Monday, July 7, 2008

Review of Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines

Novels in Three Lines
by Felix Feneon
translated by Luc Sante
New York Review Books

A behind-the-scenes figure in artistic Paris of the 1890s, Felix Feneon never published a book of his own. But he was widely admired as a great stylist, though most of his writing was published anonymously, either in literary journals of the day or in anarchist publications. Feneon also edited Rimbaud's Illuminations, published the first French translation of James Joyce, and founded several journals.

In 1906, Feneon wrote some 1,200 "novels-in-three-lines" for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. These micro-sized news items condense reports of everyday tragedies and absurdities into moments of haiku-like intensity. Whether the subject is suicide, labor unrest, murder, or burglary, Feneon employs a deadpan delivery, often with a pinch of irony. He seems to take nothing he reports, no matter how terrible, too seriously: "There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead."

Many of the items deal with domestic disputes that ended in death: "In Marseilles, Sosio Merello, a Neapolitan, killed his wife. She did not wish to market her endowments." Suicide is also a common theme: "No papers, just 5 francs and a gold purse marked A.W., were on the person of a gentleman a woodcutter found—by smell—hanged in Velizy."

The labor unrest of the time is handled in much the same way, despite Feneon's anarchist convictions: "Strikers in Ronchamp, Haute-Saone, threw in the river a worker who insisted on continuing his labor"; "Three strikers in Fressenneville have been sentenced to jail, for one, two, or three months, according to how gravely they insulted the police."

Some items are just damned odd: "Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train." Perhaps the only time Feneon is serious is when he is dealing with the poor: "In Nogent, Rosalie David, a poor little hash-house waitress, throttled her clandestine newborn and put his corpse in a trunk."

Lovers of prose poems or flash fiction will most appreciate Luc Sante's stylish translation of these quirky gems, but any fan of a good turn of phrase will enjoy these Novels in Three Lines.

--reviewed by Thomas Wiloch

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