Behind the Gas Lamp

Julian Barnes

  • Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon, translated by Luc Sante
    NYRB, 171 pp, £7.99, August 2007, ISBN 978 1 59017 230 8

In 1890, the neo-Impressionist Paul Signac offered to paint Félix Fénéon, the very coiner, four years previously, of the term ‘neo-Impressionist’. The critic-subject responded with modest evasiveness, and then a proviso: ‘I will express only one opinion: effigy absolutely full-face – do you agree?’ Signac did not agree. Five months later, the best-known image of Fénéon emerged: in left profile, holding top hat and cane, presenting a lily to an off-canvas recipient (homage to an artist? love-gift to a woman?) against a circusy pinwheel of dashing pointillist colour. Fénéon, whether from vanity or critic’s pique at the artist’s disobedience, strongly disliked the image, commenting that ‘the portraitist and the portrayed had done one another a cruel disservice.’ He accepted the picture, however, and kept it on his walls until Signac died some 45 years later. But neither that event, nor the passing of time, mellowed his judgment: in 1943 he told his friend and future literary executor, the critic Jean Paulhan, that it was ‘the least successful work painted by Signac’.

Worse for Fénéon, it established a template of profilism. Bonnard, Vuillard and Vallotton all depicted him in more or less the same pose: leaning forwards – bent into a near impossible arrowhead in Vuillard’s rendition – at his desk at the Revue Blanche, with left profile and monkish tonsure on display. Toulouse-Lautrec and van Dongen followed suit. Fénéon may not have liked it, but it was the more interesting view. In full face he looks as if he might be someone else: in old age he resembled Gide. Whereas the profile shot offered artists much more promising material: a big boney nose, prominent chin and, beneath it, the flowing tuft of a goatee. Highly individual and yet also, somehow, generic. This angle made people think of Uncle Sam or Abraham Lincoln (Apollinaire called him ‘a faux Yankee’); also of the Moulin Rouge dancer Valentin le Désossé, for whom he was sometimes mistaken. ‘We had, it seems,’ he admitted, ‘analogies that were flattering to neither of us.’

But this profilism was also psychologically and aesthetically accurate: a representation of Fénéon’s obliqueness, his decision not to face us directly, either as readers or as examiners of his life. In literary and artistic history he comes down to us in shards, kaleidoscopically. Luc Sante, in his introduction to Novels in Three Lines, describes him well as being ‘invisibly famous’ – and he was even more invisible to Anglophone readers until Joan Ungersma Halperin’s fine study of him appeared in 1988. Art critic, art dealer, owner of the best eye in Paris as the century turned, promoter of Seurat, the only galleryist Matisse ever trusted; journalist, ghost-writer for Colette’s Willy, literary adviser then chief editor of the Revue Blanche; friend of Verlaine, Huysmans and Mallarmé, publisher of Laforgue, editor and organiser of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations; publisher of Joyce and translator of Northanger Abbey. He was invisible partly because he was a facilitator rather than a creator, but also because of his manner, which was elliptical, ironic, taciturn. Some found him caustic and rather frightening; though his actions were often kindly. Valéry called him ‘just, pitiless and gentle’. The Goncourt Journal reports the verdict of the poet Henri de Régnier: ‘A real original, born in Italy and looking like an American. An intelligent man who is trying to turn himself into a character and impress people with his epigrams … But a man of heart, goodness and sensitivity, belonging wholly to the world of the eccentric, the disfavoured, the down-and-out.’

For 13 years, he worked at the War Office, rising to the position of chief clerk. Frenchly, he managed to combine this with being a committed anarchist, by both word and deed. He supported the cause as journalist, editor and – almost certainly – bomb-planter. In 1894, he was arrested in a sweep of anarchists and charged under the kind of catch-all law which governments panicked by terror attacks stupidly tend to enact. Part of the evidence against him was that a police search of his office had turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 11 detonators. Fénéon added to the history of implausible excuses by claiming that his father, who had recently died and was therefore unavailable to corroborate his evidence, had found them in the street. His defence was paid for by the artistic Maecenas Thadée Natanson, and he seems to have enjoyed matching his mind against the lawyers. When the presiding judge put it to him that he had been spotted talking to a known anarchist behind a gas lamp, he replied coolly: ‘Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a gas lamp is its behind?’ This being France, wit did him no disservice with the jury, and he was acquitted. The following year Wilde was to discover the downside of courtroom wit. Strangely, this was also the year in which Lautrec painted the two victims side by side – and in profile, naturally – as spectators at the Moulin Rouge.

