The Extremely Long Paragraph

Thalia Williamson

Los Angeles Review of Books


“Bernhard’s influence over the contemporary novel has followed a parabolic trajectory. He has gone from being a writers’ writer, a well-kept secret, to a writer whose influence is felt, even if indirectly, over a broad array of novels that have seen both sales and critical acclaim”

“Bernhard acolytes include Geoff Dyer, Ben Marcus, Ben Lerner, Julie Otsuka, Tim Parks, Emily Hall, Jordan Castro, Mark Haber, László Krasznahorkai, Lucy Ellmann, Mauro Javier Cárdenas, Claudia Piñeiro, Jen Craig, and Adam Ehrlich Sachs”

“traces of his style can be spotted further afield, in the work of Thuận, Roberto Bolaño, Danielle Dutton, Oli Hazzard, Rachel Cusk, and Mathias Énard”

“Geoff Dyer described Bernhard’s work as the culmination of a “European tradition of the literature of neurasthenia”; it now seems equally apt to place him as the progenitor of a younger, more global—if not still largely US-centric—tradition of neurasthenic literature”

“The key features that mark his style—the obsessive rants; the long, digressive sentences replete with repetitions and contradictions; plots that see their protagonist do little more than think and walk—are each distinctive enough that his influence can be easy to spot”

“Adam Ehrlich Sachs has said that “you know [Bernhard’s footprint] when you see it.” As he explains, there is “the daisy-chained dialogue-attribution footprint, the exaggeration-to-the-point-of-madness footprint, the solely-internal-landscape-no-nature footprint, the single-paragraph footprint, the relentless-conceptual-critique-turned-somehow-into-fiction footprint, and so on.””

“the most distinctive feature of Bernhard’s style to show its influence in the contemporary novel, and one often deployed by Sebald himself, is what I will call the Extremely Long Paragraph (ELP), about which relatively little has been said—aside from the fact that his paragraphs are, indeed, notably long”

“I would, as a matter of ritual, read a few pages of Bernhard—any would do—and would think how his work might be critiqued, perhaps even condescended to, in a workshop. The long sentences, the absence of plot, the rage, the propensity to tell (over and over again) rather than show—all stand opposed to the conventions of form and style that mark the MFA-to-industry literary pipeline”

“I want to show how the ELP, among other things, has served as a response, of sorts, to our distracted age—and to highlight not so much the inevitable death of the novel as the novel’s capacity to take root in even the harshest terrain and find a way, not despite but because of this harshness, to flourish”

“Ever-present distraction is impacting our capacity for “[t]he concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence” (Roth), and the “attention” (Foer) required for “serious reading” (Roth), “serious fiction” (Parks), “deep” reading (Self), or “devot[ing] oneself to the book” (Foer)”

“Thomas Bernhard did not invent the ELP. Prototypes exist in the last section of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951)”

“The earliest well-known example of the ELP is in The Gates of Paradise (1960) by Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski, which at 162 pages includes only two paragraphs (each only a sentence long), the latter of which is only five words”

“The next is in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, which at 117 pages includes no chapter or paragraph breaks and consists of only one sentence”

“Bernhard, however, was obsessed with the technique. His novels Yes (1978), The Cheap-Eaters (1980), Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), Concrete (1982), The Loser (1983), Woodcutters (1984), Old Masters: A Comedy (1985), and Extinction (1986) each consist of only one paragraph; Correction (1975) consists of two; and the memoir Gathering Evidence (1985) consists of only five”

“W. G. Sebald, whose masterpiece Austerlitz (2001) consists of only one paragraph”

“Lucy Ellmann, whose Goldsmiths Prize–winning Ducks, Newburyport (2019) serves as an edge case for the ELP (it consists ostensibly of one single-sentence paragraph interrupted by multiple short interludes), placed Bernhard second in a list of her top six authors, saying that he “changed the direction of the novel.””

“Mark Haber, author of the one-paragraph-long Reinhardt’s Garden (2019), told an interviewer that if a reader compares Haber’s work to Bernhard’s, it is “the biggest compliment in the world.””

“David Albahari, author of the one-paragraph-long Leeches (2011) is also explicit about Bernhard’s influence on him, particularly with respect to his use of the ELP: “Thomas Bernhard had a huge influence on me in terms of the form of the novel,” he told an interviewer at The Arts Fuse. “Almost all my novels are written in one uninterrupted paragraph.””

“László Krasznahorkai, meanwhile, whose novels tend to use very few paragraphs and whose novella The Last Wolf (released in English translation in 2016) consists of only one, has admitted that Bernhard’s work “made a very deep impression” on him”

“Horacio Castellanos Moya’s single-paragraph novel Revulsion (1997) shows Bernhard’s influence even in its subtitle: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador

“Other novels that use the technique include By Night in Chile (2000) by Roberto Bolaño, Zone (2008) by Mathias Énard, SPRAWL (2018) by Danielle Dutton, Dead Souls (2021) by Sam Riviere, Lorem Ipsum (2021) by Oli Hazzard, The Hole by José Revueltas (1969, published in English translation in 2018), and Chinatown (2005) by Thuận”

“Paragraphs aid readers. Paragraphs help readers navigate texts”

“Paragraphs also offer readers places to start, pause, and stop”

“Once the reader reaches the end of a paragraph, it is likewise a convenient place to pause and consider the paragraph as a whole or to take a break”

“This may all seem a bit obvious, but it can help us understand what happens when an author uses the ELP”

“A reader can’t know if the next sentence will bring something to completion until they read the next sentence. “[I]n order to draw a limit to thinking, we should have to think both sides of this limit,” Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). A paragraph break, which allows us to glance beyond it without having to read beyond it, serves as a tool for seeing the other side of a limit”

“With no paragraph breaks, there is no way to see the other side of the limit until one reaches the blank space that marks the book’s end”

“Tim Parks argues that one of the most insidious effects of 21st-century technology on attention “is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.””

“The ELP, however, as shown above, asks the interested reader to suspend this inclination”

“Are Roth, Self, Parks, and the rest merely throwing a collective millenarian fit? Not quite”

“What these arguments overshadow, however, is the novel’s versatility, its capacity to bend in form and adapt to the particular problems of its day”

“Recent proliferation of the ELP shows the novel responding to its threats by offering, within itself, a tool through which readers can resist the habits that modern technologies otherwise force upon them”

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