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


Tailhade, with unimprovable irony, was the sole victim of the next major anarchist bombing. The cycle of deaths and reprisals would reach its logical culmination in June 1894, when Sadi Carnot, President of the Republic, was fatally stabbed by a visiting Italian anarchist. Before that, on April 4, a device was set on the windowsill of the restaurant of the Hôtel Foyot, across the street from the Palais du Luxembourg, meeting place of the Senate. Although the restaurant’s clientele was composed primarily of politicians, financiers, and their mistresses, Tailhade, a recidivist gastronome, was an occasional visitor, and on that occasion was romancing his own mistress. He lost an eye in the blast. No one was ever formally accused; the case remained unsolved. Rumors flew, naturally, and a persistent one attached itself to Fénéon. It made its first appearance in print four years after his death, in Paulhan’s preface to his edition of Fénéon’s Oeuvres. Halperin goes farther and asserts that Fénéon confessed.5 The evidence is a chain of hearsay, but suggestive. Halperin obtained the information, at one remove, from the poet André Salmon, who was half a generation younger than Fénéon but after 1900 traveled in the same circles. In La Terreur noire, his book on the French anarchists of the turn of the last century, Salmon wrote:

Sixty-five years after the fact…a very old witness …confided to me that a subtle man of letters had boasted to him at the time of having placed the bomb that exploded on the threshold of the Foyot. It is important to specify that this very well known man of letters, who is not forgotten even today, even though he wrote little, remained until the death of that poet…a great friend of Laurent Tailhade.6

Halperin’s informant told her that the “old witness” was the Dutch émigré translator Alexandre Cohen, one of Fénéon’s closest friends and equally active in anarchist activities (although he later followed the path of Charles Maurras to virulent right-wing nationalism, while Fénéon took the other road out, that of the Communist Party). Salmon’s characterization of the culprit is unmistakably Fénéon. The word “subtle,” the fact that he “wrote little” and yet remained unforgotten—the identification would have been clear to informed readers. It is of course possible that Salmon embellished or extrapolated, or that Cohen, who was ninety-five years old in 1959, was simply muddled—it may be significant that while Salmon writes that the boast occurred “alors,” Cohen had been deported in 1893 and was living in London at the time. In view of the subsequent political split between him and Fénéon, he may even have sought some obscure belated payback.

Still, it would not be out of character for Fénéon to have done it. It is very difficult to pin Fénéon down, since he left behind few statements, much less self-revelations, and maintained a powerfully guarded personality. But he was fully committed to the cause, and furthermore had given Émile Henry one of his mother’s dresses to use as a disguise when the latter delivered the bomb that blew up the police precinct house on Rue des Bons-Enfants in November 1892. The biggest sticking point in the Foyot bombing remains, as in the case of the Café Terminus, the choice of target: a public restaurant in which any number of innocent parties might have business. Salmon believed that the Foyot bomber had intended to blow up the Senate, but had been thwarted by the presence of guards, and had selected the Foyot as a last resort.

In any case, 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.7

The tactical rationale was “propaganda by the deed,” which could mean either that the masses would be inspired to follow spontaneously in revolt, or else that the consequent repression would be so severe that the populace would have no choice but to rise up against it. In truth, such reasoning was wishful—the real engine was rage. In the face of horrendous labor conditions, a vast and unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, minute surveillance of dissidents, and a draconian if capricious repression, the anarchists declared war on a power structure that was warring both against them and against the poor and unlettered who were in no position to fight back themselves. In court, after citing their tally of workaday murders by malnutrition, overwork, neglect, and exploitation, Émile Henry exhorted his opponents: “At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and agree that our reprisals are fully legitimate.”8

