The Dark Mind of the Copywriter

A review of Novels in Three Lines by Felix Fénéon (NYRB Classics, 2007,176 pages)

Ernest Hemingway once said that his best story was his shortest story, deliberately limited to just six words – ‘For sale: baby shoes, never used’ – an exercise in radical economy which manages to imply a lengthy and tragic back story, without being predictable or hackneyed. Hemingway’s ‘novel’, and the self-imposed restraint which inspired it, has been justly praised and imitated.

But eloquence under word limitations is a skill which has been practiced by working journalists almost since printing was invented. Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines demonstrates just how much literary power that can be achieved in an intimidatingly small space.

Novels in Three Lines – a play on the French title, Nouvelles en trios lignes, which can also be translated as ‘news in three lines’ – is a collection of 1,220 tiny dispatches published in the Parisian newspaper Le Matin, all during 1906. They were printed unsigned in an obscure corner of a Le Matin page. Their topics are mundane, covering crime, death, celebrations and local controversies which would not deserve any more space in the paper than Fénéon’s column would grant them.

Nevertheless when collected together, as Luc Sante has done in this appropriately thin volume, Fénéon’s skill as a literary compositor and the artistry of his dispatches becomes clear. Novels in Three Lines is a remarkable portrait of regional France in the first decade of the twentieth century, and a work of unacknowledged brilliance.

Félix Fénéon may have had a relatively anonymous job in 1906 when he wrote for Le Matin, but he occupied a central place in the artistic community of turn-of-the-century France. He was a prominent art critic, whose writing on Georges Seurat was partly responsible for the latter’s success – indeed, Fénéon was the first owner of Bathing at Asnières. He was a theorist of Pointillism, the post-impressionist movement for which Seurat has become the historical touchstone.

Fénéon was a serial magazine founder, writing journalism anonymously and criticism under his name. When Picasso once asked Fénéon his opinion on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he responded dryly: ‘you should stick to caricature.’

He was imposingly tall and contemporaries described him as enigmatic. When Paul Signac, a follower of Seurat, painted Fénéon surrounded by garish proto-psychedelic abstraction, Fénéon was deeply unhappy with the portrait – the publishers of Novels in Three Lines have used a much more stoic-looking photograph of Fénéon taken from French police archives, a decision which presumably the author would have preferred.

Fénéon’s mug-shot is, anyway, more in keeping with the volume than Signac’s painting would have been. Novels in Three Lines is a collage of brutality and violence; the vast majority of Fénéon’s dispatches concern murders, suicides and accidents, punctuated by the occasional riot, theft, or crippling inquiry. One random-chosen page describes four separate homicides, five accidental deaths, at least six major injuries, one woman committed for insanity, as well as this piece of bad luck:

Too bad! Mentré of Longwy, who revealed to us that he was the winner of the 250,000 francs in the tuberculosis lottery, seems to have been hoaxed.

Fénéon works within the conventions of journalism. He is careful to record names, locations, and more often than not, ages and job descriptions-butchers, clerks, merchants, nurses and soldiers. His ‘novels’ describe early automobile accidents, they record otherwise parochial regional arguments for a national audience (Le Matin was a Parisian paper), outbreaks of disease and building collapses. It is one of the troubles of historical investigation that the underclass only enter history in times of tragedy – most of what we know of the lives of the non-elites in early modern England comes from the proceedings of the Old Bailey. Fénéon’s dispatches are the only time that Jourdain, of Mézières, or the engineer Mahuet, or Langon, of Sceaux, or M. Jégou de Laz, of Cleden, would penetrate the historical curtain.

So much of the artistry of Fénéon’s epigrammatic journalism rides on its elaborate construction, which constantly flirts with full-blown satire:

Napoléon, a peasant of Saint-Nabord, Vosges, drank a litre of alcohol; very well, but he had put in some phosphorous, hence his death.

Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M. Septeuil, of Sucy, Tripleval, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment.

Often Fénéon delays the core of his story until the very last moment, or holds back a crucial piece of information which completely recasts that which preceded it:

To get back with Artémise Riso, of Les Lilas, was the wish of romantic Jean Voul. She remained inflexible. So he knifed her.

He smuggles slightly ambiguous moral commentary within his reportage, wavering between dispassion and irony:

What?! Children perched on his wall?! With eight rounds M. Olive, property owner in Toulon, forced them to scramble down all bloodied.

An unknown person painted the walls of Pantin cemetery yellow; Dujardin wandered naked through Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône. Crazy people, apparently.

In the London Review of Books, Julian Barnes points out that Fénéon had worked in this form before, but for explicitly political ends, in an anarchist journal in the 1890s, where his black sarcasm was deployed even more aggressively:

Dead sick of himself after reading the book by Samuel Smiles (Know Thyself), a judge just drowned himself at Coulange-la-Vineuse. If only this excellent book could be read throughout the magistracy.

But in his Le Matin column, he eschews politics. Luc Sante’s introduction nevertheless emphasises Fénéon’s complicity, if not outright responsibility for, some of the revolutionary anarchist terrorism that was common to western democracies in the pre-war period. Fénéon was arrested for a bombing in 1894, and, while detonators were found in his clerk’s office at the French War Department, and he was close friends with other convicted bombers, he was released for lack of evidence. Whether Fénéon was guilty or not is sort of beside the point-Sante points out that Fénéon was a true believer in the anarchist cause, even if his printed material (he wrote, all up, very little, and even less under his own name) does not obviously reflect it.

For the turn-of-the-century anarchists, politics was as much an aesthetic practice as it was political. In a twisted variation on the famous Robespierre/Lenin line that omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs, the poet Laurent Tailhade once defended the bombing of civilians by asking: ‘Of what importance are a few vague people if the gesture is beautiful?’ Tailhade was the sole victim of a cafe bombing a few months later-he did not repudiate anarchism, but would not describe himself as ‘vague’ either.

In Novels in Three Lines, Fénéon shares Tailhade’s nihilism, if not his incredible anti-humanism. Fénéon seems to be obsessed with the artistic potential of mayhem-the book jacket draws comparisons with Andy Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series-stripping the emotional core out of individual tragedies and recording them either with extreme passivity, or filtered through a dark irony.

So can Novels in Three Lines – which Fénéon never meant to publish, are only available in a collated form never seen by the author, and were intended at the time to be nothing more than journalistic hackery – be considered in any way literature?

The Russian theorist Jan Mukarovsky spoke of a necessary ‘literariness’, where simple communication is pushed to the background, made subservient to expression, or as Mukarovsky put it, the emphasis is given to the ‘act of speech itself.’ Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that Fénéon was often much less interested in the subject matter of his dispatches than he was with toying with sentence structure and the ambiguities of language. For Fénéon, the drudgery of copywriting seems to have inspired literary experimentation – having to reformulate variations of the same misfortunes over and over would get very tedious.

Fénéon may have arrived at literariness out of nothing more than boredom, but he still arrived there. Novels in Three Lines is an often comic and always disturbing snapshot of European nihilists and the world they disdained.