Who, even among scholars in the field, could keep up with the flood of attacks on Pius XII that began in the late 1990s? John Cornwell gave us Hitlers Pope , and Michael Phayer followed with The Catholic Church and the Holocaust . David Kertzer brought charges against Pius XII in The Popes Against the Jews , and Susan Zuccotti reversed her previous scholarship to pen Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy . Garry Wills used Pius as the centerpiece for his reformist Papal Sin , as did James Carroll in Constantines Sword . So, for that matter, did Daniel Goldhagen when he wrote what proved to be the most extended and straightforward assault on Catholicism in decades: A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair .
Meanwhile, the essays and occasional pieces were collected in such volumes as Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican , and The Holocaust and the Christian World , and The Vatican and the Holocaust , and Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust , and Christian Responses to the Holocaust ”and on, and on, until we seemed to be facing what the exasperated reviewer John Pawlikowski called a virtual book-of-the-month club on institutional Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.
The champions of Pius had their share of book-length innings as well”although, one might note, never from the same level of popular publisher as the attackers managed to find. In 1999 Pierre Blet produced Pius XII and the Second World War According to the Archives of the Vatican and got Paulist Press, a respectable but small Catholic house, to publish it in America. Ronald Rychlak finished his first-rate Hitler, the War, and the Pope , and the hardback was brought out by a press in Columbia, Missouri, known mostly for printing romance novels. For the paperback edition, Rychlaks work was picked up by the book-publishing arm of the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor .
Those are both fine presses in their way, and Rychlak has done well for them. But one can reasonably point out that Our Sunday Visitor is not quite at the level of distribution, advertising, and influence enjoyed by Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, Knopf, and Viking”the large houses that issued the books against Pius. The commentator Philip Jenkins recently suggested that this disparity in publishers sends a message that the mainstream view is the guilt of Pius XII, while praise for the Pope belongs only to the cranks, nuts, and sectarians.
Jenkins suggestion is worth considering. Still, no one can say Pius supporters were squashed or censored. In just six years, Margherita Marchione managed five books in praise of the Pope. The Thomistic philosopher and novelist Ralph McInerny, aggravated by the deluge of attacks, issued a splenetic volume called The Defamation of Pope Pius XII , while Justus George Lawler (a writer best known in Catholic circles for his liberalism) penned a witty evisceration of Pius critics called Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust . José Sánchez added Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust , and a slew of German and Italian books might be mentioned as well, prompted, for the most part, by the popular visibility of the English-language criticisms even in Europe.
But it was primarily in book reviews and responses that the defenders of Pius XII fought out the war”which is something of a problem. Every pope precipitates biographies, hagiographies, and maledictions, like the dropping of the rain; it is part of the job to be much written about, and the works on Eugenio Pacelli that began to appear when he became pope in 1939 seem innumerable. But no supporter has yet produced a book-length biography in the wake of the recent years of extended blame. Even Rychlaks Hitler, the War, and the Pope was essentially reactive, devoting a thirty-page epilogue to a catalogue of the errors in Cornwells book.
We have seen this pattern before. Rolf Hochhuths play The Deputy premiered in Berlin in 1963, and its picture of a greedy pope, concerned only about Vatican finances and silent about the Holocaust, immediately caused a firestorm of comment from the intellectual world. Everyone who was anyone felt compelled to weigh in.
Hochhuth himself faded away when he tried to extend his censure to Winston Churchill, penning a play in 1967 that claimed Churchill had ordered the murder of the Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski and, later, the murder of the pilot who had crashed Sikorskis plane. Unbeknownst to Hochhuth, the pilot was, in fact, still alive, and he won a libel judgment that badly damaged the London theater which had staged the play. Thereafter, Hochhuth found it harder to get a hearing”although, interestingly, the current notoriety of Pius XII seems to have resurrected the playwright to some degree, and in 2002 the Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gravas released a movie version of The Deputy with the English title Amen (or Eyewitness , in other copies).
