Novels in Three Lines

Novels in Three Lines is a work that is all but impossible to characterize. Its translator notes that “the closest literary relative to Fénéon’s three-line novellas may be Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915), Recitative (1965, 1968, 1978),” but, since Reznikoff’s work is unlikely to be known by most readers, the comparison conceals even more than it reveals. The story behind Novels in Three Lines is this: For several months in 1906, Félix Fénéon (Arthur Rimbaud’s editor, former correspondent for the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, and anarchist sympathizer) wrote a series of brief entries for the liberal newspaper Le Matin under the heading Nouvelles en trois lignes. The title of Fénéon’s column was itself a play on words that is difficult to convey in English. Since the term nouvelles applies to both “news” and “novellas,” Fénéon’s column suggested that it was a series of either “three-line news items” or “three-line novels,” and the entries themselves reflected qualities of each.

Each of Fénéon’s columns would contain roughly twenty items, organized into such categories as banlieue parisienne (events occurring in the area surrounding Paris), départements (other French provinces), and étranger (foreign countries, which to Fénéon almost always meant the Middle East). The author would take a few news items that caught his eye, reduce them to no more than three lines of text, and produce an extremely short but highly evocative story. Although written in prose, Fénéon’s entries possessed a highly poetic quality. Each entry is reminiscent of haiku, the fragments of Sappho’s lyric poems, or the epitaphs from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915). The result is equally a vivid picture of daily life in 1906 France and an exploration of what it is that makes a story compelling.

Fénéon was particularly interested in suicides, of which there were a surprising large number during the months of his column. Hanging appears to have been the suicides’ method of choice in France of 1906, and the victims’ motives included such perennial causes of despair as rejection in love, business failure, and a desire to escape debilitating illnesses. At times, however, Fénéon provides insight into more unusual aims for self-destruction, such as in the case of one man: “Widowed customs agent Ackermann, of Fort-Philippe, Nord, was to have been married today, but was found hanged over the tomb of his wife.” This short narrative is typical of the entries that appear in Novels in Three Lines. With only a few words, Fénéon tells a complete story. The reader is able to visualize Ackermann, grieving (perhaps for many years) over the death of his wife, before finally hoping to make a new beginning. He agrees to marry again. Perhaps he is even genuinely fond of his new fiancé, but all of this is not enough. On the day of the intended ceremony, Ackermann finds that he cannot go through with his plans. Unable to “betray” his deceased wife through this new marriage, he turns to the only option that he can find and hangs himself.

Many of Fénéon’s entries are similar. Stories that, if told at any greater length, would cause a reader to skim them quickly and just as quickly forget them become memorable, almost archetypical in their nature. The actual people about whom Fénéon writes prove familiar to the readerthe grieving widower, the jilted lover, the young fool out on a careless spree, the inattentive parentand the resulting stories condense to fifteen or twenty words an experience that somehow transcends its original setting. Fénéon is fond of the “pointed style” of the Roman poet Martial or the author O. Henry in which a detail revealed only at the very end causes the reader to reexamine everything that came before: “To ensure his place in heaven, Desjeunes of Plainfang, Vosges, had covered with holy pictures the bed where he killed himself with rum.” Often Fénéon uses this type of ending merely to create a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, at other times, such as in the case of the pious drunkard Desjeunes, the effect results in something far more profound. What is the reader to make of Desjeunes’ unusual death? It is clear from the tone adopted throughout Novels in Three Lines that Fénéon (or perhaps his editor at Le Matin) was cynical about religion. Perhaps for this reason, Desjeunes is characterized as inconsistent at best, a genuine hypocrite at worst, who sought to redeem himself through mere tokens for defects that possibly spanned his entire life.

In other entries, Fénéon uses these surprise endings to suggest far...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)