It must take a very orderly mind to be a good anarchist. The creation of chaos isn't for the disorganized. In Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," the anarchist known as the Professor is all the scarier for his grim self-discipline; he's a pedant with a detonator. It was prophetic of Conrad to make the professor so perfect an embodiment of homicidal intent and meticulous, almost bureaucratic, orderliness. Of course, Conrad had witnessed the heyday of European anarchy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he had many models to draw on. As Luc Sante notes in the introduction to his translation of "Novels in Three Lines" (NYRB Classics, 202 pages, $14) by the French anarchist author Félix Fénéon (1861—1944), there were more than 1,000 bombing attacks in Europe, and some 500 in America, in 1892 alone.
The notion of a three-line novel is intriguing; to compress a story into the space of a haiku would challenge even the most committed minimalist. But in fact the title is a misnomer. As Mr. Sante points out, the French word nouvelles can mean either "novellas" or "the news." Fénéon wrote 1,220 of these during a six-month period in 1906 when he worked for the Paris daily Le Matin; they were composed as faits divers, tiny human-interest items akin to our newspaper fillers. The genre, which Fénéon perfected, allowed him to reconcile his unruly anarchic principles with meticulous stylistic rigor. Random facts, often involving sensational crimes or mishaps, could be chiselled into aphoristic bulletins. Faits divers are ordinarily of the "man bites dog" variety. In Fénéon's hands, the dog gets his own back with a vengeance, as in the following example: "In the vicinity of Noisysur-École, M. Louis Delillieau, 70, dropped dead of sunstroke. Quickly his dog Fido ate his head."
Each nouvelle follows a formula in which factual exactitude collides with the grotesque nature of the event described. Thus, "The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Ménard, snail collector." Or, in a more elegiac vein, "On the bowling lawn a stroke levelled M. André, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was still rolling he was no more."
Fénéon always supplies names, ages, and specific locations. Sometimes this gives a rough poetry to his otherwise deadpan reports, but the factual details serve a more complex purpose. When we read that, "With her dress over her head because it was raining hard, Mme. Rossy, of Levallois, failed to hear the electric car that ran her over," we don't know whether to laugh or to wince. Fénéon frequently deploys such tabloid solemnity to satiric effect.
A committed anarchist, Fénéon may have been personally responsible for at least one bombing, on April 4, 1894, at the Hotel Fayot in Paris, though the details of his involvement remain unclear. By a stroke of what Mr. Sante justly calls "unimprovable irony," the most serious injury was sustained by the anarchist poet Laurent Tailhade, a friend of Fénéon's, who was lunching there with his mistress and lost an eye in the explosion. Fénéon was arrested, tried, and acquitted, though he did lose his job along the way. For 13 years, this enemy of the bourgeoisie had served as a bureaucrat in the French War Office. In his free time he pursued a literary career, becoming not only a skilled journalist, much admired for his prose style, but a powerful and influential editor. For one short-lived journal he hired Debussy as music critic and André Gide as book reviewer. Though he knew, and published, everyone from Proust to Apollinaire, Fénéon surrounded himself with mystery. "I aspire only to silence," he said once, and most of what he wrote appeared anonymously. Even the present work, rescued from an album where his long-suffering mistress had pasted his columns, was published posthumously.
Mr. Sante does his best to make a case for Fénéon as a writer of lasting interest but it doesn't really convince. He praises Fénéon's prose for its nuanced rhythm and nuance as well as its "muted extravagance," but these qualities don't come through in his translation. Instead, fact follows grisly fact. Hangings, murders, dismemberments, and traffic accidents predominate. The anecdotes seem manufactured rather than written; in their unvarying staccato they read as if Fénéon had punched them out on a telegraph key. Sometimes he injects a mordant remark or a touch of cruel humor, but the cumulative effect is numbing. According to Mr. Sante, "Each item is a literary performance, just as each is nameless, evanescent, consumed in an instant and then used to wrap fish." This is nicely put, if overstated, but doesn't it apply to any well-written piece of reportage?
Ultimately, Fénéon's reports resemble old snapshots more than novels. Mr. Sante, a professor of the history of photography, hints at this in his introduction. Like grainy flash-lit photos, Fénéon's pieces reveal a mere fraction of a larger, unguessable truth. A good novel reveals character over time; it is a dynamic form. Fénéon's three-liners freeze his hapless subjects forever in the instant of some random and humiliating disaster. For a would-be revolutionary, he had a strangely static eye.