Read any good books lately? Fancy something a bit more challenging for your next read? Try one of the world’s Top 10 Longest Novels. It’s hard to define exactly what constitutes a long novel, as some come in more than one volume, which is counted, but others are more of a series (like the “Harry Potter” books), which aren’t allowed as the books were published separately and were mainly self-contained. There’s also differences of opinion over whether word count or page count should be the measuring tool….but at the end of all that debate, here’s our list, including volumes and ranked by word count:
10. Sironia, Texas
At 840,000 words, this novel was declared “the longest novel by an American” when it was released on New Year’s Day 1952. It was published in two volumes to accommodate the 1,700 pages and told the story of a small town in Texas called Sironia at the turn of the century. It was a bestseller for 11 weeks and hugely popular, but came in for a lot of criticism from residents of Waco, Texas who felt that the novel was based on real goings-on in Waco, where author Madison Cooper lived, and that their secrets had been exposed, along with those of the fictitious Sironians. Still, it sold 25,000 copies and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award, so Cooper probably thought it was worth it!
There are some novels that feel daunting to read, and most of the ones on that list probably fall into that category. Then there are others where even the summary is daunting to read, like this 850,000-word epic by Joseph McElroy. It spans around a century and a half’s worth of events, from 1834 to 1977, and is arranged non-chronologically….in fact, the arrangement might seem entirely non-logical as well as being non-chronological. There are three different types of chapters – the ones with upper case titles or normal title case titles are straightforward narratives, or as straightforward as this book gets.
The ones with lower case titles are self-contained short stories about some of the characters involved in the plot, and can be skipped (some of these were also published separately). Then there are the chapters with titles in upper case including the word “BREATHER”, which are Greek-tragedy-like chorus narrations, with a group of angels addressing someone who is imprisoning them. Obviously. The actual plot involves Jim and Grace, who live in the same apartment block, have multiple connections both in real life and Grace’s dreams, but do not know each other. And from there, the novel goes off in seemingly a million different directions with obtuse moments, like missing character names or very long sentences. Best described as “postmodern literature“.
Another epic novel, this time from Australian author Xavier Herbert. It’s the story of Australia in the period before World War Two, dealing with issues such as aborigine rights and the forming of the country. The main character has a white father and an aborigine mother but longs to become a witch doctor in the Rainbow Snake Tribe, and it follows his life in the dusty Northern Territory. It was published in 1975 and won the Miles Franlkin Award. At 852,000 words it remains the longest Australian novel ever written, and some say it’s also the best Australian novel ever written. It certainly has a level of detail that only someone who had lived and been immersed in the country could have added and as well as that it takes in the scope of the world situation of the 1930s and 40s, with a character arriving from Nazi Germany. An epic indeed.
This historical novel was written in Tamil, and took 3 and a half years to write. The result was a 900,000 word novel, telling the story of Raja Raja Chola I, one of the great Chola kings, who reigned from 985 to 1014. In the novel, he’s known as Prince Arulmozhivarman, and he has to fight against conspirators, unexpected half-siblings and political machinations in his bid for the throne. In this he’s aided by his friend and messenger Vandiyathevan, as well as a huge cast of other characters. it was written by Kalki Krishnamurthy, an Indian writer an political activist, who travelled to Sri Lanka three times in the course of writing the novel, in order to authentically replicate the novel’s setting. It was published as a series in a magazine in the 1950s and remains one of the greatest works of Tamil literature.
Published in 1984, this Persian novel consists of 10 volumes and 950,000 words. It was written by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, an actor and campaigner as well as a writer, and tells the story of a Kurdish family in Sabzevar, Iran between 1946 and 1949. The Kalmiši family fight with their neighbors and endure hardships in the tense political climate of mid-century Iran, as their animals die of the plague and their men kill each other, fighting out rivalries. There is daughter Mārāl, jailed father Abdus and a host of other characters who come in and out of the plot over the 10 books. It has been translated into German and part-translated into English but is not very readily available.
In case you can’t tell by the wordy dual titles, this next novel is an 18th century one. It was published in 1748, by English writer Samuel Richardson and estimates put the word count as 984,870. On the surface, it may resemble a Regency-era comedy of manners – a family trying to break into the nobility through advantageous marriages – but it pre-dates the genteel Austen novels and actually has quite a dark side, with the title character being kidnapped and raped before dying of an unspecified disease (tragic heroines often did that in the 18th and 19th centuries). It was named as one of the 100 best novels of all time, and many people have sung its praises, including Samuel Johnson, who called it “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” A long and involved read, but apparently a good one!
The title of this Norwegian book may look familiar, and that’s deliberate – it’s the Norwegian for “Mein Kampf”, the book Hitler wrote while in prison. Published in six volumes between 2009 and 2011, they were autobiographical novels which revealed details of author Karl Ove Knausgård’s life and family, not always in a flattering way. His ex-wife, Tonje Aursland, was particularly annoyed by his portrayal of her and has given interviews to try and repair her reputation. It’s lost him friends, but won him fame with the million-word novel selling 450,000 copies in Norway – around one copy for every 10 people in the country. He may have documented his struggle, but he isn’t struggling any more…
We’re back in self-referencing, post-modern territory again, with this 1970 German novel by Arno Schmidt. He began writing it whilst translating the works of Edgar Allan Poe into German, and it’s all about a man who is translating the works of Edgar Allan Poe into German. The novel takes place at 4AM in the Lüneburg Heath in Germany, and the main character is called Daniel Pagenstecher. It’s arranged in three columns, which sometimes include collages, and the total word count is around 1,100,000, making it the longest novel ever to be written in one volume. It’s also fairly abstract, which makes it a challenging read, inspired by the equally obtuse “Finnegan’s Wake”.
Our top two novels are both French, starting with this 7-volume epic by Marcel Proust. It is translated variously as “Remembrance of Things Past” and the more literal “In Search of Lost Time” and it has been available in English as long as it has been French – both were first published between 1922 and 1930. The novel has many complex themes, but the recurring one is that of involuntary memory – the way that a taste or a smell revives memories previously buried. It follows the life of the narrator in a long and rambling way, as he learns about love and art.
There are strong homosexual overtones, with one volume entitled “Sodom and Gomorrah”, in reference to sodomy (Proust was gay but not openly so). One of the definitive works of French literature and, at 1,267,069 words, one of the longest. It also holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Novel.
But despite what Guinness think, there is a novel longer than Proust’s, and it’s this 17th work by Madeleine de Scudéry (often attributed to her brother Georges), which clocks in at an astounding 2,100,000 words. It’s the tale of Cyrus the Great, and like many of de Scudéry’s works it featured portraits of contemporary society figures, thinly disguised as classic characters from Roman, Greek or Persian mythology. It was published in ten volumes between 1649 and 1653 and apparently owes its length to wordy conversations between characters and repeated abductions of the heroine. Still, they were popular at the time due to the famous figures contained in the stories and still holds the record for longest novel ever published.