Friday, June 10, 2011

Novels in Three Lines - I could have done worse

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.


  1. Hi A.R.

    Couldn’t it be read as a Gestalt?

    Couldn’t it be read like a pointillist painting is seen? Why would it have to be sequential? It could be meant to be ‘seen’ as a whole, totally indifferent to the individual points (entries)?

    Words should not be slaves of the A to Z.


  2. The problem with the pointillist metaphor is that I can - and should - see a Seurat painting without paying any attention to the dots. My eyes know how to ignore the dots. I do not believe Fénéon allows that option.

    Also, the position of the dots matters a lot in Seurat, and I am not convinced they do in this book. Thus, my plan to skip half of them. La Grande Jatte with half of the dots removed would be - well, who knows, it might be interesting, too.

    The translator himself already threw out two hundred or so of the dots - too obscure, he says.

    But, if I think of the reader as the equivalent of the pointillist painter, arranging all of these curious dots, some quite pleasing on their own, into a significant pattern, then, yes, I think you're right. Novels in Three Lines is a good "spirit of the age" book, easy to recommend.

  3. Hi A.R.

    You are right. The pointillist example fails in that the dots don’t carry a message and it is very important where they are placed.

    But what if the dots did carry a message? Would that change the picture? Have you seen pictures that look normal but up close are actually made up of little photographs? And what, if after knowing the little pictures make up the big picture, you see the big picture as something else altogether? What if now you can never go back and see the picture the old way again?

    Maybe I should think more in terms of ink spots and Rorschach tests. I just think there may be something here to see that you have to be trained to see: like those pictures that have a second picture hidden ‘in plain sight’ within them – (that I for one can never see.)

    I also think of Escher. This was the time for such thinking. I’m not thinking poetry here. I’m thinking more of Dali. Maybe it is not about the picture itself at all.


  4. Hi A.R.

    Fénéon was expressing the Zeitgeist. This would not require sequential reading or even comprehensive reading. Just enough in any order could do it.


  5. That sounds right - definitely a Zeitgeist book, however odd the focus (all of the suicides and so on).