Monday, November 17, 2008

Making Three Lines Breathe

Félix Fénéon was a French anarchist, journalist, and publisher (among other things) who lived from 1861 to 1944.

In 1906 he began writing for the liberal broadsheet Le Matin, which published his regular column Nouvelles en trois lignes--"the news in three lines" or "novellas in three lines."

Luc Sante, a writer and historian at Bard College, has translated and published the majority of Fénéon's creations in Novels in Three Lines.

Sante notes in his introduction, "The only reason we have them today is because Camille Plateel, his mistress for some fifty years, collected them in an album, which was found after both their deaths by Fénéon's literary executor, Jean Paulhan."
If each item is a miniature clockwork of language and event, the full thousand-and-some put together make a mosaic panorama. They represent the year 1906 in France, and they are charged with the essence of that time and place in a way that is routinely available to artifacts and impersonal documents while often remaining outside the grasp of literature.
They testify to the growing importance and menace of the automobile, the medieval conditions that still prevailed in agriculture and country life, the often fortunate inefficiency of firearms, the vulnerability of rural populations to epidemic disease, the unflagging pomposity of the military establishment, [and more].
A few samples:
A 65-year-old accountant, M. Lecler, who was out of work and ate almost never, died of starvation in the Gauvin quarry.
Six farmers, from Argenteuil and from Sannois, who were in the habit of winning damsels at gunpoint, were arrested.
While grilling a pig, an apprentice set fire to the straw, and the slaughterhouse belonging to Vésinet butcher M. Cornue went up in smoke.
On the terrace of a wineshop on Quai des Fleurs, all the tables have been broken. The reason: to enforce the weekly day of rest.
The harlots of Brest were selling illusions with the additional assistance of opium. At several houses the police seized gum and pipes.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) would devise a very similar kind of literature, culled from the core stories of legal cases, titled Testimony.

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