Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Monsieur Fénéon's Tragedies

M. Félix Fénéon

NEWS LEAKAGE: For various reasons that I won't go into, I have a sense there's been a recent violent tragedy in America. Nothing that follows is intended to be an indirect comment on the event, whatever it was, and I remain "asleep." - V.W.

He was a thin man with an outrageously sharp nose and a beard like a goat's. He slipped in and out of Parisian society, striking others as gifted in language, but austere in his use of it.

It was his destiny to become a person of some influence in the late 19th century at a time when artists and political activists flocked together.

This man, Félix Fénéon (prounounced fay-nay-own), would discover the pointillist painter George Seurat and soon be promoting the work of other post-impressionists.

Likewise, he became an advocate for many important writers within the pages of literary magazines he either started or edtied. One of these publications became the first to print the work of an obscure Irish writer in France. The writer was James Joyce.

Fénéon also was, in his early years, an anarchist, There is hearsay evidence that he may have planted a bomb during a time of unrest and anger that makes our own age of terrorism seem mild. In 1892 alone, for example, 500 bombs exploded in the U.S. and over 1000 in Europe.

Fénéon had a reputation for writing a great deal, but true to his self-effacing disposition, and also in order to keep a low-profile because of his anarchist activities, he tended not to sign his articles.

He once said, "I aspire only to silence."

Paul Signac's psychedelic-looking rendition of his friend Fénéon ,
lily in hand, which Fénéon did NOT like...
Later in life he found himself working for newspapers. In 1906 he was assigned for six months to cover brief stories for Le Matin.

It is with his short tenure with the newspaper that Fénéon makes his lasting mark as a writer. His mistress clipped out his stories and saved them; otherwise, we would not know they were the work of Fénéon as they were printed in the standard way, without a byline.

Years later the merits of these little, true and tragic news stories, so poignantly and artfully expressed, were recognized. They were collected in a volume called Novels in Three Lines and published in English in 2007.

Life and Death as Filler
The great daily  newspapers were an invention of the 19th Century. In many countries, including France, the news of the day included a column of miscellaneous accounts that were judged not to merit in-depth reporting.

In France they were called "fait-divers" (pronounced fay-dee-vair) which might roughly translate as "various happenings."

Each item has to fit
in 3 lines of text.
The fait-divers are an interesting, non-fiction type of micro-narrative. They inform the world with the briefest of descriptions about domestic violence, suicide, assault, murder, brawls, vandalism, theft, accidents, deaths, and sometimes political unrest.

They also capture the dangers of the new industrial age as many of the subjects meet their ends through some encounter with a locomotive, automobile, or piece of steam-driven equipment.

Today we might see some of these notices placed under the "police blotter" or in a toned-down version within the obituaries.

Fénéon was assigned to write the fait-divers on p. 3 of Le Matin under the title "Nouvelles en Trois Lignes" (news or novellas in three lines). Fénéon set out to exploit his natural austerity, choosing his words so carefully and arranging them in such a way that each item became an exceptional example of minimalist prose style in which the aesthetic is "less is more."
The writer assumed that what was left out could imply a larger whole. In Fénéon's hands some of the fait-divers even achieved the poignancy and profundity of poetry or haiku.

Writer and translator Luc Sante enthuses in his introduction to the book:

"They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush."

Fénéon's effort to obtain the maximum effect from the fewest number of words, a notion that was popular in the literary movement that would later be labeled "Modernism," reminds me of the kind of incredibly compacted short story Ernest Hemingway tended to write.

According to a possibly apocryphal story, Hemingway once bet someone he could write a complete story in ten words or less. He penned on a napkin a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

          For sale: Baby shoes.
    Never worn.

This is exactly the kind of thing Fénéon wrote multiple times a day, every day, for six months in 1906.

Fénéon's Miniatures
Since, per the parameters of this project, a person who is Van Winkled is not allowed to read today's news, I've decided to compensate by reading a bit of the news from 115 years ago...

Over a thousand of Fénéon's fait-divers are collected in Novels in Three Lines. Here's a trio of typical ones that even in translation bear the imprint of Fénéon, whether it's his sarcasm or sense of the ironic or his way of unexpectedly carving up sentences.

Some drinkers in Houilles were passing around a pistol they thought was unloaded. Lagrange pulled the trigger. He did not get up.

It was believed that work would start up again today at the steelworks in Pamiers. A delusion.

A thresher seized Mme Peccavi, of Mercy-le-Haut, Meurthe-et-Moselle. The one was disassembled to free the other. Dead.

Some of the fait-divers are rendered in such a way that they register as very darkly, even morbidly, humorous:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

At Sainte-Anne beach, in Finistere, two swimmers were drowning. Another swimmer went to help. Finally M. Etienne had to rescue three people.

The 392 from Cherbourg to Caen halted; the engineer dislodged from the cowcatcher the corpse of Thiebault, 2, and gave it to the boy's mother.

Some I appreciate for how Fénéon has paced them and focused on a perfect detail:

On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. Andre, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.

Equipped with a rattail file and deceptively loaded with a quantity of fine sandstone, a tin cylinder was found on Rue de l'Ouest.

Finding her son, Hyacinthe, 69, hanged, Mme Ranvier, of Bussy-Saint-Georges, was so depressed she could not cut him down.

Some are simply bizarre:

The parish priest of La Compote, Savoie, was walking through the hills alone. He lay down, naked, under a beech tree, and died of an aneurysm.

Portebotte got 12 years in the penitentiary. In Le Havre he murdered the exuberant Nini the Goat, on whom he thought he had claims.

All the News That's Fit to Print? or Just Some of It?
Fénéon brings news of the relentlessly downbeat and depressing. These are tragedies, many of them as old as Cain and Abel.

The dispassionate reporting of all this malfeasance and misfortune actually has a paradoxical effect upon me. I see the event more vividly than if Fénéon had been allowed to indulge himself and use many more words, burying the heart of the story in voyeuristic detail and editorializing or melodrama.

The faits-divers are like crime scene photos in prose; they do not allow gilding of the awful. As in the following:

Medical examination of a little boy found in a ditch on the outskirts of Niort showed that he had undergone more than just death.

I cannot help but feel devestated when I think of the little boy lying in the ditch. I am forced by the absence of details to I think of the life he had, all that's implied by "little boy." Then I consider the cruel way he may have lost his life. By the time I reach the end of this simple 24-word sentence I mourn.

At the same time this is a clear case of what passes for "news" being the result of a highly selective and even biased process.

Six months of the faits-divers are not representative of the totality of French life in 1906 or most places on earth at any time in history.

Left out are the weddings, the births, the good food, the children playing, the teachers teaching and all the other unspoiled fruit in the barrel.

If life were composed mostly of the sort of things we find in these grim news tidbits, it's hard to see how we could go on living.

Which has led me to wonder: Could someone utilize Fénéon's highly compressed method to convey other news of the world? To possibly bring us some good news? C'est peut-être, M. Fénéon? Stay tuned. - V.W.

  COMING FRIDAY: Monsieur Van Winkle's Comedies  


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