Novels in Three Lines
Three sentence exposés of biting beauty, irresistible irony and everyday theatre of the absurd? Félix Fénéon’s your man says Colin Montgomery
Mug shot of Félix Fénéon, after his arrest following anarchist bombings in Paris in April 1894 by Alphonse Bertillon
He was an existential engineer, constructing ephemeral edifices to the essential hypocrisy, tragedy and futility of this mortal coil
I am an anti-Christ. I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want. But I know how to get it. I want to destroy the passer-by. Not my words, the words of Top Gear magazine. Hang on. My mistake, they are the words of that angry butter salesman John Lydon. I couldn’t take credit for such genius. Moreover, I do know what I want. But I don’t know how to get it. I’m the weak reflection of the 1970s snarl - an anaemichist or perhaps a 21st century shrug.
Still, idle pensées masquerading as sagacious street philosophy aside (such a common crime these days; though Banksy has made a career out of it) let’s focus on some good old down and dirty 19th century anarchy. You think saying “fuck” on the Bill Grundy Show was tearing the social fabric? It’s a mere schoolyard scrap compared to the full-on battle royale that was 1892 Paris. It was literally da bomb!, a powder keg of anarchist politics waiting to spark.
Powder keg is not strictly accurate though, they preferred to lob homemade Improvised Explosive Devices into crowds, or leave nasty surprises in establishment hotspots. Their ‘targets’ upmarket hotels or restaurants (like the one that punched a hole in the bourgeois complacency of the Hotel Foyot dining room). Not only a casually destructive act, but a supremely ironic one; the only casualty was the radical writer and poet Laurence Talihade who had wafted away complaints about a previous – and much deadlier - anarchist bombing in Paris by Emile Henry, by quipping:
“Qu’importent quelques vagues humanités, si le geste est beau?” Which roughly translates as “who gives a monkey’s about a few random punters if the gesture is beautiful?”
It’s slippery slope finding nobility in violent acts. At a stretch you could view those who took on Mosley’s fascists in Cable Street as noble. Perhaps, bringing it back to Gay Paree, there was a certain nobility in the impromptu ‘urban landscaping’ of the soixante-huitards all those many Mays ago.
Back to 1892 and the Hotel Foyot, our quarry awaits, or rather he’s escaping the scene, if the rumours are true. For the bomber was, yes, Félix Fénéon - influential art critic, writer, journo and part-time anarchist.
Mr Fénéon is a bit of an enigma. Much is known of his patronage of the Neo-Impressionists – Seurat, Signac, Bonnard and even Henri Matisse. Indeed, there’s a cracking exhibition right now at NOMA NY called The Anarchist and The Avant Garde (whoops a lockdown no go) and the States too is offering its own comment on the breakdown of political order, in the streets mostly. However, that missed opportunity apart, he is much feted by art historians and others.
However, the bright dawning of the Fénéon Fete of Fine Art concealed a double life; he wasn’t shy of advocating a bit of the old ultraviolence, or carrying it out. This insurgent urge, while documented – he did edit and write for political publications and he moved in anarchist circles – was not something he took to advertising (in keeping with his reputation as a somewhat taciturn saturnine type).
Until, that is, the Hotel Foyot bomb. Which leads to the grapevine, the rumours and the somewhat inevitable arrest.
Fénéon was jailed and brought before the judge with other subversives in ‘The Trial of the Thirty’, a cause célèbre of its day but in reality a show trial – indeed he was eventually released due to lack of evidence. Modernist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, in his defence, said he couldn’t be a bomber because “…for Fénéon there are no better detonators than articles.” And so it was that Félix turned to journalism proper. Which is where, for this writer, his true genius resides.
Genius usually signals a portentous painting, a dense novel or a grand symphony. Fénéon’s rather, was to distil the ordinary into the extraordinary into what have been dubbed ‘novels in three lines’. Presented under that title, they were featured in the French daily Le Matin as so called ‘fait divers’, roughly translating into English as filler items or sundries. Think those little sidebars in newspapers like: ‘Man, 54, falls down manhole in Kirkcaldy High Street. Recovered by firemen. Everyone was drained’.
I concocted the ditty above; my own little homage to Fénéon’s output. But it doesn’t compare to the bitter edge, raised eyebrow and crooked smile the great man brought to the craft. He was an existential engineer, constructing ephemeral edifices to the essential hypocrisy, tragedy and futility of this mortal coil.
And he was as relentless as the very existence he documented, turning out 1,200 of these three-line masterpieces. So, let the final word (or words) come from the free mind of Félix Fénéon.
Three of his finest novels, if you like, in three lines
‘The schoolchildren of Niort were being crowned. The
chandelier fell, and the laurels of three among them
were spotted with a little blood’.
‘On the terrace of a wineshop on Quai des Fleurs, all
the tables have been broken. The reason: to enforce the weekly day of rest’.
‘On the bowling lawn a stroke levelled M. Andre, 75,
of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling, he was no more’.
Info: Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon (translated by Luc Sante), The New York Review of Books, £10.99