing here.