The trial was the high point of Fénéon’s visibility. For the next half-century he became gradually more elusive. He never published a book, restricting himself to the 43-page monograph Les Impressionistes en 1886. This came out in an edition of 227 copies, and he declined all subsequent offers to reprint it. His journalism proceeded from full byline to initials to total anonymity. A publisher once invited him to write his memoirs; naturally, he refused. Another suggested bringing out Les Nouvelles en trois lignes; he replied angrily: ‘I aspire only to silence.’ A reply on a par with that of his near contemporary, the Swiss writer Robert Walser, who was once visited in the lunatic asylum to which he had retreated by a friend who asked how his work was coming along. ‘I’m not here to write,’ Walser replied, ‘but to be mad.’

Fénéon’s elusiveness infected the way others wrote about him. The biographical note in the Pléiade edition of Jules Renard’s Journal takes up more space than the two entries devoted to him, one of which reads simply: ‘Fénéon’s goatee.’ Mallarmé was a close friend who stood as a character witness at his trial. But here is the poet writing to his near-miss mistress Méry Laurent immediately after that event: ‘My poor friend Fénéon (no, he has a very interesting physiognomy) has been acquitted and this gives me happiness. The fruit have not yet arrived or been eaten. The ham reigns supreme and Geneviève considers we put it in its trousers (the bag) too soon after the meal.’ This is all part of the same paragraph. The great public crisis of Fénéon’s life is subsumed into the more important matter of food. Though Fénéon might well have approved, especially of the phrase, ‘The ham reigns supreme.’

The Nouvelles en trois lignes, here translated into English for the first time, is not, in any normal sense, a book, if that word implies authorial intent. In 1906, Fénéon worked for the newspaper Le Matin, and for some months was assigned to compose the faits divers column – known in hackdom as chiens écrasés (‘run-over dogs’). He had at his disposal the wire services, local and provincial newspapers, and communications from readers. He composed up to twenty of these three-line fillers in the course of his evening shift. They were printed – unsigned, of course – and read for a quick smile or breath-intake or head-shake, and then forgotten. They would not have been identifiable from the general mass of faits divers had not Fénéon’s mistress, Camille Plateel, dutifully cut out his contributions – all 1220 of them – and stuck them in an album (his wife apparently did the same). Jean Paulhan then discovered and published them. It is an interesting position, to be the literary executor of a writer who aspired only to silence and resolutely refused publication in his lifetime. Paulhan duly brought out this unintended, unauthored, unshaped, unofficial ‘book’, and Fénéon’s underground literary reputation started to go overground.

Sartre, writing about Jules Renard’s Journal, described the dilemma of the French prose writer at the end of the 19th century. The great descriptive and critical project that had been the realist novel – from Flaubert via Goncourt and Maupassant to Zola – had run its course, had sucked up the world and left little for the next generation of practitioners. The only way forward lay through compression, annotation, pointillism. In a grand and rather grudging tribute to Renard, Sartre wrote that the Journal ‘is at the origin of many more modern attempts to seize the essence of the single thing’. Gide, whose own journal overlapped for many years with that of Renard, complained – perhaps rivalrously – that the latter’s was ‘not a river but a distillery’.

Renard – who also features in Bonnard’s drawing of the Revue Blanche offices – distilled; Fénéon went further, and barely bottled a drop. Sante calls this ‘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 co-authors. 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.’ These rather grand claims provoke two immediate responses: first, that Malevich’s black canvas did at least exist; and second, that if such was indeed the intention behind the writer’s silence, then what is the quality of disobedience in the actions, first of Paulhan, and then of Sante?

In 1914, Apollinaire started a wider awareness of the Nouvelles en trois lignes by claiming, in a newspaper column – appropriately anonymous – that they had ‘invented’ the ‘words at liberty adopted by the Futurists’. Their clandestine reputation and significance has, over the century, become an idée reçue. Here it is, as related by Hilary Spurling in her biography of Matisse: ‘For years [sic] he also wrote a national newspaper column, consisting entirely of more or less offbeat items collected from the press and retailed with a terse, disconcerting wit which raised the news round-up to a proto-Surrealist art form.’ Sante has further claims: that the Nouvelles ‘depict the France of 1906 in its full breadth’; that they have the perfection of haikai; that they are ‘Fénéon’s Human Comedy’; that they have the same essence as the pointillists’ adamantine dots; that they are like random photographs found in a trunk; that they parallel Braque and Picasso’s use of newspaper in Cubist collage; finally, that they ‘represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of Modernism’. The publishers, for good measure, throw in Andy Warhol.