Three weeks after the Foyot bombing, Fénéon was arrested in a sweep of anyone whose name could be connected to anarchist activities, a sweep that had been in progress since Ravachol’s attacks but was now redoubled. (As Paulhan points out, however, it is significant that, considering the many prominent contributors to L’Endehors, Fénéon was the only literary figure to be arrested.) He was kept in prison for more than three months before the government figured out a case to mount against him and twenty-nine others, some of them in absentia, a range of defendants that mingled theorists and burglars, and included a butcher’s apprentice accused of stealing a cutlet. Fénéon’s arrest provoked considerable excitement on both sides. Much was made of his employment at the ministry, even more so after a search of his office (nothing was found in his apartment) turned up, in a coat closet, a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing eleven detonators. His friends rallied; the blameless Mallarmé said, in part, “You say they are talking of detonators. Certainly, for Fénéon, there are no better detonators than his articles.”9 When asked about the detonators in court, Fénéon claimed that his father, who had recently died, had found them in the street. The prosecutor suggested that such a find was rather unusual. Fénéon replied: “The examining magistrate asked me why I hadn’t thrown them out the window instead of taking them to the Ministry. So you see, it is possible to find detonators in the street.”10 (They had, in fact, belonged to Henry.) The Trial of the Thirty, as it was dubbed, was a show trial, staged during the August holidays, that produced nothing but good copy for the newspapers. Fénéon’s wit made him the undisputed star. One day the judge received a package which proved to contain human feces. When he called for a recess to go wash his hands, Fénéon remarked to his lawyer in a stage whisper: “Not since Pontius Pilate has a judge washed his hands so ostentatiously.”11 Eventually the case foundered for lack of evidence, not to mention coherence, and although three burglars were convicted, all the anarchists were set free. Fénéon unsurprisingly lost his job, but the cultural impresario Thadée Natanson, who though he had never met Fénéon had provided him with his defense attorney, hired him to edit the Revue blanche.

Fénéon happily returned to obscurity. In the eight years he edited the Revue blanche, his name appeared in its pages only three times, to credit his translations of Poe’s letters and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. “Je n’aime que les travaux indirects,” he said. He invisibly determined the character of the journal, with his sensibility uniquely attuned to the present and the future. He published, among others, often very early in their careers, Proust, Apollinaire, Jarry, Paul Claudel, Charles Péguy, Jules Renard, Marcel Schwob, Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, Julien Benda, Léon Blum; Debussy was his music critic, André Gide his book critic. After 1900 he supplemented the aesthetic substance of the journal with serious studies of social questions and international affairs. In those years he himself wrote virtually nothing. “Je n’aspire qu’au silence,” he said to someone who offered to publish a collection of his work. Jarry called him “celui qui silence,” meaning both that he silences the nonsense of others and that he himself practices an active form of silence.12 That would be the same silence that Rimbaud embodied when he abandoned poetry for Aden and Abyssinia, that Lautréamont enacted when he destroyed his Poésies and published only its preface, that Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste exemplified by writing nothing at all. It is an aggressive silence, as charged, dense, and reverberating as Malevich’s black canvas. It affirms that all writing is compromise, that conception will always trump execution, that ego and politics are everyone’s coauthors. It may be rooted in despair but it grows in the direction of transcendence. It wishes to free poetry from books and release it into daily life.

After the Revue blanche folded—as is invariably the case with ambitious literary reviews, it did not recover its costs—Fénéon went to work as a journalist, first for the conservative institution Le Figaro. He mostly wrote anonymous copy, and only one byline of his has survived, in which he wondered whether there was any basis for the major panic of the day, the “yellow peril.” (He interviewed Cesare Lombroso, Jules Verne, and the great geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus, who suggested that the West was more immediately likely to exploit the population of China than to be invaded by it.) Early in 1906 he entered the employ of Le Matin, a popular broadsheet of broadly liberal tenor, where after a few months he was assigned the faits-divers column on page 3, and he kept at it until November of that year, when he was hired by the Bernheim brothers to sell art in their gallery. He drew his news items from wire services, small-town newspapers, and direct communication from readers. He worked the evening or night shift, and wrote up to twenty of them daily, presumably in addition to other duties.