Even without Hochhuth, the wide discussion about Pius XII he initiated in 1963 went on for several years. It produced some overheated journalistic attempts to cash in on the public interest, such as Robert Katz Black Sabbath and Death in Rome (the latter being the target of a successful libel suit, this time brought by Pius XIIs niece, Countess Elena Pacelli Rossignani). But the era brought forth as well three more serious and scholarly”indeed, by todays standards, quite moderate and thoughtful”attacks: Guenter Lewys The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964), Carlo Falconis The Silence of Pius XII (1965), and Saul Friedlanders Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation (1966).
The brouhaha also prompted the Vatican to begin releasing material from Pius pontificate, which appeared from 1965 to 1981 as the eleven-volume series Actes et Documents . In part by relying on these new documents, but even more by simply gathering their forces and investigating each of the incidents taken as the core of the indictment, the defenders gradually tamped down The Deputy s claims about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Pope John Paul II was a consistent advocate for his predecessor, and even once-popular notions about Pius”that he was, for instance, the great reactionary opponent against whom Vatican II turned”gradually seemed to lose steam by the late 1970s and early 80s. It took more than a decade, but the reactive reviewers appeared to carry the day, and the popular magazine press and major book publishers lost interest.
A few commentators noted that the whole thing hadnt entirely died. The historian Michael Tagliacozzo said he kept an open file labeled Calumnies Against Pius XII. But most were unprepared when the criticism began again in the late 1990s. To journalists and cultural commentators, Hitlers Pope seemed almost to come out of nowhere in 1999, and it received almost entirely ecstatic reviews when it first appeared. A few skeptical journalists who remembered the Hochhuth battles” Newsweek s Kenneth Woodward and the New York Times Peter Steinfels, notably”doubted Cornwells conclusions, but it had been years since they had investigated the topic, and they were unprepared to provide details about the books errors.
Time was needed for scholars to gin up the machine again, double-check the claims in Hitlers Pope , and publish the reviews. Some of the results proved deeply embarrassing for Cornwell, particularly the falsity of his boast that he had spent months on end in the archives, when he visited the Vatican for only three weeks and didnt go to the archives every day of that. The Italian letter from Pacelli that Cornwell placed at the center of his book as evidence of deep anti-Semitism had been, he claimed, waiting secretly like a time bomb until he did his research. In fact, it had been published in 1992 in a book by Emma Fattorini, who”an actual Italian, not working on a partisan translation”thought it meant very little. By the time all this came out, however, Hitlers Pope had ridden out its time on the best-seller list.
Pius supporters were better prepared for Susan Zuccotti, and still better prepared for Garry Wills, and David Kertzer, and James Carroll, and, particularly, Daniel Goldhagen, who was especially harried in late 2002. By then, the whole thing had turned into a giant game of Whack the Mole, with dozens of reviewers ready to smash their mallets down on the next author to stick up his head. Poor Peter Godman, for instance, has recently written Hitler and the Vatican: Inside the Secret Archives that Reveal the New Story of the Nazis and the Church ; before the book was even out of galleys, the scholars had ready a list of Godmans factual errors, missed documents, and wrongheaded translations.
As it happens, Godman appears not to have done a terrible job with Hitler and the Vatican . Despite its tendentious opening”how could the Vatican not raise its voice against the cruelties of racism, the brutality of totalitarianism [and] the repression of liberties in the Third Reich? Godman asks, although his own book goes on to prove the Vatican to some degree did exactly that” Hitler and the Vatican seems, on the whole, slightly more a defense than an assault, blaming mostly the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal for what other authors have charged against Eugenio Pacelli while he was nuncio in Germany and secretary of state in Rome. Just as The Deputy moved the archivists in Rome to release Actes et Documents over the next sixteen years, so the current Pius War has prompted an accelerated”by glacial Vatican norms”opening of a few new archives from the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), whom Pacelli served as the Vaticans secretary of state. Along with an Italian Jesuit named Giovanni Sale (who has been writing a torrent of articles for the Roman Jesuit journal La Civilt Cattolica ), Godman is among the first scholars to have used the new documents. And although he looked at only a handful”the title of his book is considerably overblown”he seems to have done so in a relatively reasonable and balanced way, particularly given the standard set by Cornwell and Goldhagen.
