Novels in Three Lines.

Author:Greenway, Judy
Position:Book review

Felix Feneon, Novels in Three Lines

Translated and introduced by Luc Sante

New York: New York Review Books, 2007

171+xxxi pages, paperback [pounds sterling]7.99, ISBN: 978-1-59017-230-8

Strikes and suicides; epidemics, bomb scares and burglaries; rapes, murders and the shady doings of politicians--all sell newspapers. In 1906, the French anarchist Felix Feneon wrote up hundreds of such episodes in brief for the column Nouvelles en Trois Lignes (news/novels in three lines) in the Paris daily, Le Matin. Luc Sante, who has translated most of them in this collection, calls them a milestone of modernism.

The pieces were, like much of Feneon's writing, anonymous. He chose elusiveness; aspired, he said, to silence. A dandy who made his living as a clerk at the War Office, he simultaneously participated in avant-garde artistic and literary circles as an influential editor and critic, while producing anarchist propaganda aimed at workers. When he was arrested in 1894 as part of a government crackdown on anarchists, detonators were found at his workplace. Eventually acquitted (though probably guilty) of participating in bomb plots, Feneon lost his job and turned to mainstream journalism for his livelihood.

The poet Mallarme pointed out that Feneon's writings were the real detonators. How explosive, though, were these novels in three lines? Produced as ephemera, without explicit political or artistic pretensions, there is little here as striking as this earlier example of his terse commentary for the anarchist press: 'Dead sick of himself after reading the book by Samuel Smiles, (Know Thyself), a judge just drowned himself at Coulange-la-Vineuse. If only this excellent book could be read throughout the magistracy.' (1) His work for Le Matin displays a similarly mordant wit and concision: 'In Oyannax, Mlle Cottet, 18, threw acid in the face of M. Besnard, 25. Love, obviously' (p.161).

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