Novels in Three Lines
Translated and Introduced by Luc Sante
Novels in Three Lines collects more than a thousand items that appeared anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906—true stories of murder, mayhem, and everyday life presented with a ruthless economy that provokes laughter even as it shocks. This extraordinary trove, undiscovered until the 1940s and here translated for the first time into English, is the work of the mysterious Félix Fénéon. Dandy, anarchist, and critic of genius, the discoverer of Georges Seurat and the first French publisher of James Joyce, Fénéon carefully maintained his own anonymity, toiling for years as an obscure clerk in the French War Department. Novels in Three Lines is his secret chef-d’oeuvre, a work of strange and singular art that brings back the long-ago year of 1906 with the haunting immediacy of a photograph while looking forward to such disparate works as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and the Death and Disaster series of Andy Warhol.
“Fénéon’s three-line news items, considered as a single work, represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of modernism…. They are the poems and novels he never otherwise wrote, or at least did not publish or preserve. They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush. And they depict the France of 1906 in its full breadth, on a canvas of reduced scale but proportionate vastness. They might be considered Fénéon’s Human Comedy.” —From the Introduction by Luc Sante
Luc Sante’s very useful introduction offers readers like me, who were totally unfamiliar with Fénéon, a strong sense of his artistic genius (he brought the artist Georges Seurat to the public’s attention and was the first French publisher of James Joyce’s work) and his place in the history of modernism. To best appreciate Fénéon’s work, simply open this treasure trove of stories and character at random and just begin reading.
— Nancy Pearl
Layered, ironic, amused, Fénéon’s voice is unmistakable..a little yo-yo of a narrative that gives pleasure no matter how many times it’s flung. The construction, the comic timing, the sly understatement that demands instant rereading.
— The New York Times
These fillers, or fait divers,…recount all manner of assault, graft, accident, labor strife, and murder in spare, factually tidy detail…These epigrammatic plots invite being read aloud, as well as other diversions.
In these artfully concise summaries of news events, Fénéon, an enigmatic French journalist and publisher, provides a glimpse of a belle epoque that belongs not to artist or intellectuals but to locksmiths, plumbers, seamstresses and the occasional sex offender.
— Los Angeles Times