A modernist milestone

Paul Signac, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (MOMA, NY)

Félix Fénéon: Novels in Three Lines
Translated and with an introduction by Luc Sante
New York Review Books 2007

A Verlinghem (Nord), Mme Ridez, 30 ans, a été égorgée par un voleur, cependant que son mari était à la messe.

Published during 1906 in Le Matin, a Paris daily newspaper, were short news items under the heading Nouvelles en trois lignes. As translator Luc Sante makes clear in his introduction this heading can either mean ‘the news in three lines’ or ‘novellas in three lines’ and, in the writings of the author Félix Fénéon, the intention must be that it can mean both. For here, indeed in three lines as they appear in the paper’s columns, such faits-divers are novelettes in miniature fashioned from genuine news items, each presented as a précis that can be shocking, humorous or just weirdly banal.

Thus while Monsieur Ridez is no doubt shriving his soul attending Mass his unfortunate wife is having her throat slit by a thief. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the violent that characterises a good many of these nouvelles is, unsurprisingly, a facet of Fénéon himself who, while a supporter of the arts and artists (such as Paul Signac, who painted Fénéon’s portrait) was also an anarchist sympathiser and a suspected terrorist bomber in the 1890s.

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