Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Twitter of 1906

I don't find it surprising that with the increase in Internet traffic people find comfort, solace, and convenience in the brevity of Twitter, the "micro blogging" force currently keeping everyone tethered to their electronic devices. Who has time for a newspaper when there are blogs to summarize and excerpt the news, and who has time for blogs when there are plenty of places that will feed you headlines? Why wait until the end of the day to provide the world with an update of your daily travails when you can jot down what is happening, in real time, in short 140 character tidbits?

Instead of 175,000 francs in the coffers deposited with the tax collector at Sousse, there was nothing.

All of this reductive communication might seem unique if it wasn't for the fact that the form is over a hundred years old. Back when newspapers were the Internet people relied on for their daily information needs, there were concrete issues with filling space on the printed page. Extra space in those column inches might be filled with maxims, poetry, or simple quotes culled to give pause or entertain. These bon mots were just as often short news items that didn't require more than a few lines' explanation.

No one ever enters Yolande's house at Montaley, Meudon, through the window by night, so she screamed, and they only took her purse.

I doubt few would look at these space constraints as perfect format for the novel but back at the turn of the twentieth century Felix Feneon did just that. Hired in 1906 to provide short items for La Matin in Paris, he took news items from wire services and other sources as fodder for his inspiration. Writing up to twenty of these nouvelles daily he managed to 1220 of them in less than a year before moving on to other ventures. All but just over 150 of them are collected in Novels in Three Lines, translated and introduced by Luc Sante.

The bread in Bordeaux will not be bloodied this time; the truckers' passage provoked only a minor brawl.

Naturally, the more salacious items make for better stories, and so we find plenty of death and grief and sorrow and murder. As the modern news axiom goes: if it bleeds, it leads. But it's Feneon's ability to crystallize a story to its most basic elements, and in language that weaves a hidden complexity into the deceptive simplicity. While the stories can be read at face value, what makes them novels is what goes unsaid.
By accident or, more probably, suicide, Mme Veit and her daughter Antoinette, 9, drowned in the canal at Nancy.

What?! Children perched on his wall?! With eight rounds M. Olive, property owner in Toulon, forced them to scramble down all bloodied.

Forty gypsies, along with their camels and bears, were forced by gendarmes to leave Fontenay-aux-Roses and for that matter the Seine.

What would cause a mother and daughter to commit suicide together, or a property owner to take pot shots at children sitting on his wall? And what of that pack of gypsies and their camels and bears? Were they just passing through, hiding out, or merely bathing in the Seine? Dark, mysterious and gruesome, and with a demented twist of humor in the telling, each of Feneon's "novels" delivers on the promise that less is more. Any enterprising reader could use this collection as the basis of story seeds, a compendium of examples in summary, or as short bursts of infotainment they were created to be.

Novels in Three Lines
by Felix Feneon
translated and with an introduction by
Luc Sante
NYRB 2007


Elaine Marie Alphin said...

Fascinating! Who'd have thought a 1906 writer might have felt himself so at home in the 21st c. world of Twitter? Felix Feneon seems to have mastered the essence of brevity: to leave the reader wondering, wanting more, yet having to make his own sense out of these cryptic hints of events. It makes me think more seriously about twittering.

david elzey said...

The way things are going, Twitter may be the future of news...