Felix Fénéon [Ed. and trans. by Luc Sante]
New York Review Books
On sale Aug. 21
At random: “Bernard, 25, of Essoyes, Aube, bludgeoned M. Dufert, 89, and stabbed his wife. The motive was jealousy.” Novels in Three Lines collects 1,220 “faits-divers” (“sundry events,” drawn from wire services and clippings sent by readers) penned in 1906 for the Paris newspaper Le Matin by Felix Fénéon, an editor, critic, publisher, gallery owner, behind-the-curtain cultural axis (among his many acquaintances and collaborators were Jarry, Rimbaud, Seurat; his own output is largely anonymous or pseudonymous) and infamous anarchist (when that word signified the aetheist, aesthetically progressive and communal left). In his introduction, translator and editor Luc Sante contextualizes the political, intellectual and artistic climate of Fénéon’s time in order to make an argument for his faits-divers as harbingers of the Modernist style. The case is circumstantial — it’s likely that an interest in Fénéon led later critics to these items, not the other way around — though Sante’s presentation of this material as “literary texts, attributable to an author,” is a welcome prompt.
So: Condensation is the great leveler, spatial constraints reducing each item, regardless of content or scope, to a default tone of drollery. Irony is implicit in the juxtaposition of three-liners regarding drunken brawls, crimes of passion, and suicides (“Twirling a lasso and yahooing, Kieffer, of Montreuil, committed thrice in two years, galloped away. He vanished. He went on to hang himself”) with those addressing military discipline, separation of church and state, and laborers’ strikes (“Striking weavers at Lille threw mud at the director of their company. He fired without hitting anyone”). Because of either the format or his beliefs, Fénéon makes equal sport of human venality and political process; his is a particularly postmodern morality, a distanced highbrow-lowbrow mash-up. Stylistically, Fénéon is a creative syntacticist (again, the format: how many ways are there to write three lines about auto accidents?), well-served by Sante’s exactingly timed translation, and mercurial in his inclusion and exclusion of information. It’s in his suggestive omissions that the volume earns its title: “Since their petition for divorce was languishing and her husband was a mere 70, Mme. Hennebert, of Saint-Martin-Chennetron, killed him.”