Félix Fénéon's worthy material

Kim recently started putting putting pithy bits of Oscar Wilde through Twitter. Which reminded me that I’d been thinking Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines would be ideal Twitter fodder. (Maybe we have some guilt about wasting time with modern communications and this makes us want to better ourselves by squeezing worthy material into it.)

No, I’d never heard of Fénéon, an anarchist and art critic, until I read a couple of reviews of a new translation of the brief news items he wrote for a Paris newspaper in 1906. (The latterly linked-to review is written by Luc Sante who did the translation for the book, so one could call it a craftily unannounced advertorial.) There are many examples of these news stories at NPR, and here’s a few:

“If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,” M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself.

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

Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M. Septeuil, of Sucy, Tripleval, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment.

Eugène Périchot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartrier. Eugène Dupuis came to fetch her. They killed him. Love.

Again and again Mme Couderc, of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.

Finding his daughter, 19, insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-Étienne, killed her. It is true that he has eleven children left.

I could go on. Such perfectly poised stuff. This new translation from the French is all copyright Mr Sante of course, so no good for Twittering en masse but a nice idea. If only all Twitterers strived the quality of these sentences, rather than the increasingly charmless gentle self-publicity.

Anyway, while I’m here, a couple of other things that caught my eye from Sante’s “review”. First:

Le Père Peinard, edited by Émile Pouget (who has been credited with coining the word “sabotage,” and who later became a leading theorist of anarcho-syndicalism), was so determinedly populist that it was written entirely in workmen’s slang, down to the masthead and the subscription blank. Fénéon contributed several accounts of large group painting shows in which he patiently explained, in that tongue, the workings and hierarchy of the arts in France to readers who could not be expected to know anything about it.

I can’t decide if this is fantastic or silly and patronising, but it makes me think of writing important and worthy texts in either tabloid-speak or the bewildering text speak used by young people online.

Finally, a bit that puts in perspective our vast fears of today’s very rare terrorist attacks:

…bombing was considered a legitimate tactic by quite a lot of people at the time. According to Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

The hatred of the bourgeoisie was so enormous that all it took was the example of a single excuse for it to discharge itself violently in the form of detonations of which kings and ministers were not the only victims: the bombs of the nameless terrorists who sought to tackle the big powers single-handedly exploded in theaters, luxury restaurants, and stock exchanges, in clubs and parliaments. In 1892 alone, there were registered in the United States 500 bombing attacks, and more than 1,000 in Europe.

500 terrorist bomb attacks in America in a single year! See, times aren’t so bad.


Thursday 24 January 2008, 7:29pm

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