The Hidden Master of the Human Comedy

The original French title of this book, Nouvelles en trois lignes, can mean either “the news in three lines” or “novellas in three lines.” It was the title under which these items—there are 1,220 of them in all; a mere 154 have been omitted here* because their significance has fallen into obscurity—were all published in 1906 in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin. Newspapers in many countries apart from the United States run columns of such brief stories, which in French are called faits-divers (“sundry events”; “fillers” are nearly but not quite the same—there is no simple English equivalent). They cover the same subjects as the rest of the paper—crime, politics, ceremony, catastrophe—but their individual narratives are compressed into a single frame, like photographs. They may suggest, portend, echo, pose questions, present enigmas, awaken troubling memories, but they usually do not have a second act. Cases in which a story runs over into a subsequent item on a later day are rare. People have been clipping and saving such items, for their oddity or their usually unintentional humor, since the fait-divers first made its appearance in the nineteenth century, but they have seldom if ever considered them literary texts, attributable to an author.

These, though, are all the work of one man, a great literary stylist who wrote little and published less, and who occupies a peculiar place in French cultural history. You might say that Félix Fénéon is invisibly famous: his name may ring a bell, and a number of his deeds are known and a few celebrated, but not many people could link the man with his accomplishments. Furthermore, he kept himself to himself. What we know of him is largely owed to the devotion of those around him. We know little, for example, about how he came to spend half the year 1906 composing unsigned three-line news items for a mass-circulation daily paper. The only reason we have them today is because Camille Plateel, his mistress for some fifty years, collected them in an album, which was found after both their deaths by Fénéon’s literary executor, Jean Paulhan. Whatever Fénéon may have thought of them, he clearly did not stint on their composition. They are the poems and novels he never otherwise wrote, or at least did not publish or preserve. 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. And they depict the France of 1906 in its full breadth, on a canvas of reduced scale but proportionate vastness. They might be considered Fénéon’s Human Comedy.

Fénéon made it his business throughout his life (1861–1944) to remain behind the scenes, and in general he succeeded. He may have been somewhat more famous to his contemporaries than he is to us, but he…

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