To begin at the beginning: they are ‘nouvelles en trois lignes’. The news in three lines, laid out – as a page of Le Matin reproduced here shows – under the sub-heads of Parisian Suburbs, Départements (i.e. provincial stories) and Foreign. These attributions are not maintained in Sante’s edition; but then they were probably not evident from Camille Plateel’s scrapbook. Fénéon had previous experience of forms demanding compression and permitting irony. In 1886 he had been one of four co-authors who produced – in three days flat – a Petit Bottin des lettres et des arts, a cheeky and whimsical lexicon of cultural notables. Later, as an anarchist journo in the 1890s, he had directed his sarcasm at more serious targets:

Dead sick of himself after reading the book by Samuel Smiles (Know Thyself), a judge just drowned himself at Coulange-la-Vineuse. If only this excellent book could be read throughout the magistracy.

Or:

A policeman, Maurice Marullas, has blown out his brains. Let’s save the name of this honest man from being forgotten.

This was to be very much the style of the Nouvelles en trois lignes, even if the political opinions were now to be held back.

‘The original French title,’ Sante writes, ‘can mean either “the news in three lines” or “novellas in three lines”.’ It would, of course, have meant only the first when the newspaper named the column; and nouvelles normally means ‘short stories’ in French. Even allowing for the slipperiness of fictional taxonomy, it’s a considerable stretch to make it mean ‘novellas’, and a completely impossible stretch to make it mean ‘novels’. But Novels in Three Lines is a more sexily paradoxical title. If ‘all writing is compromise,’ what does that make publishing?

Most of the thousand or so items here (Sante has omitted 154 on grounds of obscurity) tell of violence in one form or another. Here are murder, suicide and rape; anarchist bombs and acid attacks; theft, arson and poisonings; the discharge, accidental or deliberate, of a wide range of firearms; runnings-down by train, carriage, horse, automobile and bus. Suicide – sometimes in pact form – may come by hanging, poisoning, incineration, railway line, river or well. Rabies attacks the human body, while strikes attack the economic and social body. There are weird eccentricities, bathetic failures, sly hoaxes and scams of impressive originality:

‘Ouch!’ cried the cunning oyster-eater. ‘A pearl!’ Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 30 cents at the dime store.

What there is very little of – unsurprisingly, given the tradition of the faits divers column – is normality (and therefore breadth, Balzacian or otherwise). Only two areas suggest this: regular space is given to the mildest happenings in the French navy, often involving small amounts of damage to tiller and hull; and a strange but consistent interest is shown in the election of May queens.

There are certain givens to this journalistic format. You must mention names, places, ages and, if possible, professions; summarise the newsworthy event; and indicate motive, if known, guessable or inventible. All this in three lines. Sometimes this results in a car-crash of nomenclature:

A case of revenge: near Monistrol-d’Allier, M. Blanc and M. Boudoissier were killed and mutilated by M. Plet, M. Pascal and M. Gazanion.

Trades and professions – especially if far from those of the newspaper’s readers – provide points of colour: here are chestnut vendors, ragpickers and resin-tappers. Sometimes, these opposing trades clash:

In the military zone, in the course of a duel over scrawny Adeline, basket-weaver Capello stabbed bear-baiter Monari in the abdomen.

Had the bear-baiter stabbed the basket-weaver, it might have been less unusual; that it happened in the military zone makes it more piquant; that the surnames imply the hot blood of the south, and that Adeline was scrawny – whether she was or not in reality is almost beside the point – make it into a miniature story.

Only very occasionally do these stories join up to create a thread of narrative (in one item, a group of naval gunners contract diarrhoea from spoiled meat; a few paragraphs later, there is a correction – it was the heat, not the meat). However, a couple of running themes emerge, which may or may not represent Fénéon’s personal interests: it remains unclear whether he was under editorial guidance in the selection of items. The first concerns the regular theft, throughout the country, of telegraph and telephone wires. Time after time, vast lengths are snipped and silently removed. The culprits are rarely apprehended, until, close to the end of his stint, Fénéon is able to report:

People were beginning to think the telegraph-cable thieves were supernatural. And yet one has been caught: Eugène Matifos, of Boulogne.

The second near-theme is the continuing battle between church and state over the display of crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia in schools. A mayor is relieved of his duties ‘on account of his zeal at keeping Jesus in the schools’; others ‘for having put God back in schools or having prevented his being removed’; ‘once again, Christ is on the walls …’; four more mayors are suspended for wanting ‘to keep the spectacle of the death of God in the sight of schoolchildren’; others want to ‘restore to classroom walls the image of divine torture’. The sequence finds a comic narrative conclusion in:

This time the crucifix is solidly bolted to the wall of the school at Bouillé. So much for the prefect of Maine-et-Loire.

As can be seen, elegant variation is one of Fénéon’s favourite techniques. What new way can be found of describing the latest violent yet sadly repetitive crime? One victim is mutilated in a way that is ‘permanently cancelling his virility’. A father kills his sexually active daughter for being ‘insufficiently austere’; a day-labourer admits that ‘he often substituted for his wife his daughter Valentine, 14, who was eight when the practice began’. Félicie de Doncker, an abortionist, is ‘proficient at quelling the birthrate in Brabant’. Rustic rapists are cast as ‘fauns’, as in:

Mme Olympe Fraisse relates that in the woods of Bordezac, Gard, a faun subjected her 66 years to prodigious abuses.

