A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Vulpes Libris Guest Reviewer Alex Pheby, who kindly wrote us the popular and controversial Soapbox feature: ‘Buy Difficult Books!’ reviews a somewhat difficult book for us now.
Better known as the man who championed Seurat and first published Joyce in France, Félix Fénéon, anarchist and critic, was a prolific writer. What exactly it was that he wrote is difficult to determine – he published largely anonymously in the various anarchist and communist journals published in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Novels in Three Lines represents most of Fénéon’s contributions to the French newspaper Le Matin on which in 1906 he wrote and edited the faits-divers column. His entries were collected in an album by his mistress Camille Plateel and only discovered after Fénéon’s death. His work for the paper took the form of very short summaries of news not deemed worthy of longer treatment, often provincial crimes and scandal. What distinguishes each of these short pieces is not their subject matter, but the brilliance of their construction and the concision with which each tiny but perfect narrative is expressed. They contain all the literary elements of works much longer.
Take this one:
His sheaves were often set on fire. Pinard, of Coligny, Loiret, kept watch, armed. Pénon passed by; firebug or not, he caught the bullet.
Only three sentences but with place, character and plot.
The corpse of the sixtyish Dorlay hung from a tree in Arcueil, with a sign reading, “Too old to work.”
Down to one sentence, but now adding social commentary.
“To die like Joan of Arc!” cried Terbaud from the top of a pyre made of his furniture. The firemen of Saint-Ouen stifled his ambition.
These are the literary equivalent of painted miniatures. There over a thousand of them collected here, each one as meticulously constructed as the last and each one deserving of as least as much attention as one would usually give whole novels. When taken individually they are so suggestive it is impossible not to imagine them acted out and while there is the obvious appreciation of the skill involved in their construction, there is also a humanity present which sustains our interest long past the first wonder we might feel on Fénéon’s technique. Isolated and read alone they can be worked around in the mind, read and re-read, picked apart and put back together indefinitely. In short, they are little masterpieces.
If that was all there was to this collection, it would be more than enough, but there is also the effect of the book as a collection. Read together they create a world more fully realised than in almost any novel I can recall reading. Fénéon’s France is one of drunken priests and frustrated suicides, of lascivious ‘fauns’ and of the bourgeoisie repressed beyond breaking point. It is life stripped of its pretensions, conventions and hypocrisies; life revealed in all its misery, depredation and, very occasionally, its joy. The effect of so many vignettes is like the early efforts of novelists of the modern – an attempt to capture life in flux; thousands of stories glimpsed in short and passed over.
If this was an experimental novel these pieces would act like found objects: perfectly contained but also taking significance from their context. They are internally self-consistent and formally discrete, but create a network of associations that rivals any created by a traditional narrative. In fact, if this was a novel, it would have some benefits over sustained narratives. When these short pieces act together they aren’t subject to the same artificiality which typifies a novel. A narrative relies on pre-determination and literary technique: it is a carefully maintained fiction. This experiment would demonstrate the same meaningless contingency as that seen in reality.
But this is not a novel – Fénéon never even intended it as a collection. If there is credit to be given for the collective effect of this book it must be given to Camille Plateel, or perhaps the translator and editor Luc Sante. It could not (and one might argue should not) be given to Fénéon. The impression it gives in toto is reliant on there not being an intentional attempt to represent on a grand scale – it achieves its random verisimilitude precisely because that is what it is – random. Despite this, Fénéon’s particular view of France is realised at least as well as that of Stendhal, Balzac or Zola. When taken together these tiny pieces contain the whole of Fénéon. They contain the whole of France. It is tempting to say they contain the whole of life and it’s a temptation I only resist giving in to because of the absence of the small pleasures and happinesses that tend to weigh against life’s awfulness – there is an unremitting concentration here, inherited from the faits divers, on the seedy and shocking:
In a dive in Versailles, the ex-priest Rouslot obtained with his eleventh absinthe the attack of delirium tremens that did him in.
Delalande’s tender feelings for his maid were such that he killed his wife with a pitchfork. The Rennes assizes sentenced him to death.
In Le Havre, a sailor, Scouarnec, threw himself under a locomotive. His intestines were gathered up in a cloth.
Novels in Three Lines is not without its problems.
Fénéon’s personality, so clearly and characteristically expressed, is very much of his time and intellectual circle. His anarchist activities extended beyond writing: it has been suggested that Fénéon was responsible for bombings – a surprisingly common activity amongst his acquaintances at the time – and his rebellion against bourgeois sexual mores can be read as misogyny and a tacit approval of sexual violence. At times he seems to delight in the misfortunes of others, particularly children. His is not a pleasant world, but it is worth bearing in mind that these pieces were filler for a newspaper concentrating on subjects not unlike the reports of unfortunate children, freak deaths and political violence that still sell newspapers today.
Despite any reservations a reader might have on some of the subject matter, this is a paradoxical, enlightening and thrilling collection. For writers, it is an object lesson in technique and an intriguing glimpse at what can be done outside the usual narrative structures. For readers, it is a unique and incomparably authentic literary experience. If only the same could be said of all books.
New York Review of Books (2007) ISBN: 1-59017-230-2 174pp
Alex Pheby’s first novel ‘Grace‘ is about a matricidal and delusional asylum escapee’s relationship with an orphan and her reclusive grandmother. It will be available from Two Ravens Press in January of 2009. You can read Alex’s blog at The Story of the I