5. Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
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!
4. Min Kamp
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…
3. Zettels Traum
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”.
2. À la recherche du temps perdu
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.
1. Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus
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.