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Monday, October 20, 2014

Run-On Sentences Illustrated


Based on what people say to me (some of them whining), we live in the age of the telegram.  Or do I mean the Tweet?  Brevity is crucial, and the spaces between the words are more important than the words.  That, at least, is some of the grumbling I have heard from colleagues who are unhappy about having their scenes pruned.

We all have those scenes we just love to death.  We don't want to deprive our generous readers, who have paid their good money and committed their precious time to purchase and read our efforts.  They do deserve the best!  Why deprive them of our wonderful work?

I'm overstating, of course, though I admit to a twinge when I concluded that a perfectly delicious scene of one of my MC's, who was an impressive but sometimes sobersided fellow, in which he drank an entire bottle of liquor and had a drunken reverie that had had me rolling on the floor, almost literally, was not needed in my story.  Sigh.  It is hard.

...but what if you are so adored an author, you can write monstrous scenes - monstrous in length and complexity, I mean - with no one curling a lip?  Or - let's daydream really outrageously - what if we are so idolized and admired, we can churn out a sentence of nearly a thousand words - and have it printed?  What about that?  Did it ever happen? 
Victor Hugo, hands to face

Yes, it did.  And to salve the sensibilities of all authors who hate to see a single deathless word deleted, I am putting up here the stuff of which daydreams are made, courtesy of Victor Hugo, who is referring to the then (in his book, Les Miserables) King of France.  Hugo was quite the iconoclast, but my mind boggles that even he was able to pass off an eight hundred-plus word sentence with no one screaming bloody murder.  And I think he did it out of a sense of mischief.

Here it is, and lest the flow (flood?  torrent?  spate?) of words exhaust us all, I am interspersing it with depictions of the subject:, who is an historical character that I happen to admire very sincerely:

Louis-Philippe, King of France
“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 marvelous 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.” 

**   **   **

Inspector Javert Editorializes
I can only imagine the hue and cry (or, more likely, the spate of sneers) that would greet any writer who attempted to match that run-on sentence, deliberate though it must have been. I can't imagine Stephen King attempting it.  I have read some books that seemed unending, but they were (mostly) equipped with paragraphs and reasonable sentences.  What boggles my mind, however, is learning that there is a 1,400 word sentence (not in a European language) that beats this one by nearly double.  It is enough to make even the most toughened character cringe.


  1. Good grief! How times have changed. On a related matter, I have an intermittent fault on my keyboard that makes my spacebar stick soIkeependingupwithreallylongwords.

  2. How fortunate we are that Victor Hugo didn't have a typewriter! His purple prose connected with your spacebar's editing assistance would have had me, at least, tearing out my hair!

  3. My writing teacher once told me that my sentences were 'kaleidoscopic', in other words, were way too long! But never that long. It's a doozy!

  4. My word! (Pardon the pun.) The copious use of the semi-colon alone would send an editor to the madhouse, and the casual reader to the airport rack of 'modern prose.'
    How you come up with these wonderful snippets, Diana, is always amazing and even more entertaining.

  5. That is exhausting to read! LOL I'm becoming more and more fond of brevity, but not at the cost of clarity! Have a happy Wednesday, Diana!

  6. Proust is fun along those lines, too, not so much with sentences as with paragraphs. There's one paragraph in Swann's Way that goes on for 28 pages.

  7. Amazing. And impressive for Hugo's ability to make a grammatically correct sentence and to find that many things to say about one man. As for the "say it in one breath" rule of sentence length, I don't believe even Stig Severinsen, a diver who held his breath for 22 minutes, could manage this one.