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Trilogies & quartets

Short introductions to a few long works

July 1st, 2015

BY JOHN M. DANIEL

Many’s the time I’ve finished a novel and wished it could have gone on, that the story could continue, so I could spend more time with the characters and continue to enjoy the author’s brain and storytelling style. Of course I could reread the novel, and I often do, after a bit of time has elapsed. But what I really want is a continuation of the novel: an ongoing plot. I want to know what happens next.

This isn’t the case with all novels. Some wonderful stories are complete in one volume; and although I probably would enjoy reading more novels by the same good writer, I’m fully satisfied with where the one I have just finished, finished. But what a pleasure it has been when I knew I could go on to another step in the story’s journey. Or what a pleasant surprise to find out that a good story will live on in a sequel, for starters, and may turn into a trilogy or even a quartet of linked novels.

What follows is an annotated and opinionated list of sequential novels, books that belong to each other in threes and fours. In compiling the list I followed three self-imposed rules: (1) within each trilogy or quartet, each volume must be able to stand alone, but (2) together they form a narrative greater than the sum of its parts, and (3) I must have read the books, and I must have liked them enough to recommend them to others. I am presenting these in alphabetical order by authors’ last names, to overrule any tendency to rank the works.

The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner, is a collection I’ve read recently, and I thank our editor, Terry Ross, for bringing it to my attention. Consisting of four sequential novels, Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt, this is a work both hilarious and heart-breaking. Published in the 1970s, it tells the story of the decline and fall of Leo Bebb, a bloated but charismatic charlatan, as told by his son-in-law, Antonio Parr, who has fallen into Bebb’s employ and entourage in spite of his better judgment. This comic collection gets more and more outrageous, funnier, and sadder, book by book. It is an incisive portrayal of disorganized religion in America.

The Deptford Trilogy, by the amazing Robertson Davies, was also published in the 1970s, and it also concerns matters of the spirit, although this is the spirit as illuminated by Jungian psychology. The trilogy is made up of independent but linked novels: The Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. These books feature three characters who barely know each other, though they are tied by a common home town in Ontario. A snowball is hurled at a young lad, it misses the lad and hits a pregnant woman, causing a premature birth. The trilogy hinges on this seminal event, which in different ways has formed the characters of the three different protagonists.

I was introduced to Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet when I read the first novel, Justine, for a college class called “Forms of the Modern Novel.” I had a hard time with it because of its jumbled chronology, but I was blown away by the author’s use of language. So after college I went on to read the subsequent novels, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. To my relief and surprise, the story, set in the polyglot Egyptian city of Alexandria toward the beginning of World War II and the subsequent end of the British Empire, became clearer and clearer, and better and better, novel by novel, published from 1957 to 1960. Balthazar retells and clarifies many of the plot elements so obscured by the fancy writing in Justine, thanks to another character’s perspective; Mountolive deals with many of the same plot elements in a simple, chronological tale; and Clea carries the story forward, into a new time zone. After finishing the elegant and heartfelt Clea, I couldn’t help wondering how the confusing, pretentious, and overwritten Justine ever got published in the first place.

As I said, I’m presenting these oeuvres in alphabetical order (by author) to keep me from ranking them. But I can’t resist insisting that Jane Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, published from 2004 to 2013, is the best of the bunch. Stodgy Sir Edward Feathers has retired to Dorset after a brilliant career as a lawyer in Hong Kong and a respected judge in London. Betty is Edward’s wife, intelligent and romantic, loyal but bored. Terence Veneering is their next-door neighbor, who also happens to be Edward’s life-long rival in the legal field, and also a long-time rival for Betty’s affection. These and many other fascinating characters populate and intertwine in the three novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends. In the course of the trilogy, the past is uncovered, enlightening the present. This is a damned good threesome of novels about love and death. Gardam is not known well in the United States, but she should be. Her books are published here by Europa Editions.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s trilogy Annals of the Western Shore (2004-2007) probably doesn’t belong in this list, because the three novels, Gifts, Voices, and Powers are so complete individually, and the thread connecting them is secondary to the individual plots. But the three books are united in themes, as they all involve literacy and the independence of peaceful city states and their resistance to tyranny. And they all owe much to the guidance of Orrec and Gry, a couple who grow into their talents in the first novel and go on to help other people in other parts of the Western Shore stand up for themselves.

