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.

These days the ‘three-line tale’ is a popular discipline for flash fiction writers and, liberally interpreted, can be three sentences long or indeed three paragraphs. But in fin-de-siècle Europe (and, indeed, later) ‘news in brief’ items were a staple of newspapers. Fénéon’s skill was to raise them to new levels of artistry, as these few examples, chosen at random from this compendium, demonstrate:

Once again, people have been stealing telephone cables: in Paray, Athis-Mons, and Morangis, 36,000 feet; in Longjumeau, 10 miles.

Mignon, an engraver, and M. Dumesnil, of M. Briand’s cabinet, have come to blows in Nemours. Government injured art’s elbow.

These two examples occur back to back in these pages:

At the station in Mâcon, Mouroux had his legs severed by an engine. “Look at my feet on the tracks!” he cried, then fainted.

With a four-tined pitchfork, farmhand David, of Courtemaux, Loiret, killed his wife, whom he, erroneously, thought unfaithful.

Not all items involve extreme violence:
During a scuffle in Grenoble, three demonstrators were arrested by the brigade, who were hissed by the crowd.
Thankfully no deaths resulted from the following piece, at least not directly:
How will we smoke? On the heels of the pipe makers of Saint-Claude, now the cigarette-paper makers of Saint-Girons have gone on strike.

Human inanities abound in these items: there are disputes to do with the separation of Church and State, instances of marital jealousy, accidental and deliberate suicides, childish escapades gone wrong. While localised natural disasters are noted — flooding, foot-and-mouth outbreaks, hospital fires “that hurt no one” — mostly Fénéon is intent on deadpan reporting of lived stupidities and avoidable injuries and deaths. The reader can’t help smiling while simultaneously being appalled.

Luc Sante discusses Fénéon’s colourful life in detail and it’s clear the writer was a singular individual, odd for any age and not just his own. Sante believes these miniatures, “considered as a single work, represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of modernism. It heralds the age of mass media, via a sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose; forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption, while manifesting time-consuming labor of execution . . .”

I’m no authority on modernism so can’t quibble on any of this; but when Sante declaims at length on Fénéon’s craft he may be deliberately pointing up the Frenchman’s concision. Reading long sequences of these nouvelles initially tempted me to imitate Fénéon’s extreme miserliness with words in this review, but I found it impossible to maintain. Instead I leave it to the author, who does it so much better, to have the last word:

In Oyonnax, Mlle Cottet, 18,
threw acid in the face of M. Besnard, 25.
Love, obviously.


Can I count this publication as a late entry in the category of a book of non-fiction essays for the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge? If not, no matter, I have another that might do…

9 thoughts on “A modernist milestone

  1. So interesting. I had no idea this existed. I am glad you didn’t write a very short review such as the examples you show. Huh, fast consumption of precission work which takes much longer. Interesting. I keep thinking how much of a world view is passed to us in the format chosen. I know nothing about modernism, but I believe form, and exploring different media in the arts, is a trade mark of the time, as much or more than the change in subject or content.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re very used to the short form of information retrieval now, aren’t we, Silvia—tweets of course (especially when they were only 140 characters), Breaking News ticker-tape rolling across the screen on TV news bulletins, advertising slogans, product placement. It’s easy to forget that novels once came in three separate volumes, that newspapers weren’t always tabloid with short sentences presented as whole paragraphs, and political discourse wasn’t always reduced to meaningless name-calling.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh, how I wish we were back at a slower pace era!, Or should I not wish for that? (It’s hard to see the maladies of the past, since our romantic human nature is such that we tend to find the positive side in the past and dwell in nostalgia.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Like it or not, we have to adapt to modern life with all its pluses and minuses or ourselves risk obsolescence—but thank goodness for books through which we can time travel without any jet lag or, as you say, suffering the maladies of the past!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. What gems these are. I love Luc Sante’s summation of Feneon’s work almost as much as the selection of three line tales. How wonderful it would be if journalists today had to submit some of their stories with this restriction. A great find, thanks for sharing them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think one doesn’t have to be a journalist to comment succinctly on today’s stories, as Twitter perpetually demonstrates. It’s just a pity that so many tweeter peeps are unable to do so with such wit, economy or, indeed, accuracy… Glad you enjoyed this, Cath, one of the joys of secondhand bookshops and charity shop bookshelves is the odd treasure you never expected to come across!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree, Chris, Twitter shows up the limitations most of us have. Perhaps the real beauty of Fénéon’s achievements is that his brevity is so skilful, it might be assumed to be easy.

        Liked by 1 person

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