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Vive Fénéon

By: Steven Heller | August 30, 2010

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.

Read more: Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | Vive La Fénéon