January 19, 2010

William Faulkner: Southern Grammarian Extraordinaire

William Faulkner writes THE LONGEST sentences the world has ever seen.

Check out this gem:

"There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like chidren's feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the binding and dreamy and victorious dust."

That would be a 157 word sentence, folks. On the first page of the novel. This next sentence was cited (for a time) to be the longest sentence in English literature (though further researching indicates that mister James Joyce surpassed it with a 4,391 word sentence in Ulysses… as though you needed another reason not to read that book):

"They both bore it as though in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits' travail of the two young mend during that time fifty years ago, or forty-eight rather, then forty-seven and then forty-six, since it was '64 and then '65 and the starved and ragged remnant of an army having retreated across Alabama and Georgia and into Carolina swept onward not by a victorious army behind it but rather by a mounting tide of the names of lost battles from either side -- Chickamauga and Franklin, Vicksburg and Corinth and Atlanta -- battles lost not alone because of superior numbers and failing ammunition and stores, but because of generals who should not have been generals, who were generals no through training in contemporary methods or aptitude for learning them, but by the divine right to say 'Go there' conferred upon them by an absolute caste system; or because the generals of it never lived long enough to learn how to fight masse cautious accretionary battles, since they were already as obsolete as Richard or Roland or du Guesclin, who wore plumes and cloaks lined with scarlet at twenty-eight and thirty and thirty-two and captured warships with cavalry charges but no grain nor meat nor bullets, who would whip three seperate armies in as many days and then tear down their own fences to cook meat robbed from their own smokehouses, who on one night and with a handful of men would gallantly set fire to and destroy a million dollar garrison of enemy supplies and on the next night be discovered by a neighbor in bed with his wife and be shot to death; --two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking -- the one who did not yet know what he was going to do, the other who knew what he would have to do yet could not reconcile himself – Henry citing himself authority for incest, talking about his Duek John of Lorraine as if he hoped possibly to evoke that condemned and excommunicated shade to tell him in person that it was all right, as people both before and since have tried to evoke God or devil to justify them in what their glands insisted upon; --the two the four thw two facing one another in the tomblike room: Shreve, the Canadian, the child of blizzards and of cold in a bathrobe with an overcoat above it, the collar turned up about his ears; Quentin, the Southerner, the morose and delicate offspring of rain and steamy heat in the thin suitable clothing which he had brought from Mississippi, his overcoat (as thing and vain for what it was as the suit) lying on the floor where he had not even bothered to raise it:
(-- the winter of ’64 now, the army retreated across Alabama, into Georgia; now Carolina was just at their backs and Bon, the officer, thinking ‘We will either be caught and annihilated or Old Joe will extricate us and we will make contact with Lee in front of Richmond and then we will at least have the privilege of surrender’: and then one day all of a sudden he thought of it, remembered, how that Jefferson regiment of which his father was not colonel was in Longstreet’s corps, and maybe from that moment the whole purpose of the retreat seemed to him to be that of bringing him within reach of his father, to give his father one more chance…”

593 words before you hit an end stop (though the Guiness Book of World Records has this sentence listed as being 1,287 words, there must have been some revision in an edition before the one I’m consulting- MLA Corrected text hardcover edition). This sentence is on pg. 361 of that book, for any who are inclined to take a gander.

As you can imagine, reading this is… tedious. The length of the sentences make the prose breathless, rambling, not unlike the dialect which Faulkner so laudably imitates. Yes, I can see myself in the old South listening to a lady on a porch as we are surrounded by wisteria. My attention wanders, darts about, and when I return to her she is still speaking exactly as she had been in a measured pace. I scarcely think she has found a spot to breathe.

So for flavor, right on good sir William, bravo. For readability, good god someone come rescue me from this book.

More to come… I’m only about halfway through it….

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