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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.

Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon – Guest Review by Alex Pheby

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.
And this:

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

21 comments on “Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon – Guest Review by Alex Pheby

  1. spacedlaw
    September 17, 2008

    Sounds interesting! I wonder if it does exist in French though…

  2. Alex Pheby
    September 17, 2008

    It does: ‘Nouvelles en trois lignes’ Paris, Macula (ISBN 2865890287)

  3. RosyB
    September 17, 2008

    Sounds like a precursor to flash fiction.

    But does it add up to more than the sum of its parts? The lines you quote sound intriguing but I think I might get fed up with an entire bookworth of them if I didn’t feel the whole thing was going further. Or am I missing the point?

  4. kirstyjane
    September 17, 2008

    I have a feeling this is one of these books you should read in very short installments, savouring the impact of each line – otherwise it could very quickly induce nausea and fatigue.

    I will be looking out for the French edition.

  5. Lisa
    September 17, 2008

    Yes, I was thinking that too, Kirsty. Thanks for the excellent review, Alex. Much appreciated.

  6. Sameera
    September 17, 2008

    Good review,very interesting.

    Dropped here by the lil black box!

  7. Lisa
    September 17, 2008

    Hi Sameera. Thanks for stopping by! Gosh, I’m rather addicted to that black box widget 🙂

  8. Alex Pheby
    September 17, 2008

    “this is one of these books you should read in very short installments, savouring the impact of each line – otherwise it could very quickly induce nausea” – sounds like not only a precursor to flash fiction, but also to the existential novel… (bit of a Sartrean in-joke there).

    You’re right though, kirstyjane – it’s not the kind of book to race through and it’s a stretch in the first place to treat it like a novel. Perhaps, RosyB, it should be thought of more like a book of poetry, having a cumulative effect (or like Selima Hill’s ‘The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness’ – disjointed images coming together to create a larger picture.)

  9. RosyB
    September 17, 2008

    Just to say I clicked on your book to see what it was about and didn’t realise it was an excerpt. Just finished reading it. Really enjoyed it. Very powerful. I hope it goes well for you. I’ll keep an eye out in January.


  10. Alex Pheby
    September 17, 2008

    Thanks RosyB – you might well find your comment on the back of the book if the publishers see this.

  11. Jackie
    September 18, 2008

    Feneon’s three lines reminded me of a sort of haiku, without the syllable count but capturing the essence of an event or personality, a vignette. As you say, I was left wondering about the befores and afters of the stories. It must take great skill to distill a news article to such minimum expression, it’s quite impressive.
    But he does not sound like a nice person, which seems underscored by the cover photo, which looks like a mug shot. All in all, a very curious book to look into. Thanks for the guest review, Mr. Pheby, it’s always great to see you on VL.

  12. Alex Pheby
    September 18, 2008

    Thanks Jackie.

    The cover photo is a mug shot. He was arrested on suspicion of a bombing I think…
    For a more sympathetic depiction try Signac’s portrait of him:

  13. Stewart
    September 18, 2008

    I’ve looked at this book a few times and just don’t get it. I doubt I ever will. By ‘get it’, I suppose I mean the point, as it makes sense to me. But I can’t see the sense in it. Perhaps it’s just because I like to push through the pages and wouldn’t want to spend a while contemplating the depth and meaning implied by three lines, especially when there’s plenty more lines to be read. Ah well!

    I agree with Jackie about the three lines being reminiscent of Japanese poetry: not haiku though, but senryu.

  14. RosyB
    September 18, 2008

    Alex and Stewart – do you think it’s more of a writers’ than readers’ book? Sounds like a lot of skill to be admired…but as a reader I want a bit more than that…Or less, even. 😉

  15. Alex Pheby
    September 18, 2008

    Not sure I’d make too much of a distinction between writers and readers – while readers might not always write, writers certainly do always read, which confuses things a bit. But I get your point.

    If, as a reader, you demand a sustained narrative, then this certainly isn’t going to be for you. If you are the teensiest bit phobic about writing that doesn’t follow traditional structure, then this also won’t be for you. If, however, you are prepared to alter your reading behaviours a little – read in very small chunks or relax into letting impressions flow over you, rather than searching always for progression – then there is a lot to get out of this. Even if this isn’t your thing you can dip in and out – there’s some very nice little vignettes in here.

    I’d say it was possible to make a very interesting ‘experience’ out of this by reading it straight through, but it would certainly be a challenge. If you don’t think its worth it, then just cherry pick the pieces individually and appreciate them for what they are – brilliant, but very short, stand alone stories.

  16. Alex Pheby
    September 18, 2008

    BTW – I was looking forward to finding out where the best writing is to be found online – am I going to be disappointed?

  17. Lisa
    September 18, 2008

    Hope not! Far as I know it’s due up today. Should be good.

  18. kirstyjane
    September 18, 2008

    Nice Sartre reference, Alex! I wonder if Fénéon ever played on the pun in his own last name… although he doesn’t exactly sound like a do-nothing (fainéant) to me!

  19. Erin
    September 18, 2008

    Just stopping in via the black box!

  20. spacedlaw
    September 19, 2008

    Cool! Thanks, Alex.

  21. Pingback: feneon: tweet tweet, he’s got you beat | Madame Pickwick Art Blog

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2008 by in Non-fiction: history.



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