Friday, December 13, 2019

Novels in Three Lines

Clerk, journalist, editor, publisher, Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) worked for a time at the French daily newspaper Le Matin, for which he wrote 1,220 brief news items, miniature narratives of crime, misadventure, and mystery. All but 154 of them are collected in Novels in Three Lines, trans. Luc Sante (New York: New York Review Books, 2007). Barns burn; poor boxes disappear from churches; telephone wire is stolen by the mile. Line by line, the population drops, with lives lost to disease, accident, murder, and suicide. The overall effect is wearying, but then these items were never meant to be read all at once. The more startling ones have something of the casual, sudden brutality of the incidents that form much of the material of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative (1978, 1979). Three Fénéon samples:

The Blonquets stank of drink. A saloonkeeper in Saint-Maur dared refused them service. They slew him with an indignant dagger.

Responding to a call at night, M. Sirvent, café owner of Caissargues, Gard, opened his window; a rifle shot destroyed his face.

In Oyonnax, Mlle Cottet, 18, threw acid in the face of M. Benard, 25. Love, obviously.
In lighter moods, Fénéon suggests the terse strangeness of a caption to a drawing by Glen Baxter or Edward Gorey:
Equipped with a rattail file and deceptively loaded with a quantity of fine sandstone, a tin cylinder was found on Rue de l’Ouest.

Since the church in Miélin, Haute-Saône, has been barricaded, the faithful have been climbing in through the windows for services.

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector.

To the sound of a bagpipe, the strikers of Hennehont closed their meeting at the union field with dancing.
Novels in Three Lines is one of the more unusual NYRB volumes. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps not even mine, but certainly worth tasting.

[Luc Sante’s introduction mentions Rezknikoff. But the thought was mine long before I read the introduction.]

comments: 2

brownstudy said...

I had not heard of Reznikoff before; thank you for that reference!

I have a copy of "Novels in Three Lines." The compression is like reading David Markson's novels composed of one-line biographical trivia. Though the subject matter is more like reading "Wisconsin Death Trip."

Michael Leddy said...

Reznikoff is terrific — mostly self-published, until late in his lifetime. The recorded readings at PennSound give a good idea of his humanity and modesty.

I hadn’t thought of Markson — all I know is Wittgenstein’s Mistress — but I can see it, yes.