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The Longest Sentence in Literature

Many people attribute the longest sentence in literature to Victor Hugo. The claim is that a sentence in Les Miserables, 823 words long, earns that title.

The source most often given for this, if a source is given, is Timothy Fullerton's Triviata: A Compendium of Useless Information, published in 1975.

Unfortunately, Fullerton was in error. 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.

-- John Newmark - Nov, 2003

*Aug 2004 -- I have received an email stating that Sodom et Gomorrhe, Volume 4 of la Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust contains a sentence that's 847 words long in the original French. If this is true, Hugo doesn't hold the French literature record.

Sources:

  1. Reference to Timothy Fullerton's incorrect piece of trivia
  2. BBC news article on Jonathan Coe's novel surpassing Joyce's record
  3. Bloomsbury Publishers' page on Coe's novel mentioning "Gates of Paradise," but not supplying an author
  4. The University of Glasgow's page on Andrzejewski
  5. Atlantic Monthly's interview with Jonathan Coe, in which he mentions he was inspired by "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age," by Bohumil Hrabal.