They twisted my arm, honest: a friend talked me into getting on Twitter, and while I've been having great fun there (Where else can you eavesdrop on Steve Martin trading quips with Albert Brooks, or read Chris Hedges thinking out loud?) it is a total time suck.
When it comes to doing your own tweets, the pressure to be pithy in 140 characters can be overwhelming. And the "has it come to this?!" feel of writing for your fellow tweeters' inherent attention deficit disorders (I skim tweets, and often abandon one after a few words) can seem like the end of the literary world as we know it.
So it's comforting, in a way, to remember that over a hundred years ago, someone had already perfected a form of this form, and moved on. And somehow the "long form" survived.
Felix Fénéon, a mysterious critic, Dadaist dandy and possible anarchist, wrote for the French newspaper Le Matin anonymously in 1906, providing the paper with daily news items remarkable in their wit and economy (They've been collected, with an introduction by Luc Sante, in a volume entitled Novels in Three Lines).
Since his brief reportage appeared as part of the daily news, the events covered by Fénéon tend towards murder, suicide, sexual crimes and general mayhem. Death is a constant, be it natural or not. What's most impressive is how the whole of a story is neatly folded into a few declarative statements. Here he applies a deadpan delivery to the tragi-comedy of an accidental demise:
Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train.
He's a sardonic parodist of romantic comedy:
M.O. Calestroupat met, in Parliament, a lady without airs. After a passionate night, a sodden awakening: she took him for 11,250 francs.
In Onynnax, Mlle. Cotet, 18, threw acid in the face of M. Besnard, 25. Love, obviously.
Impressive is his witheringly ironic understatement in the face of what a modern-day tabloid would likely turn into screaming headlines and an outraged full-page spread:
Three is the age of Odette Hautoy, of Roissy. Nevertheless, L. Marc, who is 30, did not consider her too young.
These "novels" are mordant little 20th century tweets, reflective of their author's bracingly modern sensibility. In a NY Times book review, writer Marilyn Johnson (she of an inestimable book on the art of the obituary, The Dead Beat) refers to the three-liners as "Haiku Journalism" and asks:
Who was Fénéon? Part of the first modernist wave and a culturalbricoleur, he worked on the backstage of literature. He translated, published and even discovered many of the enduring names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — Proust, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Seurat, Gide, Joyce — but rarely affixed his own to any work. As Sante puts it, “he kept himself to himself.” During an employment lull, Fénéon took a newspaper job for the Paris daily Le Matin. It lasted barely half a year, but proved an absorbing playground for an anarchist who was also a Symbolist with a sense of humor and a very sharp pen. Fortunately, Fénéon’s mistress clipped the anonymously published miniatures and saved them in a scrapbook.
Bomb-builder perhaps, he was certainly a unique brand of short story writer. Witness the neatly telescoped saga, a kind of pre-Raymond Carver minimalism-francaise, contained here:
Eugenie Perichot, of Pailles, neat Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartrier. Eugenie Dupuis came to fetch her. They killed him. Love.
His social commentary gets slipped in as a low-key gag:
A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.
The cinema of Fénéon is character-driven:
Swimming teacher Renard, whose pupils porpoised in the Marne at Charenton, got into the water himself; he drowned.
And the imagery can be positively Hitchcockian:
The schoolchildren of Niort were being crowned. The chandelier fell, and the laurels of three among them were spotted with a little blood.
On the bowling lawn a stroke leveled M. Andre, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more.
There are enough stories in the universe of Fénéon to seed at least a hundred movies, which is one reason I occasionally pore over these faits divers at leisure. That, and when I run out of original tweet material of my own.
Yup, I'm not proud - just last night, I was down the Twitter rabbit hole without an idea, and I felt like being funny and relevant, and topical. So I tweeted a novel of Fénéon's.