While today unknown to many (and during his lifetime just as anonymous), Félix Fénéon is noted as a preeminent tastemaker in late 19th and early 20th century France. Among his many artistic contributions: Discovering Georges Seurat and coining the term “Neo-impressionism;” later his publishing house released the first French translation of James Joyce in 1924. He held many titles, including critic, art dealer, and anarchist, but with Novels in Three Lines, he makes his literary début. Of sorts.
Novels, translated and introduced by Luc Sante, is a collection of faits-divers (according to Sante, it roughly translates to “sundry events”) in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Matin, short narratives of events that, for whatever reason, did not warrant full coverage. Foreign to Americans, faits-divers are common in European dailies, and when consumed together, Fénéon’s collective happenings take on a disturbing tone, arguably aided by their quotidian nature. Astonishingly, all 1,220 faits-divers in the text are from the year 1906 alone.
The three line “novellas” are fascinating snapshots of early 20th century France, if only to learn of defenestration's popularity as a method of suicide. All varieties of human experience are contained therein: death, theft, birth, sex, and betrayal. The author, who never signed any of the entries when they appeared in papers, is masterful at manipulating and artfully subverting the readers’ expectations within a single sentence. The entries are sometimes clever (“The salt makers of Pesquiers plant in Hyères would like to add some flavor to their work. To this end, they are going on strike”), occasionally sentimental (“Born January 21, 1807, Claudine Digonnet, née Bonjour, died in Villeurbanne. Thirty grandchildren enlivened her old age”), but more often macabre (“Digging in the dirt around a tree in the Bois de Boulogne, a dog turned up the corpse of a newborn infant boy”).
The closest modern equivalent is perhaps the recently deceased David Markson’s The Last Novel, though Markson’s short missives are intentionally strung together to create the linear emotional heft that Fénéon’s work achieves by chance collection. Regardless, Fénéon is such a master of the language that one scarcely notices his three sentence limitations; each short squirms with life. They are best consumed a few pages at a time, so the reader may marvel at the little tragedies that Fénéon narrates so deftly without losing a single detail.
(Luc Sante is, among many things, the proprietor of Pinokothek, a fascinating and highly recommended photo blog.)