Unfortunately, you would never guess it from the publicity material his publisher, Free Press, issued to reviewers. Godman is carefully identified as an atheist, lest anyone think he has a personal stake in exonerating Catholicism”but the press release begins by denying that he is, in fact, doing anything other than denouncing the Church. Finally, it opens (and, oh, that telling, breathless finally: Yes, finally! ), the full story of the Catholic Church and its connection to the Nazis can be told”thanks to the historic opening of the Vaticans most secret and controversial archives. Ever since 1542, the Catholic Churchs secretive office known as the Roman Inquisition has been its most feared, and one of its most powerful as the organization responsible for all matters concerning Catholic faith and morals. It was this committee of cardinals that was charged with formulating church policy toward the Nazis in the 1930s. Records of the Inquisition concerning the Nazis have been kept at the highest grade of papal secrecy, breach of which entails excommunication, until now.
Until now , you understand. Until now! It would be funny”in fact, it is funny, although one feels a little guilty quoting a publishers press release against an author, just as one tries not to blame professors for the notes their students take in class”but the publicists at Free Press are not responding to nothing. Theyre trying to sell a book, and they have correctly grasped the public consensus that has been formed over the last few years.
There was a curious moment during the exchanges about A Moral Reckoning in which Daniel Goldhagen appeared to admit that he had gotten the details wrong, but the point remained untouched. At one level, that makes no sense: He was writing an argumentative essay, after all, and if his evidence fails, so must his conclusion. But at another level, it makes perfect sense. However successfully the reviewers refuted the Popes detractors, the sum of all those well-publicized attacks, from Cornwell on, has had a tremendous impact on what people think”the tropes they use, the pictures they form, the things journalists think they can get away with saying, the images pundits believe will prove useful when they wish to strafe a particular target.
In the public mind at the present moment, theres almost nothing bad you cant say about Pius XII. The Vatican may end up declaring him a saint”the slow process of canonization has been winding its way through the Roman curia since the mid-1960s”but the general public has gradually been persuaded that Pius ranks somewhere among the greatest villains ever to walk the earth. Nearly every crime of the twentieth century seems to be laid at this mans feet. Disapprove of the war in Vietnam? Well, according to a Ft. Lauderdale newspaper, Pius XII was the main inspirer and prosecutor of that war. Hate racism? An article in 2002 painted him as a slavering racist who mocked the Moroccan soldiers fighting for the Free French. Another had the young Pacelli denouncing black American soldiers for routinely raping German women and children after World War I.
Worse, he signed for the Vatican a hitherto-unknown secret pact with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Catholic hierarchy has suppressed all copies, so nobody knows what it said, but it must have been bad”although it scarcely seems necessary, since (a French author assured us in 1996) the Vatican and Germany began secretly working together all the way back in 1914 to bring about a German domination of Europe. Perhaps it doesnt matter that this contradicts other theories floating around these days: that Pius XII was secretly working with Mussolini to achieve an Italian domination of Europe, for instance, or that he was secretly plotting with hard-line anti-Soviets to make the Protestant United States and Great Britain the worlds great powers. The point is that there is simply no depravity one can put past the man. He suppressed the anti-Nazi encyclical that Pius XI on his deathbed begged him to release. He was deeply implicated in the Germans massacre of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves. He expressly permitted, even encouraged, the S.S. to round up Romes Jews in 1943.
