I finally finished moseying through Luc Sante's new(ish) translation of Félix Fénéon's Novel in Three Lines. First, a little background: Fénón (1861-1944) lived his life in the background. He edited the work of Rimbaud, reviewed books and art (helping to discover Seurat), went on trial for his involvement in anarchist circles, edited newspapers, published Proust and Apollinaire, translated Northanger Abbey and the letters of Edgar Allen Poe, and later sold paintings and ran his own publishing house.
In 1906 the news was filled with reports of the threat of anarchists, newly popular automobiles and the accidents they caused, suicides, derelict soldiers, drownings, the forced separation of school and church, and violence violence violence. It was in this atmosphere that Fénéon spent six months composing little unsigned, three lined "fillers" for a mass circulation paper. This involved culling items from wire dispatches from all over France and its colonies and rewriting them in a wry style more poetry or haiku than newspaper copy. As I understand it this was exactly Fénéon's style, quietly, invisibly, pushing subversive, verging on surreal items on the public without ever expecting nor wanting any recognition. In my mind this makes him a patron saint for all the bedroom artists quietly making work for their own satisfaction without any mind for a larger audience.
On a side note, I would love to give these to schoolchildren as a prompt for a creative writing exercise (as Van Allsburg's book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is used). The other book this reminds me of is the anonymously published 1883 volume The Pretty Women of Paris that is nothing less than a catalog of every prostitute in Paris at the time, her specialties and history. Long after everyone mentioned in the book is gone, it is still notable for inadvertently recording the biographies of hundreds of poor, urban women for posterity at a time when most history seemed only to involve battlefields. Both these books in just a few words paint a picture of an age not always captured in great histories while also drawing individual people out of the fog of time and into sudden, recognizable focus. I love that.
Here are some of my favorites (out of the 1,220 in the book):
Bones have been discovered in a villa on Île Verte, near Grenoble, those—she admits it—of the clandestine offspring of Mme P.
Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.
Bonnaut, a locksmith in Montreuil, was chatting on his doorstep when the gangster called Shoe Face struck him twice with a knife.
A hnaged man, there two months, has been found in the Estérel mountains. Fierce birds had completely disfigured him with their beaks.
Napoléon Gallieni, a stonecutter, broke his neck falling down the stairs. He may have been pushed. In any case he was taken to the morgue.
The parish priest of La Compôte, Savoie, was walking through the hills alone. He lay down, naked, under a beech tree, and died of an aneurysm.
Widowed customs agent Ackermann, of Fort-Philippe, Nord, was to have been married today, but was found hanged over the tomb of his wife.
In the vicinity of Noisy-sur-École, M. Louis Delillieau, 70, dropped dead of sunstroke. Quickly his dog Fido ate his head.
A man of 30-some years committed suicide in a hotel in Mâcon. "Do not attempt to find out my name," he had written.
A virgin of Djiajelli, 13, subject to lewd advances by a 10-year-old, killed him with three thrusts of her knife.
Atop a train station in Enghien a painter was electrocuted. His jaws could be heard clacking, then he fell on the glass roof.
Twirling a lasso and yahooing, Kieffer, of Montreuil, committed thrice in two years, galloped away. He vanished. He went on to hang himself.
What?! Children perched on his wall?! With eight rounds M. Olive, property owner in Toulon, forced them to scramble down all bloodied.
Sailor Renaud carried out a suicide pact with his mistress, in Toulon. Their last request: a coffin for two, or at least a double grave.
Harold Bauer and Casals will give a concert today in San Sebastian. Besides that, they may fight a duel.
On Bécu, 28, who arrived at Beaujon hospital with a gunshot wound, they counted 28 scars. His nickname in the underworld: The Target.
M. Dickson, of Choisy-le-Roi was wandering around on his roof. A thief! Three policemen climbed up and the sleepwalker fell off.
At the Trianon Palace, a visitor disrobed and climbed into the imperial bed. It is disputed whether he is, as he claims, Napoleon IV.
Accountant Auguste Bailly, of Boulogne, fractured his skull when he fell from the flying trapeze.
Frogs, sucked up from Belgian ponds by the storm, rained down upon the streets of the red-light district of Dunkirk.
There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken the window for for the door, is dead.
"To die like Joan of Arc!" cried Terbaud from the top of a pyre made of his firniture. The firemen of Saint-Ouen stifled his ambition.
Martin, a fairly mysterious character, with a star tattooed on his forehead, was fished out of the dam in Meulan.
"Let me die quietly; I won't say anything," said Devinder, 19, knifed at five in the morning on Place Carnot in Saint-Denis, to the police.
To ensure his place in heaven, Desjeunes of Plainfang, Vosges, had covered with holy pictures the bed where he killed himself with rum.
On the left shoulder of a newborn, whose corpse was found near the 22nd Artillery barracks, a tattoo: a cannon.
At the cemetery in Essarts-le-Roi, M. Gauthier had buried his three daughters. He wanted to have them exhumed. One corpse was missing.
"Ouch!" cried the cunning oyster eater, "A pearl!" Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 30 cents at the dime store.
The bones found on Île Verte in Grenoble comprised not two but four children's skeletons, minus to skulls.
In response to a proposal to publish his own collection of his work, Fénéon remarked, "Je n'aspire qu'au silence" (I aspire only to silence).