Or:

M. Pierre de Condé was arrested at Craches for rape. Alcide Lenoux, who was also implicated, fled. The two fauns are 16 and 18.

Elegant variation shades into ironical euphemism, which shades into dandaical detachment. Flaubert, in despair at the Franco-Prussian war, and trying to maintain the primacy of art, commented that in the long run, perhaps the only function of such carnage was to provide writers with a few fine scenes. So here, the function of the octogenarian Breton woman who hangs herself, or the 75-year-old man who dies of a stroke on the bowling lawn (‘While his ball was still rolling he was no more’), or the 70-year-old who drops dead of sunstroke (‘Quickly his dog Fido ate his head’) is to provide a sophisticated Parisian with a witty paragraph. As an aesthete-anarchist, Fénéon had always cultivated a detached gaiety of tone: a bomb became a ‘delightful kettle’ and the manner in which it killed six people showed ‘intimate charm’ (we are not far from Henze’s quickly retracted description of the World Trade Center attacks as ‘the greatest artwork ever made’). So with the Nouvelles: are they a Modernist’s evocation of a harsh and absurd world, a subtle continuation of propaganda by word; or are they simply a classier expression of the press’s traditional heartless sensationalism? Though they could, of course, be both.

Clive James once cruelly rebuked an Observer subeditor who had sought to sharpen his prose style and improve his jokes with the remark, ‘Listen, if I wrote like that I’d be you.’ Félix Fénéon might be the perfect counter-example: the sub who wrote better than the newspaper’s main contributors. He knew how to shape a sentence, how to make three lines breathe, delay a key piece of information, introduce a quirky adjective, hold the necessary verb until last. Just fitting in the requisite facts is a professional skill; giving the whole item form, elegance, wit and surprise, is an art.

But how much of an art, and of what resonance? The Futurists, despite Apollinaire’s suggestion, didn’t acknowledge Fénéon’s model, quite possibly because they were utterly unaware of it. Sante quotes what they meant by parole in libertà: ‘Literature having up to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy and slumber, we wish to exalt the aggressive moment, the feverish insomnia, the running, the perilous leap, the cuff and the blow.’ That there was a great deal of daft windbaggery about the Futurists, this quote confirms; that Marinetti’s words are proof of ‘a common essence’ with Fénéon’s nouvelles, as Sante claims, is pushing it. So is the notion that they are ‘a proto-Surrealist art form’.

Posterity likes to see itself predicted; Modernism needs modernists avant la lettre, even if the facts have to be fitted. Fénéon helped establish neo-Impressionism, and was the first owner of Seurat’s Bathing at Asnières (when a dealer offered him a large sum for it, he replied: ‘But what could I do with all that money, except buy it back from you?’); he supported Matisse and bought a Braque. But he was also the art critic who, when Apollinaire took him to see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Bateau-Lavoir in 1907, turned to Picasso and said: ‘You should stick to caricature.’

You could, if feeling theoretical, see the Nouvelles in terms of the literary crisis Sartre described. Flaubert, with whom it all began, found the story of Madame Bovary in a provincial fait divers (whether there was an actual cutting or not is beside the point): ‘Delphine Delamare, 27, wife of a medical officer in Ry, displayed insufficient austerity. Worse, she ran up debts. To avoid paying them, she took poison.’ From there, the 19th-century novel expanded and progressed, until there was nowhere left for it to go, whereupon it folded itself back into the form it had come from, the Nouvelles en trois lignes, waiting for the opportunity to unpack itself again. That might be one reading, and the fact that when fiction recovered its vitality it acknowledged no more debt to Fénéon than the Futurists did was, you could say, appropriate: the ‘invisible’ writer had ‘invisible’ influence.

Or you could say that Fénéon, highly intelligent and ironical, found himself at a certain point in his life set to a task of journalistic drudgery. Over the long evenings at his desk at Le Matin, he made things as much fun for himself and his readers as was compatible with the needs of the slot. He took a long-established form and tweaked it, giving it a personal stylistic touch while acknowledging that the 19th-century fundamentals of narrative and fact-conveying had to be respected. The nouvelles were the journalistic equivalent of cocktail olives, and Fénéon devised a new piquant stuffing. Either way, Luc Sante has been bravely undeterred by Robert Herbert’s view that ‘Translating Fénéon would be tantamount to rendering a Sung landscape in department-store plastic.’ He has well conveyed the taut, sprung wryness of the original French.