A couple of years ago, I was trying to write an article about the longest sentences in world literature (or English literature at least), discovering that, interestingly enough, the gargantuan sentences sitting on top of this list happen to be, in fact, entire books—one-sentence novels (or novellas), successfully attempted by a handful of modern authors, who were even more daring than their predecessor and main inspirer, James Joyce (whose landmark novel Ulysses, that Bible of modern literature, ends with Molly Bloom’s 36-page soliloquy comprising of two mega-sentences that were long considered to be the longest ever written in English), as well as other novelists prone to experimental prose, such as William Faulkner (once a Guinness World Record holder with a 1,288-word sentence from his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!), Thomas Bernhard (the notorious master of the one-paragraph novel, whose writing style is characterized by repetitive, seemingly endless sentences that meander from subject to subject without pause for breath), and Jonathan Coe (author of the coming-of-age novel The Rotters’ Club, published in 2001, which contains a sentence of 13,955 words, currently regarded as the longest in English literature), whose book-long sentences, nevertheless, still do not make sentence-long books, the earliest example of which is
The Gates of Paradise by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1960),
a poignant novel originally written and published in Polish, consisting of 40,000 words that form two sentences (the second of which contains only five words: “And they marched all night”) that tell the story of the 1212 Children’s Crusade, involving an old monk who listens to the confessions of five seemingly holy, but in fact just horny French adolescents trudging towards Jerusalem in a dubious attempt to recapture the tomb of Jesus, all of whom—it turns out—have joined the Crusade for other than spiritual reasons, as the confessions reveal their hopeless, obsessive infatuation with the beautiful Jacques—the children’s leader and object of desire of almost everyone in the procession, males and females alike—giving an ironic insight into the world of idealism and faith, bringing out the protagonists’ destinies tied together by love, lust, folly, yearning, confusion, desperation and (false) hope, foreshadowing their tragic end, which, although left floating in the air as a dire premonition, appears to be inevitable, giving The Gates of Paradise a rather sad tone, much unlike the second one-sentence novel from this list,
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (1964),
a hilarious masterpiece that unfurls as a wacky monologue of an old cobbler, who tells the story of his life to a group of young ladies basking in the sun, palavering uncontrollably about amorous conquests and mishaps of his youth, beautiful women, violent acts (especially suicides), domestic feuds, trains, breweries, shoemaking, Mr. Batista, military adventures in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, along with abundant references to the “European Renaissance” (the narrator’s witty euphemism for sex), flooding the reader with a series of never-ending stories and anecdotes in which one eccentric thought triggers another, all of this merged together in a single, 117-page sentence that doesn’t even have a period at the end, suggesting that the frisky narrator will carry on babbling until eternity, making this Czech novel one of the most playful works of literature of all time—perhaps not a deep book, but definitely a delightful one, especially if you feel like indulging in some incoherent recollections of a cheeky old windbag; otherwise, you might want to slap the book against the wall just to make him shut up, and instead take on a shorter, more melancholic and somewhat less dispersed one-sentence piece, such as
The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai (2009),
a lesser known work of the contemporary Hungarian author, otherwise also famous for mesmerizingly long sentences that brought acclaim to his earlier writings (most notably, the novels Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance), this time pushing the limits of his style even further, producing a 12,000 words long, 40-something-page piece that makes a story or novella rather than a novel—a self-ironic tale of a depressed, washed-out academic and regular visitor of a dreary Berlin pub who gets invited (possibly by mistake) by a suspicious foundation to be its guest in Extremadura and write something about the region, whereupon he unexpectedly ends up cruising the barren Spanish plains, trying to solve the puzzle of the last wolf (which was allegedly killed in 1983 south of the river Duero), ultimately returning to the shabby bar in Berlin, where he recounts his adventures to a one-man audience consisting of a bored, half-asleep Hungarian bartender who is barely listening at all, forcing the narrator to wake him up in order to properly finish the story, which, nonetheless, most likely hasn’t been spoken out in the form of a single sentence, as this piece, unlike Hrabal’s, is written in third person, containing a lot of dialogue, which is incorporated smoothly and coherently, with absolute grammatical correctness, deserving a special place in the pantheon of sentence-long books, although Krasznahorkai’s name, alongside his Central European peers Hrabal and Andrzejewski, certainly doesn’t wrap up the list of practitioners of this peculiar literary genre, to which we might also add the French writer Mathias Énard, whose 2008 novel Zone is a single 150,000-word sentence (its one-sentence status, however, is put into question by three excerpts from another story that contains periods), Solar Bones (2016) by the Irishman Mike McCormack, The Hungarian Sentence (2017) by the Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis (to name just a few books I’ve stumbled upon while doing research for this blog post, assuming, of course, that many other examples exist worldwide in various languages), as well as one particularly bizarre creation—The Blah Story by Nigel Tomm, which reportedly has a sentence that spans over four volumes (16, 17, 18 and 19) of this disturbingly ridiculous self-published book, possibly the most pointless literary endeavour of all time (hint: more than half of the 2.4 million words in the abovementioned sentence are ‘blah’, for example: “…either he blah fallen in blah with blah and did blah wish blah sacrifice, which blah so blah on blah, or blah was still in love with blah and blah blah for blah own good…”), making us wonder if the one-sentence book genre is just pure exhibitionism, an absurd chase to break records, postmodern experimentalism, a marketing gimmick aimed at curious readers, or a truly meaningful literary device—and perhaps the best way to answer this question is to pick a sentence-long novel or two from this list and decide for yourself.
Written by Milan Kovačević