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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 was no less enigmatic. These days he is best known as the subject of a portrait by Paul Signac—which he disliked, and lamented for the rest of his days—in which he is shown in profile, proffering a lily, against a background of swirls and stars and patterns and colors that looks like early psychedelia. (It actually alludes to the theories of Charles Henry, a friend of both painter and subject, who sought a scientific basis for aesthetics.) Fénéon is as striking as the setting—very tall and very thin, with a goatish chin-beard that made people think of Uncle Sam: he was a “false Yankee,” according to Apollinaire; “a satyr born in Brooklyn (U.S.A.),” according to Alfred Jarry; a “Yankee Mephistopheles,” according to Remy de Gourmont.

His accomplishments all took place away from the limelight, and were frequently in the service of others’ work. He more or less discovered Georges Seurat, and had a great deal to do with his success and those of other Postimpressionists and Nabis: Signac, Pissarros père and fils, Maximilien Luce, Félix Vallotton, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vuillard, Maurice Denis. He edited Rimbaud’s Illuminations—he was responsible for establishing the order of the sections, among other things—and produced the first public edition of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror. He founded several magazines and edited several more, including the Revue blanche, arguably the most important literary-artistic journal of its time (1893–1903). In later life he sold paintings at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery and for a while ran his own publishing house, Éditions de la Sirène, where he published, among other things, the first French translation of James Joyce (Dédale, 1924).

He had a reputation as a literary stylist, although he never published a book in his lifetime, and a large number of his writings were anonymous or pseudonymous. In part this anonymity belonged to a longstanding literary tradition, and in part it was mere discretion, since Fénéon contributed to anarchist publications subject to scrutiny by the police. Fénéon’s self-effacement went beyond the norm even for his time and milieu, however, and what we know of his personality suggests a number of possible reasons for this: a saturnine remoteness combined with an instinctual sense of noblesse oblige, a penchant for secrecy that attended both his love affairs and his acts of charity, a desire for the freedom afforded by disguise (he signed many of his letters under other names, too), perhaps also—although he never betrayed a hint of this—a dissatisfaction with his own talents in the light of the crowd of geniuses he frequented.

Everyone was awed by Fénéon, and he was beloved, too; his imposing silhouette, crackling intelligence, and severe wit were balanced by genuine compassion and generosity. The daunting shadow he cast can be measured by the assessment given after his death by the much younger André Breton, who was far less approachable to his own peers: “Although I got to know him, was amazed by him, admired and loved him, I never [fully] understood him…. His outer shell was rough, and slippery.”1 His biographer, Joan Ungersma Halperin,2 notes that while Fénéon made a deep impression on everyone who knew him, that impression was subject to contradictions; one old friend claimed that he never laughed, another that his laughter could wake the dead. He seemed completely self-invented, from his appearance to his speech to his conduct. He wore no ornaments or jewelry of any kind; he made only infrequent, slight, “geometric” motions when he spoke; his face remained impassive and immobile at all times. Perhaps he was Baudelaire’s dandy—self-contained, self-defined, answering to a code in which ethics and aesthetics are inextricably bound—made flesh.

Fénéon was born in Turin (his father was a traveling salesman), raised in Burgundy, and came to Paris as a result of placing first in a competitive exam, entered on a whim, for jobs in the War Office. He was employed as a clerk there for thirteen years, rising to chief clerk, and was considered a model employee. During this time he helped found the journals La Libre revue, La Revue indépendante, and La Vogue; reviewed books and art exhibitions; frequented the Symbolists and was a regular at Mallarmé’s Tuesday evening salon; wrote a few short stories and announced but never published an edition of Bossuet’s sermons, as well as a novel he probably meant as a joke and never intended to write. He was also active in anarchist circles. Anarchism in France in the late nineteenth century was less a definite ideology than a spectrum of attitudes that hinged on a few common points: the heritage of the enragés in the Revolution, the example of Proudhon, the bitter memory of the Paris Commune and its bloody suppression, an affinity for Bakunin over Marx after the 1875 schism in the First International, a distrust of politics and a hatred of the military and the church. Sébastien Faure put it more simply: “The common point is the negation of the principle of Authority in social organization and a hatred of all the constraints imposed by the institutions that are based upon that principle.”3 The tendency otherwise ran the gamut from antiauthoritarian communism to libertarian individualism.

The two anarchist publications with which Fénéon was most involved present a striking contrast. 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. (Note that as an anarchist Fénéon did not exhort or propagandize or indulge in apologias; rather, he exemplified anarchist conduct.) L’Endehors, on the other hand, was an elegant if generally unspecific expression of revolt, written and read by the literary and intellectual avant-garde. It was edited by Zo d’Axa (né Alphonse Galland), a flamboyant, rakishly bewhiskered free spirit who was dubbed “the musketeer” or “the patrician” of anarchy. When d’Axa, accused of sedition, was forced to flee to London in 1892, Fénéon silently took over the editor’s chair.

But Fénéon’s double life could not last. In the early 1890s a state of war existed between the anarchists and the government. On May Day 1891, the army fired on strikers and their families in the textile town of Fourmies, near the Belgian border; the same day a demonstration in the Paris suburb of Clichy turned into a gun battle between anarchists and police—which may well have been started by the police—after which two of the anarchists were given long prison sentences. To avenge both incidents, a man called Ravachol (né François Koenigstein) planted bombs at the Lobau barracks in Paris and at the homes of the two judges who pronounced sentence in the Clichy case. Although no one was injured, Ravachol was guillotined. After a lull, a series of reprisals ensued, which peaked in December 1893, when Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, again with no injuries, not even interrupting the proceedings. At the guillotine, Vaillant predicted that his death would be avenged. A week later it was done: one person died and twenty were hurt when a bomb was thrown into the Café Terminus near the Gare Saint-Lazare. The bomber was Émile Henry, a young friend of Fénéon’s, a brilliant student whose militancy was exacerbated by the fate of his father, a former Communard who died of lead poisoning from working in Spanish mines during his exile. The Café Terminus bombing was significantly different from what had gone before because it targeted not specific antagonists but random petits bourgeois. The question divided anarchist opinion. The writer Octave Mirbeau declared that “A mortal enemy of anarchy could have acted no better than Émile Henry,” while the poet Laurent Tailhade famously uttered, “Qu’importent quelques vagues humanités si le geste est beau?4

  1. 1

    Letter to Jean Paulhan, 1949, quoted by Joan Ungersma Halperin, in Félix Fénéon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Yale University Press, 1988), p. 11. Maybe Breton’s experience of Fénéon accounts for his otherwise unaccountable omission of the Nouvelles en trois lignes from the Anthologie de l’humour noir in its expanded editions of 1950 or 1966.

  2. 2

    She also identified many of his unsigned or pseudonymous pieces and produced the most definitive edition of his work: Oeuvres plus que complètes (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1970).

  3. 3

    Encyclopédie anarchiste, quoted in Ravachol et les anarchistes, by Jean Maitron (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 7.

  4. 4

    Of what importance are a few vague people if the gesture is beautiful?”

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