Given their ephemeral nature, Fénéon’s items were not an object of public comment in their time, but their enduring impact is suggested by a 1914 entry in Apollinaire’s anonymous Mercure de France column, “La vie anecdotique“:

M. Félix Fénéon has never been very prodigal with his prose, and his conversation is rather laconic. Nevertheless, this writer so bare-bones that he so to speak invented, in his immortal three-line stories in Le Matin, the words at liberty adopted by the Futurists, has been silent for too long.13

Although the Futurists themselves did not acknowledge a debt to Fénéon for their parole in libertà, a glance at F.T. Marinetti’s manifestos suggests a common essence: “Literature having up to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and slumber, we wish to exalt the aggressive movement, the feverish insomnia, running, the perilous leap, the cuff, and the blow.”14 And if Fénéon did not exactly invent his form, he perfected it, streamlined it, gave it dynamism and tensile strength, made it an aggressive modernist vehicle. Halperin cites a few examples of entries from the column just before Fénéon took it over:

The funeral of gendarme Refeveuille, killed by a burglar, took place yesterday, paid by the city of Evreux.

In Brignoles, Mme. S., who had recently given birth, killed herself yesterday by jumping out a window, during a bout of fever.15

The inertness and complacency of these sentences is immediately evident when they are compared to Fénéon’s:

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

There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law’s hair caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.

Fénéon, after all a disciple of Mallarmé, exercised his considerable talents for compression, distillation, and skeletal evocation, making the items something like haikai. He managed to engineer the most minimal, Swiss-watch examples of suspense (making them a special challenge for the translator, since word order is often crucial).

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

He enjoyed combining thematically related items into double- or triple-deckers:

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

He constructed what can sound like short stories in concentrated tablet form:

The schoolchildren of Niort were being crowned. The chandelier fell, and the laurels of three among them were spotted with a little blood.

At five o’clock in the morning, M.P. Bouget was accosted by two men on Rue Fondary. One put out his right eye, the other his left. In Necker.

Sometimes it seems that the three lines can contain the substance of an entire novel:

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

He made dry, glancing social commentary with little more than the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

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

Occasionally an entry achieves the frozen perfection of an epigram:

On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. André, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.

As an art critic Fénéon had been noted for, among other things, the muted extravagance of his language. He drew vocabulary from the jargons of specialized professions, sciences, areas of study; horticultural and architectural and nautical terms, which his readers would usually have to look up or puzzle out, would repay that labor by their descriptive or metaphorical precision. Rather than being employed for show, such arcana provided a prophylaxis against the unanchored vagueness of most art criticism. Fénéon’s language, enlisting the detachment and objectivity of science, partook of the same essence as the Pointillists’ adamantine dots—so much like pixels—and Charles Henry’s aesthetic theories, and the anarchists’ invocations of Darwin and Huxley against authority and superstition. Now, writing for a mass audience, he could not count on his readers’ using or even owning dictionaries, but his need for precision was no less. There may be few rare words in these stories, but there is not a word or a punctuation mark wasted. Translation can only go so far in attempting to convey Fénéon’s virtuosic selection and ordering of words for nuance, rhythm, and maximum impact. Each item is a literary performance, just as each is nameless, evanescent, consumed in a instant and then used to wrap fish.

If each item is a miniature clockwork of language and event, the full thousand-and-some put together make a mosaic panorama. They represent the year 1906 in France, and they are charged with the essence of that time and place in a way that is routinely available to artifacts and impersonal documents while often remaining outside the grasp of literature. They 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 (twelve years of relative calm had gone by, while the next wave of anarchist violence, spearheaded by the Bonnot gang, lay five years in the future). It was the dead middle of the Third Republic, which stretched from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the eve of World War II. Germany was, once again, a looming threat on the horizon, manifesting itself in that period mostly in the African colonies. The separation of church and state had been enacted the previous year, and much turmoil derived from the Catholic church’s reduction in power and income, especially from its loss of the monopoly over primary education. It helps to know such things when reading the items, just as it helps to know that Sisowath was King of Cambodia, that revolution had almost broken out in Russia the year before, and that the writer Maurice Barrès (1862–1923), once an anarchist of the individualist persuasion, had become a very prominent blood-and-soil promoter of tradition. But such public matters occur just here and there. The stories represent daily life, after all, and so what is primarily visible is the range of human folly, greed, lust, rage as well as, very occasionally, love and kindness.

