Today’s book is Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon, published in 1906, sort of, in Luc Santé’s 2007 translation. The book consists of about a thousand of these:
Sergeant Pouget was at target practice at the camp in Souges, Gironde. His rifle exploded, injuring him. The reason: dirt in the barrel. (48)
Or, let’s see:
“I could have done worse!” exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life. (26)
These scraps were first published, obviously, I hope, in a newspaper column, not exactly filler stories. Traffic accidents, suicides, burglaries, jealous and well-armed wives and husbands, and homicides of all varieties make up most of the items. What else? Strikes, festival queens, the dedication of plaques, anarchist bombs refusing to explode.
Many of the entries are entirely banal, most of them are at least historically useful, and a few really do suggest the larger nouvelle that could be written around Fénéon’s words. The art of the form lies not just in the compression of whatever the longer story might have been, but in the little surprises that might pop out of well-chosen phrases or words. If I look back at poor Sergeant Pouget, I see that anyone could have written the first two lines of his story. The last line, though, however ordinary its contents, is phrased so that the tension is raised as high as possible, however briefly, and then shattered.
I suppose that is the secret of the murderer’s story, too – we hear what he says (who could have said that?). Then who he is (a murderer! But then why would he say that?). And then the end, one that is not exactly hard to predict, but who had time to predict it? The entire build-and-fall takes a second or two. Sometimes the entire effect is built on a single word:
With a four-tined pitchfork, farmhand David, of Courtemaux, Loiret, killed his wife, whom he, erroneously, thought unfaithful. (32)
My great puzzle is how to read this book as a book. I have hopped around; I have dutifully read ten pages a day, or five, or two; I have let random words catch my eye. Honestly, I see so point in actually reading the whole thing. I believe I will invoke my resolution not to finish books. I do not quite see the point of insisting on reading every one of these little whatsits.
The NYRB edition of Novels in Three Lines is admirable. It is interlarded with illustrations – genuine period crime scene photos, newspaper engravings, and a number of prints by the great Félix Vallotton. Please see this fine post at Adventures in the Print Trade, from which I have borrowed the illustration on the left, which is not in the book, but is in the same spirit.
Fénéon was an odd bird, an anarchist and influential publisher, and an associate of Alfred Jarry, which is more or less why I am looking at the book. Luc Santé’s introduction is excellent, plus I know how to read it, word by sentence by page.