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 oflife in France at the turn of the last century. Fénéon’s news items arepopulated with opium addicts, prostitutes, drunks, those flattened bytrains and carriages, inept and angry thieves, protestors, andsimpletons,” notes the publisher, Mark Batty.
Recently, The Daily Heller caught up with Ms. Neborsky andinterrogated her under hot lights about why and when she first decidedto 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 Matinover the course of 1906 – reported from across France incidents crueland strange. Lovers drown, pipe makers strike, nurses go mad, farmerssneeze with fatal result. In collage and drawings, and in threesections, I’ve illustrated twenty-eight of the stories composed byFénéon, a famed critic, editor, and anarchist from the turn of the last century.
How did this book evolve?
My attention span isabout three-lines-long, so Félix Fénéon and I were destined to getalong. 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 LucSante. The book compiled his anonymous 1906 news bulletins about rudedisaster and crummy behavior from all over France, told in an elegant,dry style. As a rule I am unable to resist things that are pessimisticand French. I bought three copies.
Besides Barnes & Noble, I must also credit the MFA Illustrationprogram at the School of Visual Arts, where this book began as mysenior thesis. The compactness, detail, and humor of the storiessuggested them as captions. They called out for images, or at least thekind of images I like to make, which are absurd, colorful, deadly, andtending toward men in bowler hats.
What do you want your audience to take away?These stories impart no lessons – except, perhaps, to avoid ingesting akilo of beef after nine absinthes. The reports are pessimistic aboutthe 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 ofcheekily collaged train accidents. My editor would probably like me toadd that the book is not all doom and injury: Fénéon’s briefs are alsoabout the quickening strides of science and industry in the early1900s; about telegraphy, oceanography, and train travel becominginserted into daily life; about the growing chaos of cities; aboutmodernity coming up in the tabloids—itself a newish phenomenon.
I hope that readers will be tickled by the collisions in thisbook—of not just an automobile and the bicyclist Monsieur Leblanc, butof early twentieth-century haiku with early twenty-first-centurypastiche. I also hope that they will be inspired to seek out the 2007NYRB Classics edition of Fénéon’s nouvelles—there’s a lot more of him to enjoy.