ORGANISE! for revolutionary anarchism - Magazine of the Anarchist Federation - Summer 2008 - Issue 70

Review: NOVELS IN THREE LINES by Félix Fénéon. New York Review Books Classics. 171 pages. £7.99

The remarkable figure of Félix Fénéon, the first French publisher of James Joyce and the “discoverer” of the artist Seurat, is little known outside of France. NYRB have corrected this with the publication of this book. The translator Luc Sante provides an introduction which puts Fénéon squarely into the context of anarchist politics at the end of the 19th century.

Fénéon, a dandyish look-alike for the rangy figure of Uncle Sam, complete with goatee, was born in 1861, the son of a traveling salesman. He got employment as a clerk in the War Office in Paris and remained there for 13 years. During this time he started developing as a man of letters, founding three different journals. He wrote reviews of books and art exhibitions and started frequenting the famous Tuesday evenings at the apartment of Stephane Mallarmé, the great Symbolist poet. Like Mallarmé, Fénéon was much influenced by anarchism and whilst the poet never actively involved himself in the movement, Fénéon did.

He began writing for the anarchist papers Le Pere Peinard, edited by Emile Pouget, the advocate of direct action and sabotage and for L’Endehors , an anarchist magazine aimed at the literary and artistic vanguard and edited by the no less remarkable character Zo d’Axa (real name Alphonse Galland). Pouget’s paper was meant to appeal to the working class and was written almost entirely in argot, working class slang. When Zo was forced to go to London to escape a charge of sedition in 1892, Fénéon took over the editorship of his paper.

The 1890s were the ‘heroic’ period of French anarchism with the counter-attacks by lone anarchists or small anarchist groups against the repression unleashed by the French government. These attacks usually took the form of bomb attacks on various targets like the homes of judges . In the aftermath, Fénéon was one of those rounded up (both front and back covers of this book are illustrated by police mug-shots of our Félix). There followed a show trial, the Trial of the Thirty, in which Fénéon distinguished himself by his dry humour and sarcasm. One day the judge received a package in court, which when opened, proved to be filled with human shit. Fénéon remarked in a stage whisper that: “Not since Pontius Pilate has a judge washed his hands so ostentatiously”. Fénéon and the others were acquitted, due to lack of any evidence. However Fénéon lost his job.

Fortunately he soon got a job of the cultural paper Le Revue Blanche. Félix had his finger on the cultural pulse and was able to publish Proust, Apollinaire, Jarry and many others, many of them at the very beginning of their artistic careers. Debussy was the music critic.

When the magazine folded, Félix had to earn a crust by working as a journalist. He ended up writing copy for the liberal daily Le Matin. Here he was put in charge of the faits-divers column, where he collated news items from wire-services, small-town newspapers and direct information from readers. Influenced as he was by Mallarmé, he was able to apply as Sante says, “compression, distillation, and skeletal evocation…” into a series of three-liners which he continued to write until November of 1906.

Here are some examples:

Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M.Septeuil, of Sucy, Tripleval, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment. Women suckling their infants argued the workers’ cause to the director of the streetcar lines in Toulon. He was unmoved. During a scuffle in Grenoble, three demonstrators were arrested by the brigades, who were hissed by the crowd.

The crafted and clockwork precision as Sante says : “testify to the growing importance and menace of the automobile, the medieval conditions that still prevailed in agriculture and country life, the often fortunate inefficiency of firearms, the vulnerability of rural populations to epidemic disease, the unflagging pomposity of the military establishment, the mutual suspicion and profound lack of understanding between the French and their colonial subjects, the increasing number of strikes and the unchangingly brutal state of factory labor, the continuing panic over the threat of anarchist bombs..”

These three-liners, at once shocking and humorous, are an important event in modernism coming between the precision of Mallarmé and what was to come with Picasso, Braque and the Dadaists.

The book is humorously illustrated by designs of the time, including great woodcuts and sketches by the gifted anarchist illustrators Valloton and Steinlen. One in particular, L’Anarchiste, by Valloton, showing a lone anarchist on the street surrounded by thuggish policemen, with two top-hatted bourgeois lurking in the background, is particularly striking.

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