At the root of all this lies the fact that Pius XII was, fundamentally, a follower of Hitler, a genocidal hater of the Jews in his heart and in his mind, and once we recognize him as a Nazi who somehow escaped punishment at the Nuremberg trials, we can see the origin of all the rest. He was Hitlers Pope , in the title of John Cornwells book. The Holocaust happened Under His Very Windows , in the title of Susan Zuccottis. Pius XII represents the highest pitch of Papal Sin , in Garry Wills title. Modern times is defined by The Popes Against the Jews , in David Kertzer’s”and just so nobody misses the point, the drawing on the dust jacket of Michael Phayer’s book features a Nazi with whip and a Catholic priest standing on the body of a Holocaust victim.
Meanwhile, the Times of London named him a war criminal in 1999. The next year the television program 60 Minutes insisted there was absolutely no difference between the writings of Pius and the writings of Hitler. Daniel Goldhagen called him a Nazi collaborator who tacitly and sometimes materially aided in mass murder”which was relatively mild compared to Goldhagens other description of the Pope as a willing servant of the closest human analogue to the Antichrist and a man whose Churchs two-thousand-year history is nothing but preparation for the Holocausts slaughter of the Jews.
Forget the often-denounced silence of Pius XII about the Holocaust. Pacelli didnt just accept Hitler; he loved the Nazi leader and agreed with him about everything. Did you know that shortly after World War I he gave the starving Adolf Hitler money because he so much approved the young mans ideas? (This, by the way, is from a book that also reveals how Pius XII was merely the puppet of his Vatican housekeeper, Sister Pascalina.) Perhaps avarice to increase Vatican finances is what made him force reluctant Swiss banks to confiscate Jewish accounts. But only enduring belief in Nazi ideas can explain why Pius was the chief funder and organizer of the Ratline that helped hunted Gestapo agents escape to South America after Hitlers defeat.
Regardless, the Pope was manifestly an anti-Semite of the first water”John Cornwell declared his views of the kind that Julius Streicher would soon offer the German public in every issue of his notorious Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer ”except when Pius is said to have merely allowed Hitler free rein, accepting the murder of the Jews as the price to be paid for getting Germany to war against the greater menace of the godless Communists in Soviet Russia. These notions are not necessarily contradictory. In a 1997 essay, the widely published Richard L. Rubenstein concluded: during World War II Pope Pius XII and the vast majority of European Christian leaders regarded the elimination of the Jews as no less beneficial than the destruction of Bolshevism.
All of these claims are mistaken, of course”and more than mistaken: demonstrably and obviously untrue, outrages upon history and fellow feeling for the humanity of previous generations. But none of them are merely the lurid fantasies of conspiracy-mongers huddled together in paranoia on their Internet lists. Every one of these assertions has been made in recent years by books and articles published with mainstream and popular American publishers.
And when we draw from them their general conclusion”when we reach the point at which Rubenstein, for example, has arrived”then discourse is over. Research into primary sources, argument about interpretation, the scholars task of weighing historical circumstances: All of this is quibbling , an attempt to be fair to monstrosity, and by such fairness to condone, excuse, and participate in it. After printing the opening salvo of Goldhagens offensive against Catholicism, the publisher of the New Republic announced that Pius XII was, simply and purely, a wicked man. And once one has said that, one has said all that needs to be known.
It was here that the Pius War was lost”and lost for what I believe will be at least a generation”despite the victories of the reviewers. The question of why now? is an interesting one. Philip Jenkins understands it as not particular to Pius XII at all, but merely a convenient trope by which American commentators express what he calls an entirely new form of anti-Catholicism. Others see it in a continuum of more old-fashioned American distaste for the Whore of Babylon that dwells in Rome, spinning Jesuitical plots. Ralph McInerny linked it darkly to contemporary hatred of the Churchs stand against abortion. Noting the predominance of a certain sort of Catholic author in these debates, Justus George Lawler suggested the root lay in a papaphobia that has turned against the entire idea of authority. David Dalin argued that it was finally about John Paul II: an intra-Catholic fight over the future of the papacy, with the Holocaust merely the biggest club around for opponents of the current pope to use against his supporters.
