Diversity Then!

Frenchmen Félix Fénéon and Victor Segalen looked to crime and China for inspiration.
"They do not constitute an exploration of a distant land so much as an incitement to appreciate that which lies outside the self: to feel the strangeness of the world, and one’s own strangeness in it." Paul La Farge reviews the recent translations of oddity texts, Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon, and Stèles, by Victor Sagalen.
Ezra Pound said, notoriously, that “poetry is news that stays new,” but as Luc Sante’s English translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines makes clear, some news is already poetry. It is an odd kind of news: what the French call faits divers, “diverse facts” or “sundry events,” short accounts of horrible and mysterious events, murders, suicides, old women run over by automobiles.

Novels in Three Lines
By Félix Fénéon
Translated and with an introduction by Luc Sante
NYRB Classics, 171 pp., $14

By Victor Segalen
Translated and annotated by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush
Foreword by Haun Saussy
Wesleyan UP, 415 pp., $34.95
Like the gossip column or the police blotter, the faits divers were a lowbrow rather than a literary form, but in the first decades of the 20th century, almost everyone in France read them. The petite presse, cheap six- or eight-page newspapers that specialized in faits divers, accounted for three-quarters of the newspapers sold in Paris and 40 percent of the papers sold in the whole country. Over the years, more than a few literary writers were drawn to the pithy, ghoulish news items: a fait divers gave Stendhal the idea for The Red and the Black, and another inspired Marguerite Duras to write The English Lover. The Surrealists printed 13 faits divers in the first issue of the Revue Surréaliste, all on the subject of suicide: a middle-aged woman threw herself into a neighbor’s well; a young woman, whose undergarments bore the mark W, drowned in the Seine. But no one did more to make literature of the faits divers—or vice versa—than the critic and editor Félix Fénéon (1861–1944).

One might suspect that Fénéon was a fictional character, if only his biography did not contain so many improbable contradictions. A Frenchman born in Turin, Italy, he placed first in a civil service exam and went to work for the War Department, where he delighted so much in writing reports that, when he had completed his own, he would write those of his colleagues. At the same time, Fénéon was a committed anarchist. He took over the Anarchist Review when its editor went into hiding, and he was a friend to Émile Henry, who threw a bomb into the aptly named Café Terminus near the Gare Saint-Lazare, killing 20 strangers. Fénéon himself was suspected of bombing a different café, and was arrested when the police found mercury and detonators in his office at the War Department. (He claimed his father had found them in the street.)

Fénéon was acquitted, but lost his job. He edited a literary review for nearly a decade and then, in 1906, began work at Le Matin, a popular newspaper. He wrote their faits divers column with the same lucid, almost malevolent zeal he had formerly brought to his reports for the War Department. Six months later he left the paper and went to work in an art gallery.

Fénéon’s faits divers, collected posthumously as Novels in Three Lines, are perhaps not his most important literary work—he also edited Rimbaud’s Illuminations and published the first French translation of Ulysses—but they are timeless in their own way. Consider:
There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law’s hair caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.

These two- and three-line accounts of crimes, suicides, accidents, and other deeds deplorable and (infrequently) admirable have the density not so much of novels as of poems. Despite their brevity, they are not fragments so much as tiny windows or peepholes into the lives of people who lived and (quite often) died a century ago. Fénéon delights in implied continuities of time:
Again and again, Mme Couderc, of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.
And of space:
Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M. Septeuil, of Sucy, Triple-Val, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment.
He has an eye for the troubling detail:
On the left shoulder of a newborn, whose corpse was found near the 22nd Artillery barracks, a tattoo: a cannon.
And for the spectacular mishap:
Lit by her son, 5, a signal flare burst under the skirts of Mme Roger, of Clichy; damages were considerable.
There is a grim sociology in these items, an account of beliefs (neurasthenia, necromancy) and customs (throwing acid in a lover’s face, suicide by drowning) that have fallen out of use. There are glimpses of a world that seems at once lawless (thieves cut down telephone and telegraph cables in order to sell their copper) and innocent (May Queens are crowned in provincial towns; bears harass the village sheep). Some are mysterious and others sadly familiar. They are as diverting as they are diverse; their power lies in Fénéon’s ability to send the imagination rushing outward from the tiny nucleus of what is written into the vast corona of what can be imagined.

Nothing was further outside the experience of ordinary Frenchmen in those days than China, which is the setting, or perhaps it would be better to say the pretext, for Victor Segalen’s collection of prose poems, Stèles. Like Fénéon, Segalen has a biography worth recounting: Born in Brest in 1878, he worked as a naval doctor in Tahiti, where he bought paintings from Gauguin’s widow and began a novel about the decline of the Maori people. He returned to France in 1904, finished his novel, married, had a son, collaborated with Debussy on two projects that never went anywhere, and, at age 30, worried that life was passing him by. “In France,” Segalen wrote, “with my current projects brought to completion, what will I do next, but ‘literature’!” The very idea of it was appalling, so he left for China.

He lived there from 1909 through 1914 and again in 1917–18; during that time he read classical Chinese literature and traveled the country, took part in an audience with China’s last emperor, and served as physician to the son of its first president. He excavated a tomb and tried to start an archaeological museum in Beijing, but the local authorities discouraged his effort. He died in 1919, in a forest in Brittany, under mysterious circumstances: his foot was badly injured, and he had tied a tourniquet around his leg. A copy of Hamlet was open in his hand. His watch was stopped at exactly noon. As they say in the faits-divers: Suicide?

