Félix Fénéon Teaches You How To Write

Give me three lines, and I'll give you the world

Fénéon (1890), by Paul Signac: A sense of time suspended.
Fénéon (1890), by Paul Signac: A sense of time suspended.

Back when I edited The Book of Masks, an anthology of French symbolist and decadent writing, the translator Iain White and I included a dozen of Félix Fénéon's three-line novels in the text. That wasn't nearly enough. Now Luc Sante has translated just over a thousand (out of the 1,220 composed by Fénéon) and they present both a panoramic picture of France in 1906 as well as an object lesson on brevity and the importance of word placement.

These pieces by Fénéon (1861-1944) were literally news, and were prepared for newspaper publication. (Think of the Metro written by poets.) Fénéon's job was to take the facts, which could undoubtedly be complicated, and boil them down to the essentials. This Fénéon did, of course. But he also infused his accounts with his own personality. What should be news bits become satirical (at times sarcastic) and profane comments on "respectable living" by an anarchist who compounded the joke by holding a day job as a clerk in the War Office.

The matter of their historical interest is disposed of simply enough. Nothing really changes. Robberies and murders were being committed all the time; fathers were molesting their children. There were even contretemps concerning prayer and the display of religious objects in schools.

Fénéon's "three-liners" are not without interest to historians and sociologists. But now let's consider them as art.

Sometimes his humor is straightforward enough:
"If my candidate loses, I will kill myself," M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself.

At other times he attains a weird surrealist humor:
Again and again Mme. Couderc of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.

Killed by a bowling ball

The pieces convey a sense of time suspended. You read them and ask yourself, "And then?" But the answers you seek are buried by the years. Was Mme. Couderc caught? Did she finally succeed at doing away with herself? Who knows?

At least one piece is worthy of inclusion in the Greek anthology. Sante himself has commented on its epigrammatic quality:
On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. Andre, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.

Now, a more "journalistic" approach to this incident might have read something like: "Died. While bowling, M. Andre, 75, of Levallois, was felled by a stroke." Fénéon, by contrast, opens with a somewhat flowery introduction: "On the bowling lawn." He then performs his journalistic duty by supplying the deceased man's name, age and place of residence. The final line is an aside from the author that, although it wasn't strictly called for, makes the piece, justifying the flowery opening and turning a mundane tragedy into a universal statement.

Fénéon doesn't always insert these author's asides into his pieces— although, when he does, he consistently fires for effect. Here we have Fénéon crafting an anti-government mini-essay in the guise of a news item:
Through a clever game of alternating resignations, the mayor and town council of Brive have delayed the building of schools.
Ambrose Bierce could hardly have done better, though his tone would doubtless have been more acidic.

Taking potshots at religion

Fénéon's piece about the man miraculously cured at Lourdes, only to die by accident, is a mordant classic. Ever the anarchist, when he wasn't taking potshots at religion— there must be a dozen pieces about local mayors and magistrates being removed from office for placing religious artifacts in classrooms— he was zeroing in on the nobility. A duke's chauffeured car runs a citizen down, and Fénéon is jolly on the spot. What, the bastard doesn't even send a representative to the poor man's funeral? That calls for a follow-up piece!

It comes as no surprise, then, that Fénéon was hauled before the courts, implicated in an anarchist bombing. (The picture on the book's front cover is actually one of his police mug shots.) He lost his job at the war office, only to find a second career as editor of the influential symbolist journal Le Revue Blanche, as an art critic and as composer of "fillers" for various newspapers.

Félix Fénéon is another forgotten figure of the last century. This translation of Novels in Three Lines into English will hopefully redress this oversight. No one would call Fénéon a second Zola, but he possessed gifts that Zola lacked. If Fénéon couldn't have written Germinal, neither could Zola have memorialized poor M. Andre quite so aptly.

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