A Longer Sentence

News item:

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.) (NYT, 02/18/2008)

Following is Proust’s longest sentence. I have outlined in the form I used elsewhere: a level in indentation should be able to be read straight down, ignoring the indents. The indents, though, are the life of the sentence. I have never read a more lacerating, brutally honest statement. Yes, it could have been broken into sentences, but at the expense of its escalating intensity.

The sentence is separated by eight semicolons, each clause having homosexuals as the implied subject.

  • Their honour precarious,
    • their liberty provisional,
    • lasting only until the discovery of their crime;
  • their position unstable,
    • like that of the poet one day fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London,
    • and the next 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,
        • except on the days of general misfortune when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews 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
            • (and 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 disease;
  • like the Jews again
    • (save some who will associate only with those of their race and have always on their lips the ritual words and the accepted pleasantries),
    • shunning one another,
    • seeking out those who are most directly their opposite,
      • who do not want their company,
    • forgiving their rebuffs,
    • enraptured by their condescensions;
  • but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected,
    • the opprobrium into 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 one who,
          • more closely integrated with,
          • better assimilated to the opposing race,
          • is in appearance relatively less inverted,
        • heaps upon one who has remained more so)
        • a relief in frequenting the society of their kind,
          • and even some support in their existence,
        • so much so that,
          • while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults),
        • they readily unmask those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it,
          • with a view less to injuring them,
            • though they have no scruple about that,
          • than to excusing themselves,
          • and seeking out
            • (as a doctor seeks out cases of appendicitis)
          • cases of inversion in history,
          • taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves,
            • as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them,
          • without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm,
          • no anti-Christians before Christ,
          • that the opprobrium 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 high 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 effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges,
    • for it rests upon an identity of tastes,
      • needs,
      • habits,
      • dangers,
      • apprenticeship,
      • knowledge,
      • traffic,
      • vocabulary,
    • and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional,
      • involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting,
      • to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor,
      • to the man who has sought healing,
      • absolution or legal defence in the doctor,
      • the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse;
  • all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret 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 life of anachronistic fiction the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon,
    • the prince,
      • with a certain insolent aplomb born of his aristocratic breeding which the timorous bourgeois lacks,
      • on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the ruffian;
    • a reprobate section of the human collectivity,
      • but an important one,
    • suspected where it does not exist,
    • flaunting itself,
      • insolent and immune,
    • where its existence is never guessed;
  • numbering its adherents everywhere,
    • among the people,
    • in the army,
    • in the church,
    • in prison,
    • on the throne;
  • living,
    • in short,
    • at least to a great extent,
  • in an affectionate 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 when these lion-tamers are devoured;
  • obliged until then to make a secret of their lives,
  • to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray,
  • to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from,
  • to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary,
    • a social constraint that is slight in comparison with the inward constraint imposed upon them by their vice,
    • or what is improperly so called,
      • not so much in relation to others as to themselves,
      • and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.

Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 29111-29148). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.



13 Responses to “A Longer Sentence”

  1. Marcelita Swann Says:

    Seeing…reading with different eyes.
    Fellow Proustians continually share their own perspectives, and yours started a conversation.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Your’s is the highest praise: starting a conversation. This post actually started with a conversation with Joyce Hunt who suggested that Proust’s longest sentence is a watershed between themes of formative family/friends and sexuality. I’m still exploring that insight, but I thought I could at least begin by looking at the sentence closely.

      And what a classy name you have…

      • Marcelita Swann Says:

        I have returned to you once again, this morning, to read your post on “The Little Phrase.” It’s comforting to be able to whisper, “I wonder what JIm thought about this?” as I wander inside the novel.
        Oh, and my name? Once, several years ago, I found myself in a strange circle in Manhattan and thought it best not to give my family name. So, I thought of “Little Marcel” and Swann, “the pseudonym that (Yves Saint Laurent) used when he traveled incognito.”
        Now, it’s become my social name.
        Unless I meet someone who reads Proust, strangers think I am a normal person.

      • Jim Everett Says:

        And you may recall that “Marcel Swann” is the nom-de-guerre of Agostinelli after he escaped from Proust and began his fatal flying lessons in the south of France.

  2. Marcelita Swann Says:

    Yes, poor Agostinelli. Jim, this is could be a perfect example of a Proustian theme of “misguided” impressions. It would seem natural to presume that the Agostinelli’s nom-de-guerre may have been influential, but the truth is in the past.

    My childhood memories…exploring the Sonoran Desert, learning to appreciate genuine Mexican restaurants, and watching my mother run around the house opening the living room curtains, so we could sit in front of the picture window and scream with edgy delight at the brilliant electrical thunderstorms; it was only during these nature-shows that ice cream cones were in abundance. She taught us to never be afraid~of thunderstorms…shattered plate glass never occurred to her. My mother and I had the same name, so I was always “little X.” In addition, we adopted the Mexican custom of adding the “-ita” to the end of my name. Tucson, Arizona, may seem distant from Paris, but “Marcelita” combines my childhood memories with my present passion. (I could even be one of the guests at The Grand Hotel…at the mercy of Aimé!)

  3. Jim Everett Says:

    Marcelita is a second order diminutive. Marcel is the diminutive of Marcus. According to Wikipedia:


    Latin Marcellus, diminutive of Marcus.

    I just now became of this in reading Bloch-Dano’s “Madame Proust”, who had an ancestor name Blumele, diminutive of “bloom.”

  4. Marcelita Swann Says:

    Now…this may be way too much information.
    However, on page 539, the left stem seems to ring true, with descriptive words of “young” and “inexperienced.”
    Which describes me…on the path of Proust.

    I have yet to open “Madame Proust,” but am anxious to read about their conversations re-telling some social event with witty mimicry. I read somewhere, Proust could remember a conversation word-for-word. Tell me…is it true?

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I don’t recall reading that Proust had photographic memory. How could he have had “unforced memory” if he had perfect recall? I think language, as well as sensory, experiences can trigger an unforced memory. Swann is reading a theatre review where the word “marble” occurs. In a flash he remembers Odette having told him that Mme Verdurin once told her “she is not made of marble.” From that instant he becomes obsessed with finding out if she is a lesbian.

      So I think evidence from the novel suggests that Proust himself thinks that conversations may be lost and then recovered through madeleine moments. In that sense he may well have been able to remember conversations word for word

  5. ADLOFF Jean Says:

    Boring, boring, boring. Proust would be appalled.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I’m sure that’s what Proust tries to convince you of. He says things like “years later I learned…”. And then there is the little passage many pages later (in The Captive or the Fugitive) where he talks about a manuscript he is working on about a long ago love affair. In the end I think Proust was trying out the story that he would retell in (much) more detail in the Albertine story.

  6. David Says:

    Could there have been a conversation, remembered word for word, behind the story of “Swann in Love”? At least in theory? How else to account for the omniscient point of view?

  7. Eugene Wyatt Says:

    Mr Everett, you mention that you have used this outline format elsewhere, where?


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