All of these are quite interesting. None are quite persuasive. What the real cause may be, I cannot decide for myself. But it is into a world of public and scholarly opinion formed by books like Hitlers Pope that every new attempt to consider the issue must enter. Relatively mild efforts to praise the Pope (such as José Sánchezs Pius XII and the Holocaust in 2002), like relatively mild criticism (such as Martin Rhonheimers November 2003 essay in First Things ), are as clueless about the situation in which they appear as the proverbial visitors from Mars. Indeed, there is something willful and maddening in their tone of Olympian detachment. In a world of imbalance, what but pressure on the other side can restore the balance that a true scholar is supposed to love? I am convinced that we will not achieve anything resembling historical accuracy until all present views have been cleared away”and thus, that the job for every honest writer who takes up the topic now is to correct the slander of Pius XII.
I did not always think so. A minor member of the chattering classes, I entered the Pius War in 2000 with an essay that was far from an exoneration of the Pope. Attempting to strike a balance (the voice of sweet reason and evenhandedness is always easier for a writer to cobble up than the reality), I suggested in an article for Crisis magazine that perhaps no one could have been expected to do better than Pius XII, but, even so, what he did was not enough when faced with World War II and the Holocaust.
And there I left it. Although the continued flow of books attacking the Pope began to annoy me, they even more began to bore me, and I refused to commission a review of any of them for the Weekly Standard , the magazine at which I work. But one day, I bumped into the historian and rabbi David Dalin on the street in Washington, D.C. Over coffee, he mentioned that he had been reading John Cornwell and Susan Zuccotti, and although it wasnt precisely his field”and, anyway, hed never thought particularly well of Pius XII”there was something about these books he didnt trust: some manifest desire to find guilt whether it was there or not, some adventitious and hungry tone that put his teeth on edge.
And at that point, there on M Street, I had an idea. It occurred to me that if a scholarly American reader like David Dalin was feeling this way, then probably others were beginning to as well. A neoconservative and center-right publication, the Weekly Standard is widely read by the pundit class in New York and Washington, and so I commissioned David to write an omnibus review of the enormous set of new books on Pius. What weekly magazine editors want, more than anything else, is to get out just enough ahead of opinion that it looks as though theyre leading the parade, giving first expression to an idea inchoate but building among readers. Moreover, I imagined the vast majority of neoconservative commentators”together with neoliberal and center-left, for that matter”would nod in agreement when the review appeared.
Events proved me wrong. More prescient than I in understanding where the debate was actually going, David Dalin grew more furious the more he read in the popular books. Eventually he turned in an essay that went far beyond any claim I had been willing to make. Published in February 2001, it concluded that Pius XII deserves recognition among Jews as a Righteous Gentile who saved hundreds of thousands of lives during the Holocaust.
The reaction, in the arena I had hoped to influence, was brutal, and the Weekly Standard found itself leading the parade only in the sense that a man running for his life leads the mob pursuing him. Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times responded in the way I had supposed most would, writing a piece for the New York Times Book Review that grumbled a little but eventually concluded the claims about Pius XII were overwrought and Dalin was basically right: the Pope did more than most to shelter Jews.
But the center-left New Republic immediately commissioned Daniel Goldhagen to interrupt the book he was writing and savage Pius XII instead”which he did in what is said to be the longest essay ever published in the magazines pages. The neoconservative Commentary was so rankled that it did what it would not have done in nearly any other circumstance: it published a long rebuke of the Weekly Standard by a leftist author who had already made many of the same complaints in an article for Christian Century . At a Holocaust symposium the next summer, one conservative editor declared he would never read another word David Dalin wrote”because Pius XII was beyond apology. Curiously, this was the same editor who had told me the year before that my own nuanced defense of the Pope in Crisis seemed exactly the right way to understand the topic. But the momentum of the continuing offensive against Pius was stronger than I had guessed, and in my own journalistic world, David Dalins essay served mostly to harden opinion toward exactly the opposite of what I had intended.
