3 months ago
Despite its occasional use in spoken monologue, the Very Long Literary Sentence properly exists in the mind (hence “stream-of-consciousness”), since the most wordy of literary exhalations would exhaust the lungs’ capacity. Molly Bloom’s 36-page, two-sentence run-on soliloquy at the close of Joyce’s Ulysses takes place entirely in her thoughts. Faulkner’s longest sentence—smack in the middle of Absalom, Absalom! —unspools in Quentin Compson’s tortured, silent ruminations. According to a 1983 Guinness Book of Records, this monster once qualified as literature’s longest at 1,288 words, but that record has long been surpassed, in English at least, by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which ends with a 33-page-long, 13,955 word sentence. Czech and Polish novelists have written book-length sentences since the sixties, and French writer Mathias Énard puts them all to shame with a one-sentence novel 517 pages long, though its status is “compromised by 23 chapter breaks that alleviate eye strain,” writes Ed Park in the New York Times. Like Faulkner’s glorious run-ons, Jacob Silverman describes Énard’s one-sentence Zone as transmuting “the horrific into something sublime.”
Are these literary stunts kin to Philippe Petit’s highwire challenges—undertaken for the thrill and just to show they can be done? Park sees the “The Very Long Sentence” in more philosophical terms, as “a futile hedge against separation, an unwillingness to part from loved ones, the world, life itself.” Perhaps this is why the very long sentence seems most expressive of life at its fullest and most expansive. Below, we bring you five long literary sentences culled from various sources on the subject. These are, of course, not the “5 longest,” nor the “5 best,” nor any other superlative. They are simply five fine examples of The Very Long Sentence in literature. Enjoy reading and re-reading them, and please leave your favorite Very Long Sentence in the comments.
At The New Yorker‘s “Book Club,” Jon Michaud