What is Proust's longest sentence?
March 24, 2006 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the longest sentence in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

In an article (subscription req.) this morning in the Wall Street Journal about this book, I was intrigued by the following claim: Mr. de Botton fearlessly cuts through Proust's prose (his longest sentence would stretch around the base of a wine bottle 17 times)...

So my question is: what is that sentence?
posted by rorycberger to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
OmieWise is the resident Proust expert. If anyone knows it's OmieWise (who keeps a Proust blog).
posted by geoff. at 10:09 AM on March 24, 2006

Best answer: Cities of the Plain
(Sodom et Gomorrhe)
[Vol. 4 of Remembrance of Things Past--
(À la Recherche du temps perdu)]

"Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: "The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!"; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied round Dreyfus, from the sympathy--at times from the society--of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are, portrayed in a mirror which, ceasing to flatter them, accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves, and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love (a thing to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love) springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews again (save some who will associate only with others of their race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them, the opprobrium under which they have fallen, having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous, finding (in spite of all the mockery with which he who, more closely blended with, better assimilated to the opposing race, is relatively, in appearance, the least inverted, heaps upon him who has remained more so) a relief in frequenting the society of their kind, and even some corroboration of their own life, so much so that, while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults), those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it they readily unmask, with a view less to injuring them, though they have no scruple about that, than to excusing themselves; and, going in search (as a doctor seeks cases of appendicitis) of cases of inversion in history, taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, without reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the disgrace alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning, to every example, to every punishment, by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men (even though it may be accompanied by exalted moral qualities) than certain other vices which exclude those qualities, such as theft, cruelty, breach of faith, vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men; forming a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his congeners to the beggar in the street, in the great nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the suitor for his daughter's hand, to him who has sought healing, absolution, defence, in the doctor, the priest, the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but having their part in a secret shared with the others, which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true, for in this romantic, anachronistic life the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon, the prince, with a certain independence of action with which his aristocratic breeding has furnished him, and which the trembling little cit would lack, on leaving the duchess's party goes off to confer in private with the hooligan; a reprobate part of the human whole, but an important part, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and unpunished, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, in the church, in the prison, on the throne; living, in short, at least to a great extent, in a playful and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it; a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal, on which these lion-tamers are devoured; until then, obliged to make a secret of their lives, to turn away their eyes from the things on which they would naturally fasten them, to fasten them upon those from which they would naturally turn away, to change the gender of many of the words in their vocabulary, a social constraint, slight in comparison with the inward constraint which their vice, or what is improperly so called, imposes upon them with regard not so much now to others as to themselves, and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice."
posted by geoff. at 10:11 AM on March 24, 2006 [7 favorites]

Best answer: And in French:

