Tag Archives: Les Miserables

Victor Hugo’s Eight-Hundred Word Creation: The Actual Text

I tried to conclude my last post, (on Victor Hugo’s 800+ word sentence in “Les Miserables,”) with the actual example but couldn’t find it.  Well, I found it today — a close approximation of a whooper of a sentence — something to scan through (am still working my way through it after pausing to do the dishes and such other house chores), marvel at or disapprove of. I think it’s okay — more as a study of the art/craft — but it can also overwhelm.

It’s worth noting, though, this is from an era when reading and story telling were primary means of entertainment. When attention span was limitless.

Here it is, just so the previous post feels complete:

 “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 marvellous 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.”


Photo credit: Surrounded by words (Words everywhere), Flickr photosharing.


File:Legros - Victor Hugo.jpg

In “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo wrote an 800+ word sentence, which some consider the longest written statement in literature and others think an exercise in verbosity. Of course, the book is translated from French, so that might have something to do with flow and readability. Either way, that is a very long sentence — a 12-point Times New Roman font makes it a five-page grammatical unit.

In the book I’m currently reading, I came across a page-long sentence (about two hundred words) that felt perfectly readable and the opposite of verbose, so I thought I’d try writing such a sentence, although perhaps not as long. For fun … let me know what you think.   

 When we reach Meadow Hill — the sheer massiveness of the mountain in front of us — just before the sun sets and the sky remains slightly illuminated, during this, our fourth and final day of vacation, and realize we are too tired to run up in the same way we did every day around this time to watch the last of the sunset and say goodbye to the river and the mountain and all the beauty before us, we sit on the narrow road, barely one lane wide, niches blasted in the rock, and watch from there with sadness in our hearts.

Only 103 words and probably a bit shaky. I am open to examples and/or critiques. Trust me, I’ve been part of a critique group for years, I can take it.

And as an aside, what do you think: are page-long sentences (when written correctly) an exercise in wasted words or a lost art?


Photo credit: Legros — Victor Hugo, from Wikimedia Commons. In public domain, copyright expired.