Herman Wouk in the 1980s. (ABC/Getty Images.)
If authors have two or more great novels in them, those books might be written within a relatively short period of time before the creative well dries up a bit or a lot. But other authors have written great novels many years apart; this post will focus on several instances involving a more-than-quarter-century gap.
I’m currently reading War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s devastatingly superb 1,039-page opus about World War II and the Holocaust. That 1978 novel — which frequently focuses on the lives of the fictional Henry family: U.S. Navy man Victor, his never-boring wife Rhoda, their pilot son Warren, their go-getter daughter Madeline, and their submariner son Byron (married to a Jewish woman, Natalie, trapped in Europe) — was published 27 years after Wouk’s terrific The Caine Mutiny (1951). A fairly large gap for brilliant books.
Published exactly a century before The Caine Mutiny was Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick (1851), which predated Melville’s final stellar novel, Billy Budd, by nearly 40 years. Billy Budd was written shortly before the author’s 1891 death, and finally published posthumously in 1924.
Speaking of posthumous publication, Leo Tolstoy’s excellent short novel Hadji Murat came out in 1912 — two years after the author’s death and 45 years after the release of his legendary War and Peace (1867). Hadji Murat was written between 1896 and 1904 — still a long time after 1867.
Erich Maria Remarque’s memorable All Quiet on the Western Front came out in 1929, and his even-better-in-some ways The Night in Lisbon in 1962.
Just two years shorter than that impressive 33-year span was the time between Victor Hugo’s classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Miserables (1862).
Also clocking in at 31 years apart were Daphne du Maurier’s renowned Rebecca (1938) and her compelling time-travel novel The House on the Strand (1969).
How about a 44-year gap? Colette’s hilarious debut novel Claudine at School came out in 1900 and her most famous work, Gigi, in 1944. What I consider her best novel, The Vagabond, was published in 1910 — still 34 years before Gigi.
Also published in 1944 was W. Somerset Maugham’s gripping The Razor’s Edge — 29 years after his magnum opus Of Human Bondage (1915).
While they weren’t Charles Dickens’ best books, his very funny debut novel The Pickwick Papers (1836) and his very good Our Mutual Friend (1864) came out 28 years apart — with of course quite a few ultra-famous works in between: David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, etc.
Margaret Atwood? Her depressingly terrific The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and its mostly excellent sequel The Testaments 34 years later in 2019 — with, a la Dickens, some wonderful novels in between: Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, etc.
John Steinbeck’s first major novelistic success was Tortilla Flat (1935) and his last was The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) — a healthy 26 years apart. Twenty-six years that saw iconic works such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.
Any other large gaps between great novels you’d like to discuss? Any thoughts on the ones I mentioned?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about such topics as COVID’s latest impact on my town’s schools — is here.