Saturday, November 30, 2013

Excuse Me While I Whip This Out

I know some of you have been losing sleep wondering about the longest sentence in French literature.

Worry no longer.  The longest sentence in French literature is this 823-word behemoth by Victor Hugo, which left France's Strategic Semicolon Reserve dangerously depleted for decades:
“The son of a father to whom history will accord certain attenuating circumstances, but also as worthy of esteem as that father had been of blame; possessing all private virtues and many public virtues; careful of his health, of his fortune, of his person, of his affairs, knowing the value of a minute and not always the value of a year; sober, serene, peaceable, patient; a good man and a good prince; sleeping with his wife, and having in his palace lackeys charged with the duty of showing the conjugal bed to the bourgeois, an ostentation of the regular sleeping-apartment which had become useful after the former illegitimate displays of the elder branch; knowing all the languages of Europe, and, what is more rare, all the languages of all interests, and speaking them; an admirable representative of the “middle class,” but outstripping it, and in every way greater than it; possessing excellent sense, while appreciating the blood from which he had sprung, counting most of all on his intrinsic worth, and, on the question of his race, very particular, declaring himself Orleans and not Bourbon; thoroughly the first Prince of the Blood Royal while he was still only a Serene Highness, but a frank bourgeois from the day he became king; diffuse in public, concise in private; reputed, but not proved to be a miser; at bottom, one of those economists who are readily prodigal at their own fancy or duty; lettered, but not very sensitive to letters; a gentleman, but not a chevalier; simple, calm, and strong; adored by his family and his household; a fascinating talker, an undeceived statesman, inwardly cold, dominated by immediate interest, always governing at the shortest range, incapable of rancor and of gratitude, making use without mercy of superiority on mediocrity, clever in getting parliamentary majorities to put in the wrong those mysterious unanimities which mutter dully under thrones; unreserved, sometimes imprudent in his lack of reserve, but with marvellous address in that imprudence; fertile in expedients, in countenances, in masks; making France fear Europe and Europe France! Incontestably fond of his country, but preferring his family; assuming more domination than authority and more authority than dignity, a disposition which has this unfortunate property, that as it turns everything to success, it admits of ruse and does not absolutely repudiate baseness, but which has this valuable side, that it preserves politics from violent shocks, the state from fractures, and society from catastrophes; minute, correct, vigilant, attentive, sagacious, indefatigable; contradicting himself at times and giving himself the lie; bold against Austria at Ancona, obstinate against England in Spain, bombarding Antwerp, and paying off Pritchard; singing the Marseillaise with conviction, inaccessible to despondency, to lassitude, to the taste for the beautiful and the ideal, to daring generosity, to Utopia, to chimeras, to wrath, to vanity, to fear; possessing all the forms of personal intrepidity; a general at Valmy; a soldier at Jemappes; attacked eight times by regicides and always smiling; brave as a grenadier, courageous as a thinker; uneasy only in the face of the chances of a European shaking up, and unfitted for great political adventures; always ready to risk his life, never his work; disguising his will in influence, in order that he might be obeyed as an intelligence rather than as a king; endowed with observation and not with divination; not very attentive to minds, but knowing men, that is to say requiring to see in order to judge; prompt and penetrating good sense, practical wisdom, easy speech, prodigious memory; drawing incessantly on this memory, his only point of resemblance with Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon; knowing deeds, facts, details, dates, proper names, ignorant of tendencies, passions, the diverse geniuses of the crowd, the interior aspirations, the hidden and obscure uprisings of souls, in a word, all that can be designated as the invisible currents of consciences; accepted by the surface, but little in accord with France lower down; extricating himself by dint of tact; governing too much and not enough; his own first minister; excellent at creating out of the pettiness of realities an obstacle to the immensity of ideas; mingling a genuine creative faculty of civilization, of order and organization, an indescribable spirit of proceedings and chicanery, the founder and lawyer of a dynasty; having something of Charlemagne and something of an attorney; in short, a lofty and original figure, a prince who understood how to create authority in spite of the uneasiness of France, and power in spite of the jealousy of Europe, — Louis Philippe will be classed among the eminent men of his century, and would be ranked among the most illustrious governors of history had he loved glory but a little, and if he had had the sentiment of what is great to the same degree as the feeling for what is useful.”

-- Les Miserables
But it is not the longest sentence in all of literature.
At best, it is the longest sentence in French literature, though I can't confirm that.* Traditionally, the longest sentence in English Literature has been said to be a sentence in Ullyses by James Joyce, which clocks in at 4,391 words. Past editions of The Guinness Book of World Records have listed this record.

However, Joyce's record has recently been surpassed. Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club, published in 2001, contains a sentence with 13,955 words. I believe he currently holds the record in "English Literature."

However hold on to your seats...

There is also, apparently, a Polish novel, Gates of Paradise, with a 40,000 word sentence. I have been unable so far to find absolute confirmation on an author. Bramy Raju, written by Jerzy Andrzejewski, and published in 1960, translates as Gates of Paradise, but it has been described as a novella. And while there is no absolute definition of that term, novellas are usually shorter than 40,000 words.

Finally, there is a Czech novel that consists of one long sentence -- Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal. It is this novel that Coe has said inspired his 13,955 word sentence. Hrabal's 'novel sentence' is 128 pages long, though I have been unable to find an exact word count. It most likely takes the award for longest sentence. Even if it doesn't, it dwarfs Hugo's significantly.
Of course, in literature as in life, length itself is a waste if you have no idea what to do with it.


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Coincidentally, we went to see Les Mis put on by local theater group last night.

I kept thinking "dude, it was a loaf of bread. TWENTY YEARS AGO. Let it go, already."

Unsalted Sinner said...

Thanks! I learn something new every day.

Actually, I suspect Hugo's deserves the title "world's longest sentence", given that Joyce and those modern jokers tend to have a shockingly lax attitude towards punctuation and such. I bet if you check out those examples, they actually consist of several sentences that haven't been separated in the normal way. At least Hugo was writing within the confines of conventional punctuation.

This reminds me of the telegram exchange Hugo supposedly had with his publisher after the first edition of Les Miserables hit the market:

Hugo: "?"
Publisher: "!"

Clearly, Hugo could be brief when money was at stake.