In a handful of other worlds”particularly conservative Catholic ones”the essay did quite well. But those were the worlds that hardly needed it. For people of that persuasion, the omnipresent assault on Pius XII drives them toward the worst possibilities for their communities: a dread that rampant anti-Catholicism is shortly to unleash itself upon them, a hunger to flee to small fellowships of the saved and away from the corruption of the public square, an embracing of a self-image as victims, and a belief that a dark cloud rests over the sum of modern times. Even a Jewish writer”and a rabbi, too”sees the slander for what it is, they say. And thereby they confirm, for those whom the essay only angered, that David Dalin let himself be used as a Jew to advance a sectarian Catholic agenda (mine, presumably, although my friends have had the courtesy not to say that to my face). And so the whole coil curls up around itself once more, and we get no forwarder.
Perhaps a book that collected the best reviews would help. However large it personally looms, the part played by David and me was small. The attempt to sift through the endless stream of books about Pius XII in recent years was actually carried out by indefatigable reviewers in dozens of magazines and journals, responding to the texts one by one.
The controversy also motivated additional research, and new material now seems to arrive every week. As far as I can tell, all this recent information tells in favor of Pius XII. A recently discovered 1923 letter to the Vatican from Eugenio Pacelli, then nuncio to Germany, for instance, denounces Hitlers putsch and warns against his anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. A document from April 1933, just months after Hitler obtained power, reveals how Pacelli (then secretary of state) ordered the new German nuncio, Cesare Orsenigo, to protest Nazi actions.
Meanwhile, newly examined diplomatic documents show that in 1937 Cardinal Pacelli warned A. W. Klieforth, the American consul to Berlin, that Hitler was an untrustworthy scoundrel and fundamentally wicked person, to quote Klieforth, who also wrote that Pacelli did not believe Hitler capable of moderation, and . . . fully supported the German bishops in their anti-Nazi stand. This was matched with the discovery of Pacellis anti-Nazi report, written the following year for President Roosevelt and filed with Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, which declared that the Church regarded compromise with the Third Reich as out of the question.
Archives from American espionage agencies have recently confirmed Pius XIIs active involvement in plots to overthrow Hitler. A pair of newly found letters, written in 1940 on the letterhead of the Vaticans Secretariat of State, give Pius XIIs orders that financial assistance be sent to Campagna for the explicit purpose of assisting interned Jews suffering from Mussolinis racial policies. And the Israeli government has finally released Adolf Eichmanns diaries, portions of which confirm the Vaticans obstruction of the Nazis roundup of Romes Jews.
Theres more, a regular flow of new material. Intercepts of Nazi communications released from the United States National Archives include such passages as Vatican has apparently for a long time been assisting many Jews to escape, in a Nazi dispatch from Rome to Berlin on October 26, 1943, ten days after the Germanys Roman roundup. New oral testimony from such Catholic rescuers as Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, Sister Mathilda Spielmann, Father Giacomo Martegani, and Don Aldo Brunacci insists that Pius XII gave them explicit orders and direct assistance to help persecuted Jews in Italy. The posthumous publication this year of Harold Tittmanns memoir, Inside the Vatican of Pius XII , is particularly interesting, for in it the American diplomat reveals, for the first time, that Pius XIIs wartime conduct drew upon advice from the German resistance.
Out of all this, one might begin to build a new case for Pius XII. My own sense is that the anti-Pius books are coming to an end. Even small academic publishers seem to be tiring of the genre, and the market for such books may have at last dried up. Still, I could be wrong. America seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for books about World War II (especially the military aspects) and a nearly equal appetite for books about the Holocaust. Robert Katzs recent The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope manages to marry military strategy and the Holocaust”with a large dose of bitter anti-Catholicism thrown in for good measure, the result of enduring anger about the criminal-libel case Katz lost in Italy over his earlier book blaming Pius for the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves. The success or failure of The Battle for Rome will be a useful measure of our current publishing situation.
