Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Novels in Three Lines

{Forest/Fog by secretagentmartens. All rights reserved.}

After I took up Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines (1906, translated by Luc Sante in 2007) and read aloud this--
Gallant Leon Courtescu, of Angers, was thrown into the Marne, where he drowned, by a husband, M. Brouard.
--and this--
As it fell from a scaffolding simultaneous with Dury, a mason, of Marseilles, a stone crushed his skull.
--and this--
At dawn, Mlle Eugenie Gilbert, of Redon, to whom love had been cruel, went off to throw herself into the Nantes Canal at Brest.
--and this--
Three strikers in Fressenneville have been sentenced to jail for one, two, or three months, according to how gravely they insulted the police.
--my wife said, not without exasperation, "You only like this book because you love to overuse the comma!" Unable to deny it, I hung my head.

But the comma isn't all that draws me to these lurid tales, originally published anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin. It's also the skill involved in the coy deferral of essential information (remarkably well maintained by Sante in his translation), the way that Feneon deploys memorable details to simultaneously set a scene and distract us from the gruesomeness that we are sure must be coming. There's perhaps no better example than this story, where the eventual revelation takes on the horrible force of the actual shocking surprises of life:
A little girl, tan, plump, hair braided, clothed and shod in brown cloth, holy medals around her neck, has been fished out at Suresnes.
I also admire Feneon's faith in our ability to pay attention--to keep track of the antecedents of pronouns, for example:
M. Colombe, of Rouen, killed himself with a bullet yesterday. His wife had shot three of them at him in March, and their divorce was imminent.
Or to provide ourselves some information that he casually elides:
Although it had arrived at the station in Velizy, the train was still rolling. The impatient Mme Gieger broke both her legs.
But mostly I'm drawn to Feneon's mordantly defiant tone, which gives his assemblage the air of a testament to humanity's resilience: no matter how horrible and surprising the events whose newsprint renderings smudge our fingers of a morning, so long as we don't encounter our own names in the columns, we'll marvel, then move on.
"I could have done worse!" exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life.
If these entries described current events, that freshness might make their deadpan voyeurism difficult to countenance. But having acquired the patina of a century, they appear instead as a bizarre dispatch from a mostly forgotten back room of the past, a breath of late-autumn air, sucked in through a filter-less cigarette and exhaled as the gruesome cackle of a cemetery seer as he dispassionately surveys the shambles.
The former mayor of Cherbourg, Gosse, was in the hands of a barber when he cried out and died, although the razor had nothing to do with it.
And, well, Stacey's right: it's the commas.
Foringer, alias Rothschild, a Pantin ragpicker, came home drunk, drained a liter of wine despite his son's protests, and broke it over his head.


  1. hi :) i'm from italy and my name's Alice. I'm 19. I've found your blog searching information on a picture. I think your blog is very interesting!! i'm searching for information about the picture of John Anster Fitzgerald, "the stuff that dreams are made of" for my school final exam....i saw it in this page (december, 11th) can you help me? you can answer me here, i will revisit your blog. bye!

  2. Thank you the analysis of Felix Feneon. I also read his the translated book and loved it. I have started a blog based on the three line inspiration, though with a slightly different style. I will be sure to link back to this entry. My blog is:

  3. Aly,
    I'm sorry to say that I don't know much about John Anster Fitzgerald, in part because, it seems, no one knows that much about him. His Wikipedia entry is minimal, and even The Tate Gallery in London, which has one painting, The Fairy's Lake, says "Not much is known about Fitzgerald," other than that he was a mid-Victorian illustrator.

    As for The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, according to Bridgeman Art on Demand (from whom you can order a print for 34.99 pounds), it is held in a private collection, though they also list a credit for the Maas Gallery in London.

    Thanks for the link; good luck with your project!