Sans honneur que précaire, sans liberté que provisoire, jusqu'à la découverte du crime; sans situation qu'instable, comme pour le poète la veille fêté dans tous les salons, applaudi dans tous les théâtres de Londres, chassé le lendemain de tous les garnis sans pouvoir trouver un oreiller où reposer sa tête, tournant la meule comme Samson et disant comme lui: "Les deux sexes mourront chacun de son côté"; exclus même, hors les jours de grande infortune où le plus grand nombre se rallie autour de la victime, comme les juifs autour de Dreyfus, de la sympathie - parfois de la société - de leurs semblables, auxquels ils donnent le dégoût de voir ce qu'ils sont, dépeint dans un miroir, qui ne les flattant plus, accuse toutes les tares qu'ils n'avaient pas voulu remarquer chez eux-mêmes et qui leur fait comprendre que ce qu'ils appelaient leur amour (et à quoi, en jouant sur le mot, ils avaient, par sens social, annexé tout ce que la poésie, la peinture, la musique, la chevalerie, l'ascétisme, ont pu ajouter à l'amour) découle non d'un idéal de beauté qu'ils ont élu, mais d'une maladie inguérissable; comme les juifs encore (sauf quelques-uns qui ne veulent fréquenter que ceux de leur race, ont toujours à la bouche les mots rituels et les plaisanteries consacrées) se fuyant les uns les autres, recherchant ceux qui leur sont le plus opposés, qui ne veulent pas d'eux, pardonnant leurs rebuffades, s'enivrant de leurs complaisances; mais aussi rassemblés à leurs pareils par l'ostracisme qui les frappe, l'opprobre où ils sont tombés, ayant fini par prendre, par une persécution semblable à celle d'Israël, les caractères physiques et moraux d'une race, parfois beaux, souvent affreux, trouvant (malgré toutes les moqueries dont celui qui, plus mêlé, mieux assimilé à la race adverse, est relativement, en apparence, le moins inverti, accable celui qui l'est demeuré davantage), une détente dans la fréquentation de leurs semblables, et même un appui dans leur existence, si bien que, tout en niant qu'ils soient une race (dont le nom est la plus grande injure), ceux qui parviennent à cacher qu'ils en sont, ils les démasquent volontiers, moins pour leur nuire, ce qu'ils ne détestent pas, que pour s'excuser, et allant chercher comme un médecin l'appendicite l'inversion jusque dans l'histoire, ayant plaisir à rappeler que Socrate était l'un d'eux, comme les Israélites disent de Jésus, sans songer qu'il n'y avait pas d'anormaux quand l'homosexualité était la norme, pas d'anti-chrétiens avant le Christ, que l'opprobre seul fait le crime, parce qu'il n'a laissé subsister que ceux qui étaient réfractaires à toute prédication, à tout exemple, à tout châtiment, en vertu d'une disposition innée tellement spéciale qu'elle répugne plus aux autres hommes (encore qu'elle puisse s'accompagner de hautes qualités morales) que de certains vices qui y contredisent comme le vol, la cruauté, la mauvaise foi, mieux compris, donc plus excusés du commun des hommes; formant une franc-maçonnerie bien plus étendue, plus efficace et moins soupçonnée que celle des loges, car elle repose sur une identité de goûts, de besoins, d'habitudes, de dangers, d'apprentissage, de savoir, de trafic, de glossaire, et dans laquelle les membres mêmes, qui souhaitent de ne pas se connaître, aussitôt se reconnaissent à des signes naturels ou de convention, involontaires ou voulus, qui signalent un de ses semblables au mendiant dans le grand seigneur à qui il ferme la portière de sa voiture, au père dans le fiancé de sa fille, à celui qui avait voulu se guérir, se confesser, qui avait à se défendre, dans le médecin, dans le prêtre, dans l'avocat qu'il est allé trouver; tous obligés à protéger leur secret, mais ayant leur part d'un secret des autres que le reste de l'humanité ne soupçonne pas et qui fait qu'à eux les romans d'aventure les plus invraisemblables semblent vrais, car dans cette vie romanesque, anachronique, l'ambassadeur est ami du forçat: le prince, avec une certaine liberté d'allures que donne l'éducation aristocratique et qu'un petit bourgeois tremblant n'aurait pas en sortant de chez la duchesse, s'en va conférer avec l'apache; partie réprouvée de la collectivité humaine, mais partie importante, soupçonnée là où elle n'est pas, étalée, insolente, impunie là où elle n'est pas devinée; comptant des adhérents partout, dans le peuple, dans l'armée, dans le temple, au bagne, sur le trône; vivant enfin, du moins un grand nombre, dans l'intimité caressante et dangereuse avec les hommes de l'autre race, les provoquant, jouant avec eux à parler de son vice comme s'il n'était pas sien, jeu qui est rendu facile par l'aveuglement ou la fausseté des autres, jeu qui peut se prolonger des années jusqu'au jour du scandale où ces dompteurs sont dévorés; jusque-là obligés de cacher leur vie, de détourner leurs regards d'où ils voudraient se fixer, de les fixer sur ce dont ils voudraient se détourner, de changer le genre de bien des adjectifs dans leur vocabulaire, contrainte sociale, légère auprès de la contrainte intérieure que leur vice, ou ce qu'on nomme improprement ainsi, leur impose non plus à l'égard des autres mais d'eux-mêmes, et de façon qu'à eux-mêmes il ne leur paraisse pas un vice.
posted by geoff. at 10:12 AM on March 24, 2006

