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Novels In Three Lines: They're Pessimistic And French (PHOTOS)

Posted: 10/28/10 08:25 AM ET

At the turn of the last century, Félix Fénéon discovered Seurat, published James Joyce in French, and planted a bomb on a restaurant windowsill. He was also, over the course of 1906, the author of 1,220 short, spry news items for the Paris newspaper "Le Matin". Bad news, usually: Louis Lamarre bought a liter of kerosene and drank it. Georges Lamarre fenced against a lamppost and lost. Elsewhere, lovers drown, nurses go mad, farmers sneeze with fatal result. You should read these grim telegrams, which were undiscovered until the 1940s, not just to brush up on poor decision-making in fin-de-siècle France ("He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed"), but to delight in Fénéon's skeptical wit and terse, elegant phrasing. Fénéon, a dandy-anarchist whose portrait hangs in MOMA, originated and perfected the art of tabloid haiku. Today he has a Twitter feed.

I discovered Félix Fénéon in 2007, when New York Review Books Classics published Luc Sante's translation of his odd, slight tales as Novels in Three Lines. As a rule I am unable to resist things that are pessimistic and French. The result, three years later, is Illustrated Three-Line Novels. Excerpted here are some pages from the book, in which I have illustrated twenty-eight of Fénéon's fragments.

Pages 16 - 17
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"A royal fish weighing 330 pounds is on exhibition in Trouville for 5 cents."
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