Novels in Three Lines

NOVELS IN THREE LINES
By Félix Fénéon

In 1906 the eccentric modernist – literary professional, part-time anarchist, and all-around underground dandy – Félix Fénéon wrote over 1,200 short, unsigned, news summaries for the Paris daily Le Matin under the headline Nouvelles en trois lignes, most of which are collected and translated here as Novels in Three Lines. It is an anthology of ironic haiku on the news of the day that was certainly never meant to be published as a book. Indeed, Fénéon was always a self-effacing character curiously indifferent to posterity. When approached by someone offering to publish a collection of his work he responded that he aspired only to silence.

If it bled, it led. The news then, as now, was overwhelmingly concerned with violence. Murder and suicide were top draws. As a result, the anthology has a morgue-like feel to it, illustrated with period crime scene photographs and sketches, and strewn with corpses (almost every page has several) that tell no tales. The seeming precision provided by such information as names, ages, places, and types of injuries suffered is really worthless since the reader can’t identify or relate to it in any way. In a more playful mood, many of the mini-novels read like information-age five-second mysteries that raise more questions than they answer:

Medical examination of a little boy found in a ditch on the outskirts of Niort showed that he had undergone more than just death.

 

Martin, a fairly mysterious character, with a star tattooed on his forehead, was fished out of the dam in Meulan.

 

The bones found on Île Verte in Grenoble comprised not two but four children’s skeletons, minus two skulls.

And that’s it. We’ll never know any more. But it doesn’t matter that we don’t know the full story because we don’t really care. Like the author of these pieces, we remain cool – amused but detached. We know that such things occur, and taken altogether they only demonstrate a pattern. Accidents happen, people are killed or kill themselves.

It’s hard to gauge the success of Fénéon’s experiment, at least today, in this form. In the first place, his effect is almost entirely one of a precisely managed style that his translator describes as “applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush.” It’s a kind of minimalist poetry. And poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Luc Sante’s effort reads well, but it’s still only an interpretation of what Fénéon was trying to do.

And what he was trying to do no longer seems that strange. We are now used to this kind of presentation. Fénéon was truly avant-garde, before his time, a blogger avant la lettre writing witty news summaries meant to be skimmed rather than digested. But the times have caught up. This abbreviated mode of writing is all too familiar to us in an age of information overload where everything has become condensed to the point of losing all sense of context. Even content itself has gone missing. Three lines – a headline and a pull quote – is about all that most people are willing to read of a news story on the Internet. Meant to savour Fénéon’s careful calibration of tone and meaning, we have learned to skim.

Notes:
Review first published online December 10, 2007.