Much as I enjoyed the original Oz books when I was a young reader, I’m not including them in this list because the separate books don’t combine to form a common plot. However, the new Oz books known as The Wicked Years, by Gregory Maguire, do join together to build a common narrative arc, built of the novels, published from 1995 to 2011: Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz. The first, Wicked, is wonderful. It gives us a sympathetic understanding of the Witch of the West and explains her resistance to the tyranny of the Terrible Oz. The second volume, Son of a Witch, picks up the story in the next generation, with a gay protagonist who continues the fight. Books three and four are disappointing, but they bring the overall story to a satisfying closure. Altogether, this is good fantasy, and another tale of good versus evil.

My introduction to Christopher Moore was reading Bloodsucking Fiends, the first volume of his wildly funny Vampire Trilogy (1995-2010). Subsequent volumes are You Suck and Bite Me. There’s no real good or evil in these comedies, although there’s plenty of love and death. There’s also lots of danger and suspense. We root for our favorite vampire couple, Tommy and Jody, but their purpose is to make us laugh rather than teach us right from wrong. The setting is San Francisco, where anything goes, the crazier the better.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (1970-79) is a fine retelling of the King Arthur story from the point of view of Merlin, Arthur’s mentor and chief advisor. In the first volume, The Crystal Cave, Merlin tells of his own childhood, his journey to Byzantium in his search for wisdom, and the role he played in Arthur’s conception. The Hollow Hills is Merlin’s account of Arthur’s childhood, and in The Last Enchantment Merlin tells of Arthur’s years as king of Britain. Stewart wrote two follow-ups to the trilogy, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim, but these stand alone and are not part of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart is a fine writer, and her Merlin is a fine narrator. Together they cast a spell on this reader.

Okay, here it is, inevitably. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) always comes to mind whenever I hear the word “trilogy,” because all during the 1970s, while I worked in bookstores, teenagers (boys mainly) would come into the store and ask, “Have you got The Trilogy?” I don’t feel I need to say much to introduce the three books in The Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, because I imagine everybody has either read the books or seen the hugely successful movies of the same titles, produced and directed by Peter Jackson. I am sorry those movies were made, because I fear that seeing the movies will take the place of reading the books for many young people, who don’t read enough as it is. The pleasure of seeing three long movies is nowhere near as engrossing and transformative as the joy of reading these three long books for the first, or second, or third times. Short synopsis: short people, with the help of elves and dwarves, prevent the powers of darkness from taking over, in this marvelous, grand-scale, dualistic epic of good versus evil.

John Updike was one of the most important writers of his time, and one of the most prolific. He was a flawless stylist, and his fiction was brave and perceptive on the subjects that fascinated him: his own life, his own family, his own religious angst, the angst of the lower, middle, and upper classes, marriage, sex, adultery, and death. Sounds pretty self-absorbed, I know, but he’s such a good writer that he can’t lose. The first Updike novel I read was Rabbit, Run, the first in the quartet informally known as Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy (1960-1990). Rabbit, Run is about Harry Angstrom, a young married working-class man, whose lifetime glory (as a high-school basketball star) is already behind him. He’s married and discontented. He commits adultery and runs away from his wife. Updike went on to write three more Rabbit books, approximately one per decade, showing Harry Angstrom aging by decades: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. In each of them Harry is discontented and commits adultery to take the edge off his boredom. It’s my opinion that one Rabbit book would have been enough. I read all four, of course, but was less and less enchanted with Harry Angstrom and his angst as he got richer and older. For my money, Updike’s best work came early, in his stories and novels about lower-middle-class people in small-town Pennsylvania. My favorite is The Centaur, with Rabbit, Run a close second.

I’m happy to finish off with a long quartet that I’ve read three times, with growing pleasure and admiration. Here is another grand epic of good versus evil, another story of love and death, of laughter and tears. It’s about might versus right. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1938-1958) is a glorious retelling of the Arthurian legend. Book one, The Sword in the Stone, is about young boy Arthur being educated by Merlin, whose wisdom comes from living his life backwards. In the second novel, The Queen of Air and Darkness, young King Arthur is seduced by his wicked half-sister, who’s also the mother of a batch of sons who will become knights of the Round Table. Arthur’s dalliance with Morgause results in the birth of Mordred, a bad seed indeed. The Ill-Made Knight is about Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend and most trusted knight, who wants to be perfect and beautiful but knows that he’s ugly and sinful. He and Guinevere cannot resist fate or each other, and their adultery is another link in the chain of chaos. In The Candle in the Wind, all falls apart, and the civilization Arthur has brought to Britain turns to war and ashes. T.H. White has written a remarkable fantasy set in a fictitious time period that stretches from the Norman Invasion in 1066 to the War of the Roses, four hundred years later. I know I’ll read The Once and Future King again, before I reread any other series in this list. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Books and Authors, Daniel | Link to this Entry

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