Patrick McGuinness

Félix Fénéon and Fin de Siécle Micro-fiction

Editing the new two-volume Penguin Book of French Short Stories, I sought not just to bring new or untranslated writers into English, but to ask the question ‘what can a short story be?’

Short stories have been the subject of many theories and definitions over the centuries, often considerably longer than the stories themselves. These theories and definitions prescribe on matters of length, of subject, of voice and point of view, or on how the short story should handle time, place and action. We are told that the short story explores a single mood or situation; that it aims for a single effect; that it must finish with a click, like a box snapping shut; or we are told the opposite – that it must end on ambiguity or tension. The short story should resolve. It should refuse resolution. It must tie up its loose ends, it must close on suspenseful ellipses…

Luckily, it is easier – as well as more enjoyable – to read short stories than to define them. Though the words ‘short’ and ‘story’ impose basic requirements and raise basic expectations, these are, fortunately, permissive. They are also dependent on period and culture: a thirty-page short story in the nineteenth century reads very differently from a thirty- page short story in the twenty-first. There are also practical questions: at what point does a short story edge over into a novella? Or, at the other end of the scale, how to differentiate between a very short short story and a prose poem, or what we call today ‘microfiction’ or ‘flash fiction’– forms that existed long before the names arrived to bed them down among our literary categories? And who decides on these labels? Is it the author? The publisher? The marketing department?

Rather than focusing on page-count and word-limit as undifferentiated slabs of matter from which the short story hews its duration, I tried to think of the short story as a genre that puts the reader in a unique relationship with time. Stories are woven into our lives, but not all stories weave in the same way. Whether it’s a medieval audience listening to a tale that has been transmitted orally over generations, or a commuter reading a piece of fiction among the advertisements and lifestyle features in their magazine, the short story fits in and around a day made up of different kinds of attention and activity.

In 1966, the Hungarian writer István Örkény published a volume of what he called One-Minute Stories. In his preface – which he described, with demystifying practicality, as ‘handling instructions’ – he writes:

While the egg is boiling or the number you are dialling answers (provided it is not engaged, of course) you have ample time to read one of these short stories which, because of their brevity, I have come to think of as one-minute stories.

Though each age imagines itself busier than the last, the short story is the genre that has most ingeniously adapted to the competing claims on our time and attention. It can insert itself into the cracks in our timetables and infiltrate our slack hours. The most interesting thinking about short stories starts out from the question of time rather than the fact of length or size. Thirty pages will always be thirty pages, but one minute is never just one minute.

More than half a century before Örkény, Félix Fénéon had gone even further: his three-line novellas are masterpieces of suggestive compression. They can be read in a matter of seconds, though their effect is much harder to measure. Decanted from the fait divers or the ‘news in brief’ section of regional newspapers, and then rewritten with wit and waspish aplomb, these brisk, lapidary tales expand in inverse proportion to the number of words they contain.

Of the many characters thrown up by the French fin de siècle, and by the period known as ‘decadence’, the writer, editor and art critic Fénéon must be one of the strangest. Born in Turin in 1861 to a Swiss mother and a French father, Fénéon was a friend of Mallarmé, and the promoter of a number of painters, notably Seurat and Signac. It is also to him that we owe the first editions of Rimbaud and Lautréamont. A civil servant with a day- job in the War Office, Fénéon was also a dandy and provocateur, and an anarchist in more than just words. In 1894, Fénéon was tried in the Procès des trente, or the Trial of the Thirty, in which anarchist writers and thinkers were tried alongside perpetrators of anarchist violence according to laws that did not distinguish between propaganda by the word and propaganda by the deed. Charges against Fénéon, accused of supplying detonators, were dropped – called as a witness in Fénéon’s defence, Mallarmé declared: ‘There were, for Mr Fénéon, no better detonators than his articles’. Needless to say, his job at the War Office was terminated.

Fénéon himself was reluctant to gather up his Three-Line Novellas into a volume, claiming to ‘aspire to silence’. In his lifetime his only published volume was a short book on Neo-Impresionism (a term he coined). His Nouvelles en trois lignes, posthumously collected into a book, remain a masterpiece of modern writing. Funny, sad, full of melodrama, pathos and banality, they are also an early literature of sampling, as well as microfiction’s lost ancestors. What do they sample from? Life itself in all its extraordinary ordinariness. They also catch what we might call the modern tone: the language of news-speak, in which life is constantly caricatured and sieved down to its sensationalist headlines.

Fénéon’s skill lies in showing us how much irony, social observation, pathos and drama a writer can fit into a few words. One of his most barbed ‘novellas’ goes as follows: ‘Verniot, septuagenarian beggar from Clichy, has died of hunger. 2000 francs were hidden in his mattress. But let’s not generalise.’ At twenty words long, we have a novel’s worth of plotlines and psychological questions, and a narrative voice whose ironic final observation leaves us at once amused and uncomfortably implicated. Put another way: we have Flaubert’s irony, Zola’s social detail, and the situational mystery of a Simenon crime-scene.

Fénéon is an extreme example, but he shows us that the best short stories use their length as a resource, rather than just inhabiting it as a limit: they combine the immediacy of theatre, the compression of a poem and the latitude of a novel. A further advantage of the short story is uninterruptedness, the way it can be read (or heard) in one sitting. Although some people can sit for longer than others, we all know what we mean by ‘a sitting’: an arrangement between the mind and the body, between the limits of our attention span and the moment pins and needles set in. The playwright August Strindberg claimed that the one-act play was the most effective kind of drama because it lacked intervals and because, as he put it, the audience was ‘prisoner’ for the duration. Something similar can be said of the short story: that it shares with the one-act play the pressure of an imminent ending as it bears down upon the nowness of reading or listening.

Fénéon’s three-line novellas appeared in the daily newspaper Le Matin between 1903 and 1937, and remind us that everyday life is a mine of scenarios as full of drama, mystery, absurdity and plot twists as the most outré fiction. They also remind us that the literary short story – a piece of artistically designed and mostly (but not exclusively) fictional prose – is just one strand of narrative in a world saturated with stories. It is no coincidence that the high point of the modern short story – the nineteenth and early twentieth century – is also a high point in print media, in news and reportage, and in an experience of speed and connectivity that, despite changes in technology, remains remarkably consistent with today’s. Newspapers and magazines were hospitable to the short story, and the first readers of many of the stories in this anthology encountered them in a patchwork of different kinds of narrative: news stories, court reports, ‘true crime’, gossip columns, journalistic scoops, political commentary and philosophical tales. They will also have picked them out from the mixed page: advertisements, recipes (which are also stories), polemics, letters, puzzles, notices and ‘personal ads’. The short story is a pragmatic, nimble genre, responsive and topical, reaching the parts of a culture other genres cannot, and reaching them fast. Where the novel stretches across our days and accompanies us through them, the short story thrives in the busy ecosystem of everyday narratives and everyday reading habits.

Patrick McGuinness is a British-Belgian writer and academic. The author of two novels, a memoir and two books of poems, he teaches French and Comparative Lit- erature at Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St. Anne’s College.

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