Segalen published the first edition of Stèles in 1912. It is a curious book. Printed on a single sheet of handmade paper, with camphorwood covers and red cinnabar seals, it announces itself as something not quite French, nor quite Chinese. Each poem, or “stèle,” is accompanied by an epigraph in Chinese characters; unless you read Chinese, you have no way of knowing what the epigraphs say or, indeed, whether they mean anything at all.

The poem “Advice to a Good Traveler” concludes with these lines:
Beware of choosing a refuge. Do not believe in the virtue of a virtue that lasts: break it with some strong spice that burns & bites & gives a taste even to blandness.

Thus, without stopping or stumbling, without halter & without stable, without rewards or punishments, you will attain, friend, not the marsh of eternal joys,

But the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity.
This advice has the paradoxical ring of wisdom from the East, and also recalls Baudelaire (who offered the Parisian passerby much the same advice in his prose poem “Enivrez-vous”), but Segalen’s project in Stèles was neither pastiche nor the projection of a far-off paradise. The word Diversity is the key to it. By the Diverse, Segalen means “everything that until now has been called foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous, superhuman, heroic and even divine, everything that is Other.” I don’t know what Segalen thought of the petite presse, but the Stèles, which treat of love and war, of gods and heroes, of friends, travelers, and traitors, could almost be described as faits divers without the facts. They do not constitute an exploration of a distant land so much as an incitement to appreciate that which lies outside the self: to feel the strangeness of the world, and one’s own strangeness in it. (And indeed, the exotic, stripped to its etymological purity, is nothing more than that which is outside.)

Stèles has been translated into English several times: by Michael Taylor (1987) and by Andrew Harvey and Iain Watson (1990). (Nathaniel Tarn has also translated a selection of the poems.) Wesleyan University Press’s new translation, by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, is more ambitious than any previous edition—including the French ones, probably. As a work of scholarship, it is a triumph; its weakness is that it does not intoxicate the reader, unless you are the sort of reader who finds textual scholarship intoxicating.

Billings and Bush have tracked down the Chinese sources of Segalen’s Chinese epigraphs, which they gloss thoroughly, correcting the sometimes mistaken translations of Segalen’s French editors. They make a compelling case for the elucidation of these epigraphs, which are otherwise unreadable by most of Segalen’s readers, except as signs of strangeness and incomprehensibility, or as markers of a kind of modernist poetry associated most often with Ezra Pound. “The essential difference of Chinese,” they suggest, “is less essential than historical, one whose time is slowly ending.” In the early 21st century, China acts on the same stage as everyone else does; even readers of poetry can no longer afford to be enchanted by the Chinese ideograph, as Pound and Ernest Fenollosa were a hundred years ago. (Fenollosa believed that Chinese characters were inherently poetic, in that they did not lend themselves to abstraction, a romantic notion that has endured many critiques over the years and that gets another, quite subtle going-over from Haun Saussy in his preface to the Wesleyan edition of Stèles.)

Billings and Bush translate Segalen’s French with equal scrupulousness, which is more of a problem. Eschewing equivalence of tone for equivalence of syntax and lexicon, they come up with some sentences that baffle the English reader:
The engraver was not a witness. The stone is not accountable. We are no guarantor.
For Segalen’s
Le graveur ne fut pas témoin. La pierre n’est pas responsable. Nous ne sommes pas répondant.

“No guarantor” is literally correct, but the absence of an expected direct object (guarantor of what?) gives the last sentence the un-idiomatic ring of literary jargon. Harvey and Watson’s version of the last sentence, “We make no comment,” is more liberal, but it is also less opaque. Fortunately, the new edition of Stèles includes a photographic facsimile of the 1914 French edition on facing pages, so readers of French can bypass the translations, or consult them only in cases of need.

Billings and Bush have taken great pains to make Segalen’s book legible in the sense that everything in it can be sourced and interrogated; what disappears in the course of this elucidation is the outside that gave Segalen’s poems much of their appeal. Or rather, the outside appears, in all its detail; what disappears is the ability to imagine the outside and, in so doing, to make oneself a part of the scene imagined. As Fénéon demonstrated, news skillfully stripped of its context can become poetry; but the converse is that poetry, when its sources are interviewed and its facts checked, tends to become only another kind of news.
Originally Published: March 19th, 2008

Paul La Farge is the author of two novels: The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2001. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002, and in 2005 he won the Bard Ficton Prize. His third book, The Facts...

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  1. March 20, 2008
     Levi Stahl

    Though I take your point about the "We are no guarantor" line, I have to admit that I kind of like the opacity of their version. But that probably is solely because I'm not coming across it in the context of a full work, but as a quote in your piece--as such, its very obscurity and awkwardness are intriguing.

    Regardless, well done. You've convinced me to give Segalen a try.

  2. March 21, 2008
     Steve Mangano

    I really found a Novel in Three Lines very intriguing. I have been writing a blog dedicated to thi sstyle -- though not as entertaining as Felix Feneon's subject or style. My blog is: