Now that’s a sentence

Have you heard about this book? The Assignment: or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

Dürrenmatt, it seems, wrote a 123-page murder mystery in 24 short chapters, each of which is one sentence long.

The wife of a psychiatrist has been raped and killed near a desert ruin in North Africa. Her husband hires a woman named F. to reconstruct the unsolved crime in a documentary film. F. is soon unwittingly thrust into a paranoid world of international espionage where everyone is watched—including the watchers. After discovering a recent photograph of the supposed murder victim happily reunited with her husband, F. becomes trapped in an apocalyptic landscape riddled with political intrigue, crimes of mistaken identity, and terrorism.

F.’s labyrinthine quest for the truth is Dürrenmatt’s fictionalized warning against the dangers of a technologically advanced society that turns everyday life into one of constant scrutiny.

Dürrenmatt was a bit ahead of his time: he wrote about this idea of constant scrutiny back in 1986, right before the Age of Constant Scrutiny was born.

Here’s a snippet from a comment that seems to capture something of the feel of the story: “Yet you know right away that something is different, first in the format: the novel consists of 24 ‘chapters,’ each of which is a single sentence, some stretching for several pages (it would be really interesting to try to diagram one of these babies), that read aloud (yeh, I sometimes read aloud) like a digressive ramble, and read silently in an irresistible rush and tumble of words.”

Good job by that commenter, David — his sentence may not be 5 or 10 pages long, but it is 66 words long, which is pretty impressive.

Intriguing idea! Many commenters refer to the sentences as comma-filled run-ons, which is interesting enough. Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to try this kind of thing with sentences that are actually grammatically correct rather than run-ons?

Here is a post about extremely long sentences.

Faulkner’s longest sentence—smack in the middle of Absalom, Absalom! —unspools in Quentin Compson’s tortured, silent ruminations. According to a 1983 Guinness Book of Records, this monster once qualified as literature’s longest at 1,288 words, but that record has long been surpassed, in English at least, by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which ends with a 33-page-long, 13,955 word sentence.

Really! Well, I wish I’d been assigned Absolom, Absolom instead of The Sound and the Fury. I doubt I would have liked the former better overall, but I hope I would have enjoyed that 1288-word sentence.

Doesn’t all this make you wish you could go back in time and try to write an English essay as a single sentence, perfectly correctly, in order to freak out your English teacher?

Maybe that’s just me.

Also possibly just me: a wistful desire to go back in time and write an essay in iambic pentameter; or write a book report that sounds perfectly fine but is total nonsense from front to back; or write a REALLY abstruse classification essay about, say, extinct perissodactyl species.

Alas, none of these ideas occurred to me when I was actually in school.

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5 thoughts on “Now that’s a sentence”

  1. My conclusion: I would never read this book! But I would enjoy reading individual sentences or paragraphs from it.

  2. I clicked through to Lise’s example, and found that I could follow the long sentences used as examples there without noticeable trouble, because they had a kind of rythm to them. That rythm of reading did add an extra cadence, that went away when you split those long sentences up in shorter bits. Those clearly conveyed the same information, but not the same rythm; and the added cadence did add something to the atmosphere, the feel of the setting. Maybe I related it subconsciously to the endless “ke-deng, ke-deng” of a train’s wheels on a railway journey?
    I wouldn’t want to read a whole book like that, I do not have enough patience for that; but trying the samples was interesting.

    One thing I realised was that if I had to listen to those long sentences spoken aloud (as an audiobook) I would certainly *not* have been able to follow them.
    I don’t know if that is a result of reading aloud being slower than reading silently from a page (and thus of very-short-term memory running out), or of a lot of practise reading books and a lot less practise listening to audiobooks. My dad still reads a chapter aloud every evening after supper, and I can follow him quite well; but I find my mind wandering more when listening to an audiobook, and easily losing track of sentences (unless I already know the book).

    Is this recognisable to others here who are more used to listening to audiobooks?
    When eventually my eyes get too bad, can I expect to have to switch to short stories with simple sentence structures for my audiobooks, or is this something that improves with practice?

  3. I find that any problem I have with a book is magnified when the book is in audio format. If it’s slow, I may not mind (or I may like that) in a print edition, but it’ll seem too slow in audio. If something stupid happens, I might possibly gloss over it in a printed book, but it’ll practically light up in neon in an audiobook. I’m willing to bet that confusing sentences would also be a problem specifically in audiobooks.

    Now that you raise the question, Hanneke, I also wonder if that might be less of an issue for someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks, instead of just listening to one now and then?

  4. I think the way we listen to stories and the way we read stories are fundamentally different. Some stories may work in both formats, but oral storytelling is a thing of its own.

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