Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What I've Read: Novels in Three Lines

It didn't seem to get as much attention as Not Quite What I Was Planning, the recent collection of six-word memoirs, but Luc Sante's translation of Novels in Three Lines is one of the strangest and most interesting things I've read in quite some time. The book is a collection of short news pieces written by anarchist and critic Felix Feneon and published in a Paris newspaper around the turn of the century (sort of a Gallic precursor to "No blood in ants").

On a purely historic level, the book is interesting as a portrait of what was in the papers at the time, with stories about labor strikes and anarchist bombings mixed in among crime reports and obituaries. And a good many of those daily occurrences are interesting in their own right; Feneon clearly was a fan of stories about strange coincidences and ironic outcomes. But most of the appeal comes from Feneon's incredible writing style. Each story is, of course, very brief, but he somehow manages to find room in almost all of them for at least one memorable detail, strange turn of phrase, or instance of dark humor.

Whereas a typical news story begins with a description of what happened and then proceeds to build details around it, Feneon tends to take the opposite approach. He starts by setting a scene or introducing someone in a way that makes them seem like a character with whom we should already be familiar. It's only at the very end that he tells the reader what happened that was newsworthy. I was frequently reminded of the famous first sentence of Kafka's Metamorphosis in the way that they key detail is held until the end of the sentence for maximum impact. Indeed, many of the news items contained in the book would make for great opening lines of novels; others are so delightfully macabre that they wouldn't seem out of place underneath an Edward Gorey illustration.

I'd quote some examples, but there are too many great lines to choose from, and I fear that taking them out of context would dilute their impact (also, I've already returned the book to the library). I highly recommend it to fans of haiku, limericks, and other literary small plates.

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