Friday, January 14, 2011

Monsieur Van Winkle's Comedies

NEWS NOTE: This week, while driving our son to school, I've seen all the flags at half mast. In keeping with the goals of this project, I still do not know why. I can say, however, that it is disturbing. What exactly has someone done that leaves so many mourning? - V.W.

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In in lieu of keeping up with the news, I've lately been looking at the three-line news items that the Frenchman Felix Fénéon supplied to the Paris newspaper Le Matin in 1906. [See my post of January 11.]

These acts of brief reportage were called faits-divers and were collected in a volume, Novels in Three Lines, brought out by New York Review Books in 2007 .

I find Feneon's fait-divers not only historically interesting for what they reveal about early 20th Century life, but they are also prized specimens of a minimalist, modernist style in which a few, well chosen words are used to create maximum effect. At their best, they're like miniature poems in prose.

I noted, however, that what the newspaper considered newsworthy was (and this is still, for the most part, true today in our news media) invariably tragic. Sometimes the story told in ink is decidedly gruesome:

A corpse floated downstream. A sailor fished it out at Boulogne. No identification; a pearl-gray suit; about 65 years old.

Another Kind of Fait-Divers
Here at The Van Winkle Project, since we have no access to real news, we're not too shy to make up some of our own. In fact, we have decided it might be interesting to share a 21st Century version of faits-divers.

These updates of Fénéon's little three-line items are intended to deliberately reverse the original formulation. Instead of taking the view that the only news worth hearing about is tragic in nature, our fabricated news imagines a world in which sometimes things work out otherwise.

What follows then are possibly happy, maybe even dumbly sublime, outcomes, i.e., comedies, that likely will never be reported in either the print or electronic media if for no other reason than they never actually occurred.

But does this mean they're not worth reading? Perhaps even worth trying to believe in as we make our way through a world that too often seems darker than the one we wish for?

Without wanting to come off as a total naif, I dare to believe in the idea that because there are so many shadows, surely there must be shining somewhere a source of light. How else can the shadows we find all around us even be possible if there is not somewhere some semblance of light trying to break through?

Eight News Stories I'd Like to Read in Three* Lines
*or slightly more


A father of four driving home on the Interstate. After midnight. An oncoming 18-wheeler drifting toward him, but then it moves back just in time and rushes on past.


A little girl’s chocolate ice cream cone dripped onto her new sun dress. She laughed. Her mother would forgive her, wash the dress, and besides, the ice cream tasted so good on a hot day sitting outside on the porch with her bare feet touching concrete.


The blind man did not receive sight. Instead he dressed up, attended a party where he met a beautiful woman. She took him by the hand onto the terrace and there, beside a terra cotta planter, she kissed him because she had always wanted her lips to touch those of a man who had no idea what she looked like.


The woman made a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, then she lost herself in the living room reading a home decorating magazine. A half hour went by, fifteen minutes, another five, and she realized she had forgotten to set the oven timer. She ran to the kitchen, opened the oven door, and took out the tray of cookies, which somehow, some way, emerged perfectly golden, nothing short of a miracle, and like all such things utterly inexplicable and delicious.


The wind blew the dark clouds in so that the rain fell on the northern part of our city but not the south. In the north they parted curtains and looked out spattered windows. In the south they stood barefoot in the streets, looking at dark hooves running over the sky and then they began playing music and dancing.


Rostikof and Dewey argued about God endlessly, Rostikoff a believer in the glories of Jehovah, Dewey, a virulent atheist. One day Dewey burst out that the two of them were getting old, but he hoped to hell there was a heaven so that someday they might continue their argument which gave them such pleasure without ever quite coming to blows. Both men laughed at Dewey’s contradictory vision, praised the wine, opened another bottle, and set to arguing again.


The next door neighbor's dog started barking at three a.m. awaking the middle-aged couple. They lay there in bed listening to the dog provoke another neighbor’s dog and another dog, each taking up the barking which soon became baying and howling around the block, an unrestrained canine symphony. Then he reached out, she reached out, they found each other, and as they filled the room with their own tactile music they heard the dogs no more.


A man picked up an orange and held the fruit in his hand, offering it to his eyes and nose, and for a few moments he knew, as a poet knows, that he would never grasp anything more monumentally, convincingly, lavishly orange. Then he ate it and went on his way.


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