Right. Now somebody get me a wine bottle.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:17 AM on March 24, 2006

I'm fairly certain I saw a poster diagramming this sentence or another of similarly Proustian length. If anyone can point me to it I would be elated.
posted by clockwork at 10:28 AM on March 24, 2006

I got beaten to it, but here is a quick and dirty script in php for finding this out:

$file = fopen("swans.txt",'r'); // open file
$contents = fread($file, filesize("swans.txt")); // read it to memory

$sentences = preg_split("/(\!|\.|\?)/",$contents); // split with a period, exclaimation pt or question mark.

$longest = 0;
foreach($sentences as $sentence){
if(strlen($sentence) > $longest){
$longest = strlen($sentence);

echo "\n$sentence \n"; // it echoes a running count of each longest sentence
posted by miniape at 10:28 AM on March 24, 2006

I couldn't have answered this, but thanks for the thought, geoff.. Looks like you got it anyway.
posted by OmieWise at 10:53 AM on March 24, 2006

Now I'm hungry for madelines.
posted by orthogonality at 11:14 AM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: Awesome! Thanks Geoff!
posted by rorycberger at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: btw, unless we're talking about a jeroboam or something, I think that would wrap around a wine bottle more than 17 times.
posted by rorycberger at 12:26 PM on March 24, 2006

Wouldn't it depend on the font size? Saying it would wrap around a wine bottle 17 times is meaningless. I could make it wrap around the wine bottle any number of times you wanted, or not at all.
posted by Justinian at 1:56 PM on March 24, 2006

Response by poster: True, and I kind of thought that too. I'm guessing they are referring to standard paperback print size, which is probably like 10 pt. or so I'm guessing. I don't really know much about typography though.

If, however, you wanted to continuosly wrap it around a bottle in a spiral, so as to be readable, you would be limited to some extent. e.g. if you used 48 pt. type, the letters would be way too tall to wrap it around the bottle more than about a half dozen times. You could still theoretically go as small as you wanted, but if you wanted it to be readable by the naked eye that would give you a lower limit as well.
posted by rorycberger at 2:37 PM on March 24, 2006

I ♥ Proust.
posted by jdroth at 3:41 PM on March 24, 2006

// split with a period, exclaimation pt or question mark.

This is fatally flawed, I think. What if the sentence says "Mr. Jones got up that morning," and continues for three miles? According to the period after "Mr", it's only two chars long. See also "it was 45.3 degrees in the shade" or "I was thinking ... maybe we could go out some time?". Or, of course "Mr. Jones cried out 'oh my god!' as he was swept away".

I wrote a script to find the longest sentence in Henry James once, and I used a Perl module which had code for all those kind of eventualities and more. I'll try and find some code later.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:31 PM on March 24, 2006

958 words, says Word. Dang.
posted by MadamM at 5:21 PM on March 24, 2006

OK I was wrong. My script only found the longest sentence in Henry James' "The Golden Bowl", which is as follows:
She had got up with these last words; she stood there before him with that particular suggestion in her aspect to which even the long habit of their life together had not closed his sense, kept sharp, year after year, by the collation of types and signs, the comparison of fine object with fine object, of one degree of finish, of one form of the exquisite with another--the appearance of some slight, slim draped "antique" of Vatican or Capitoline halls, late and refined, rare as a note and immortal as a link, set in motion by the miraculous infusion of a modern impulse and yet, for all the sudden freedom of folds and footsteps forsaken after centuries by their pedestal, keeping still the quality, the perfect felicity, of the statue; the blurred, absent eyes, the smoothed, elegant, nameless head, the impersonal flit of a creature lost in an alien age and passing as an image in worn relief round and round a precious vase.
a pathetic 165 words, not a patch on Proust. But the Perl Module I used is Lingua::En::Sentence if you're interested.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:59 PM on March 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

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