Wednesday 6 February 2013

About Félix Fénéon

Félix Fénéon (1861 - 1944) was an anarchist, a dandy, the editor of Rimbaud's Illuminations, the first publisher of James Joyce in French, an influential art critic (he discovered Seurat and came up with the the term 'neo-impressionism'), a brilliant literary journalist and - this is the point - an anonymous hack responsible for short news items appearing throughout 1906 in the daily newspaper Le Matin

He developed and perfected a technique of condensing regional news items into miracles of compression, deadpan wit and surreal melancholy. They were first assembled in 1940 but only appeared in English as recently as 2007. They're best read in quantity, so do try and find a copy of Novels in Three Lines (Nouvelles en trois lignes), a collection of around a thousand of these faits divers, edited and brilliantly translated by Luc Sante. (Publication details at the end of this blog.)

Fénéon's concise reports are mostly, though not exclusively, about murder, suicide, adultery, robbery, political conflict and lunacy. The cumulative effect over many pages and hundreds of disasters is mesmerising.

Some examples:

There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law's hair caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.

Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.

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.

Scratching himself with a revolver with an overly sensitive trigger, M. Edouard B. removed the tip of his nose in the Vivienne precinct house.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Theophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed.

Louis Lamarre had neither job nor home, but he did possess a few coins. At a grocery store in Saint-Denis he bought a litre of kerosene and drank it.

Novels in Three Lines, edited and translated by Luc Sante. © The New York Review of Books. ISBN: 9781590172308

The original French versions can be found here:

An excellent London Review of Books article on FF by Julian Barnes is here:

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