Vive Fénéon

 
In 1906, suspected terrorist, anarchist and literary instigator Félix Fénéon wrote more than a thousand small bits for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. Each was a bizarre yet enigmatic fragmentary, often scandalous report. Illustrator Joanna Neborsky was inspired to visually translate twenty-eight of them using a melange of collage and drawing, comprising her book Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon.

“Taken as a whole they compose a detailed portrait of
life in France at the turn of the last century. Fénéon’s news items are
populated with opium addicts, prostitutes, drunks, those flattened by
trains and carriages, inept and angry thieves, protestors, and
simpletons,” notes the publisher, Mark Batty.

Recently, The Daily Heller caught up with Ms. Neborsky and
interrogated her under hot lights about why and when she first decided
to create this book.

What is the thrust of your story? Félix Fénéon’s 1,220 “novels” — brief news items that appeared in the Paris newspaper Le Matin
over the course of 1906 – reported from across France incidents cruel
and strange. Lovers drown, pipe makers strike, nurses go mad, farmers
sneeze with fatal result. In collage and drawings, and in three
sections, I’ve illustrated twenty-eight of the stories composed by
Fénéon, a famed critic, editor, and anarchist from the turn of the last
century.

How did this book evolve? My attention span is
about three-lines-long, so Félix Fénéon and I were destined to get
along. In 2007, on a bookshelf marked “True Crime,” I discovered his Novels in Three Lines,
published by New York Review Books Classics and translated by Luc
Sante. The book compiled his anonymous 1906 news bulletins about rude
disaster and crummy behavior from all over France, told in an elegant,
dry style. As a rule I am unable to resist things that are pessimistic
and French. I bought three copies.

Besides Barnes & Noble, I must also credit the MFA Illustration
program at the School of Visual Arts, where this book began as my
senior thesis. The compactness, detail, and humor of the stories
suggested them as captions. They called out for images, or at least the
kind of images I like to make, which are absurd, colorful, deadly, and
tending toward men in bowler hats.

What do you want your audience to take away?
These stories impart no lessons – except, perhaps, to avoid ingesting a
kilo of beef after nine absinthes. The reports are pessimistic about
the human race, but I don’t expect that will discomfit my audience,
whose tastes are Gorey-esque enough to have led them to a book of
cheekily collaged train accidents. My editor would probably like me to
add that the book is not all doom and injury: Fénéon’s briefs are also
about the quickening strides of science and industry in the early
1900s; about telegraphy, oceanography, and train travel becoming
inserted into daily life; about the growing chaos of cities; about
modernity coming up in the tabloids—itself a newish phenomenon.

I hope that readers will be tickled by the collisions in this
book—of not just an automobile and the bicyclist Monsieur Leblanc, but
of early twentieth-century haiku with early twenty-first-century
pastiche. I also hope that they will be inspired to seek out the 2007
NYRB Classics edition of Fénéon’s nouvelles—there’s a lot more of him
to enjoy.
 

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes a weekly column for The Atlantic online and is the "Visuals" Columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of over 160 books on design and visual culture. And he is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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