But however the market looks, what we really need now is a new biography of Pius XII during those years: a nonreactive account of his life and times, a book driven not by the reviewers instinct to answer charges but by the biographers impulse to tell an accurate story. Before that can be done well, I think, the archives of Pius XIIs pontificate will probably have to be fully catalogued and opened. Documents released here and there are useful, but useful is a dangerous word in this context, for the use is always in building an argument: a laying out of evidence to make or rebut a charge, rather than a knowledge of the Popes day-to-day actions. The Vatican has already begun to open some archives earlier than scheduled under the various time-locks, and it promises to open more.
In the meantime, the reviewers contributions remain. But the reviewers dilemma remains as well: They won the battles, but how are they going to win the war?
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard, poetry editor of First Things , and co-editor of The Pius War, an anthology of reviews forthcoming from Lexington Books. This essay is adapted from a talk for the St. Anselm Institute at the University of Virginia.
“No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep,” says the garrulous shoemaker who narrates the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” (1964), “it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out.” Thirty-three pages into what appears to be an unbroken highway of text, the reader might well wonder if that’s a mission statement or an invitation. “Dancing Lessons” unfurls as a single, sometimes maddening sentence that ends after 117 pages without a period, giving the impression that the opinionated, randy old cobbler will go on jawing ad infinitum. But the gambit works. His exuberant ramblings gain a propulsion that would be lost if the comma splices were curbed, the phrases divided into sentences. And there’s something about that slab of wordage that carries the eye forward, promising an intensity simply unattainable by your regularly punctuated novel.
Hrabal wasn’t the first to attempt the Very Long Sentence. The Polish novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski went even longer in “The Gates of Paradise” (1960), weaving several voices into a lurid and majestic 158-page run-on. (The novel actually consists of two sentences, the final one a mere five words long.) An old priest listens to the contradictory confessions of some apparently holy but actually just horny French teenagers marching toward Jerusalem in the 13th-century Children’s Crusade. A profusion of colons and dashes helps toggle among the multiple points of view, while repeated descriptions of crummy weather give the brain some breathing space. Every mention of the “long and arduous road” seems to comment on the enduring nature of the sentence itself. The descriptions of sex — e.g., “That’s why when we do it we can keep it going so long” — also gain a double meaning.
For a long time, Hrabal and Andrzejewski were the only practitioners of the sentence-long book I could find. Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route: you’re locked in, committed to a rhythm and a certain claustrophobia. But might the format also be liberating? Joan Didion told The Paris Review in 1978: “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Sticking to just one sentence, ironically, might keep your options perpetually open.
The most famous mega-sentence in literature comes at the end of the book, not the beginning. Molly Bloom’s monologue from “Ulysses” (1922) —36 pages in the thinly margined, micro-fonted 1986 single-volume corrected text (and actually two long sentences, thanks to an often-overlooked period 17 pages in) — sets an impossibly high standard for the art of the run-on. It breathlessly binds together all that comes before while nearly obliterating it, permanently coloring the reader’s memory in one final rush. It feels unstoppable, and then it stops.
Molly’s soliloquy is a touchstone for writers aiming to go long. A copy of “Ulysses” pops up in “Green Coaster,” the 33-page, single-sentence section that closes Jonathan Coe’s brilliant novel “The Rotters’ Club” (2001). (The BBC has reported that at 13,955 words, it is the longest sentence ever written in English.)
Joyce also makes a cameo in the most recent candidate for the absurdly exclusive Book-as-Sentence club, the French novelist Mathias Énard’s “Zone” (2008), just published in an English translation. At 517 pages, it’s far longer than the Hrabal and Andrzejewski combined, though its status as a true single sentence is compromised by 23 chapter breaks that alleviate eye strain. (If “Zone” qualifies, what about Samuel Beckett’s 147-page “How It Is” (1961), with its paragraphic chunks but complete absence of periods?) A bigger disqualification for Énard’s book, about a train journey, is that three of the chapters are passages from a book the narrator is reading — a mediocre short story ripe with periods. If only he’d packed some Hrabal.Continue reading the main story