Literary Trilogies I can recommend to book reading groups and all book lovers

Prompted by Hilary Mantel’s successes with the first two volumes of her projected trilogy on the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, and the possibility of laying a bet that she will win a third Booker Prize in two or three years time, I looked back over several of the literary trilogies I have enjoyed over the years.

Starting very seriously, Elias Canetti wrote his autobiography in three volumes. The first, The Tongue Set Free, came out in 1977 and painted a fascinating picture of his European childhood starting in an almost Oriental and medieval, pre-WW1 Bulgaria and roaming over Manchester, Vienna and Zurich between 1905 and 1921. Canetti inevitably became a polyglot as well as a polymath. His student days and early adult life are described with equal verve in The Torch in my Ear, the title being a passing reference to his fascination with the Viennese critic (of everything) Karl Kraus and his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch), every word of which Kraus wrote himself. The final volume, The Play of the Eyes, covering his years in Vienna from 1931 to 1937, was published in 1985. All Canetti senses were tuned up to let his tongue, his ears and his eyes record and report that tragic period where it seemed nothing could be (and certainly nothing was) done to avert the catastrophe that followed. He gives portraits drawn/written from life of friends and rivals such as Robert Musil, Alban Berg and Alma Mahler (to name only three). Already in 1981 Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and, of his fiction, I would strongly recommend Auto da Fé. In his latter years he was in Hampstead and our paths crossed one day there, while I was reading that novel. Alas, we did not speak.

Another ‘foreigner’ who wrote a trilogy I admire is Jean Paul Sartre. The three books are grouped together as Roads to Freedom and start with The Age of Reason set in Paris in the summer of 1938. It describes the events of only two days when the central character, Mathieu Delarue, is trying to raise money for an abortion for his partner of seven years. It skilfully conveys the ambiguity involved in making choices at a time when people were taking sides and expressing conflicting views on almost everything. The second volume, The Reprieve, takes the characters through September 1938 as the whole of Europe awaits the outcome of the Munich conference that might, just might, grant the continent a reprieve from the looming threat of another major war. Some cannot bear to look the future in the face. Sartre’s final book of the trilogy, Iron in the Soul, makes the characters face up to the reality of France’s defeat. Some of them simply shrugged and adapted. Some managed to run away. A few, like the central character, Mathieu, played (as did Sartre) an active part in the Resistance.

Both Canetti’s and Sartre’s trilogies are essential documents of the particular periods of the twentieth century they cover. The same maybe cannot be said of two trilogies by the Canadian Robertson Davies, who managed to write not just one but three trilogies. He seemed to be able to quarry longer at a seam of characters and plots than most writers and his total output is prodigious and very readable. He was a writer, playwright, actor and academic. I commend The Salterton Trilogy which deals with the lives of the good (and the bad) citizens of the fictional Salterton somewhere in Canada where, behind a façade of a dreamy old-world city, with its two cathedrals, its university and its seeming order, the men and women get on with the scheming and dealing that is the real life of the town. The three titles are Tempest Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties.

A searing trilogy which uses fiction to underline vital truths about man’s inhumanity to man, is Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ novels: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. The final novel very deservedly won the 1995 Booker Prize reflecting its beautifully written conclusion of the story that blends fictionalised real characters like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Owen and the psychiatrist W H R Rivers who had the care of the two poets at one stage when they were in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh where officers who were traumatised by their time at the front were nursed back to a state of health just sufficient to allow them to be sent back again to fight the war to end all wars. The inexplicable paradox is that so many wanted to go back. They include the fictional Billy Prior, promoted from the ranks. While much of the three books narrate the story as seen from the interior perspectives of the characters, the final shift into third person narration is as powerful as the shift from C major to E in the closing bars of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. It is very satisfying to know that the books are well read in secondary school as well as studied in depth at university.

Lawrence Durrell does not qualify because he wrote both a quartet and a quincunx but do read The Alexandria Quartet which, in essence, tells the same story from four different points of view. Durrell felt the series could be extended indefinitely but I’m glad he stopped at four. However, the American novelist Richard Ford, whose latest book is Canada, has written three books covering the life around the end of the twentieth century of his American protagonist, the sportswriter Frank Bascombe. I have them on my desk as I write and they are my next reading project before meeting Ford next month at the Royal Society of Literature.

Have you any trilogies to recommend? Please tell me.

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