In 1906 the newspaper, around the world, was in its golden age. It enjoyed undisputed dominion over communication (radio would not come about for another decade and a half; movies and sound recordings were still in a primitive state), it existed in profusion (major cities would have from four or five to a dozen or more competing morning papers, and an only slightly smaller number of evening editions), and attempts to increase circulation resulted in gimmicks and experiments that were often trivial but sometimes ambitious and transformative (color comics sections, rotogravure supplements, graphics that broke across the column format). At the same time, just-the-facts impersonality had not yet been ratified as the official journalistic voice, which meant that pompous rhetoric and uninformed blather was often the norm in newspaper prose, but there was also an allowance for adventurous and unconventional writing of a sort that has seldom been seen in daily papers since. Whatever its merits or drawbacks, the newspaper ruled daily life. It represented the most visible incursion of the public sphere into the private. No wonder, then, that twentieth-century art took such pleasure in shredding it. When Fénéon wrote his column in Le Matin, Picasso and Braque were just six years away from starting to cut up Le Journal for their collages (Le Matin itself first shows up in a work by Juan Gris from 1914), and the Dadaists in Zurich and Berlin a bit more than a decade from their even more violent work with scissors. Around the corner was a cavalcade of newspaper-inspired art, from the “Aeolus” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses to the banner-headline typefaces of Wyndham Lewis’s manifestos to Gerald Murphy’s sets for Cole Porter’s Within the Quota, which featured enormous tabloid pages. Fénéon seems to stand Janus-like at the juncture between this coming modernism of machine-age simultaneity and the painstaking artisanal modernism gone by of Mallarmé and the Pointillists.

The closest literary relative to Fénéon’s three-line novellas may be Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885–1915), Recitative (1965, 1968, 1978), a series, more than 500 pages long, of stories and fragments taken from court transcripts, sorted into thematic categories and broken into verse. Although Reznikoff’s is a collage of sorts, open and deliberately rough-edged, with attention to the raw music of American speech, where Fénéon’s is enclosed and polished, a succession of glazed miniatures, what the works have in common is a preoccupation with the cruelty of the small-time and everyday.

Williams—a Negro—Davis, Sweeney, and Robb

were in a saloon together. Williams was talking to Davis

when Sweeney jerked off Williams’ hat

tearing a piece out of the brim.

Sweeney and Williams were having words about this

when Robb stepped up and found fault with Williams

for wrangling with a white man.

The Negro said nothing to Robb

and was backing away

when Robb stabbed him twice with a dirk.16

Both works give the impression of showing a vast succession of lit windows, a nation’s worth of them, through which appalling scenes can be viewed by horrified but impotent readers. Like random photographs found in a trunk, both works preserve the shadow of a great many people who may not otherwise have left surviving traces of their passage on earth. Both demonstrate that violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans human history; they prove that there never was a golden age.

Fénéon’s three-line news items, considered as a single work, represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of modernism. Even as the entries are obsessively handcrafted, the work is in a sense the first readymade. It heralds the age of mass media, via a sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose; forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption, while manifesting time-consuming labor of execution. It recognizes its own transience but does not concede to it. It savors the ironies of chance without fabricating a moral agency to explain them, but never shies from properly attributing the consequences of power, greed, and stupidity. Like the work of certain photographers it is dispassionate sometimes to the point of cruelty, but by the same token, respecting its readers, it does not package a facile response for them. It is a dry bundle of small slivers of occurrence that lie beneath history, but it represents the whole world, with all of its contradictions.

—Luc Sante

This Issue

October 25, 2007