Félix Fénéon, Bomb-Thrower

Editors’ Note: On 25 April 2013, novelist Tom McCarthy announced the winner of the first annual White Review Short Story Prize. Below is the short speech he gave that night.


I want to talk about the ‘re’ in White Re-view. The magazine conferring tonight’s prize is, of course, a re-prise, a re-play, a re-enactment. The original White Review, La Revue Blanche, ran from 1889 to 1903. It had several editors, but the most charismatic of these was one of my own heroes, Félix Fénéon.


This gifted writer, who cut an elegant figure around turn-of-century Paris in a top hat, gloves, and perfectly manicured nails, served as midwife to the Post-Impressionist movement, writing about their work, and art in general, in a way as far removed from stolid art criticism as can possibly be imagined. Here’s an entry from his Symbolist Directory:


Degas: a thigh, a flower, a chignon, ballerinas convoluted in the flurry of the tutu, a boozer’s nose, the hand of a milliner amidst a fluttering of feathers and ribbons. The expression of Modernity.


All Fénéon’s prose is characterised by the same elliptic quality. Here’s the outline for his psychological novel The Muzzled Woman:


1st Part: Uh! 2nd Part: Two purplish butterflies alight on Jacqueline’s zygomatic muscle. 3rd Part: Paul’s Sa’s bed. 4th Part: The menacing eye of the lewd druggist.


Did he actually write the novel? Of course not. There’s no need when the outline, in-and-of itself, is such a masterpiece.


Later, he penned a regular column at Le Figaro, which consisted entirely of another Fénéon-invention, the 3-line news haiku:


It was his turn at nine-pins when a cerebral haemorrhage felled M. André, 75, of Levallois. While his ball was rolling, he ceased to be.


Oh, and Fénéon was a bomb-thrower. Like Alfred Jarry, Anatole France, Camille Pisarro, Octave Mirbeau, and (to an extent) even Mallarmé, a fully signed-up member of the blossoming anarchist international, he once hid a bomb inside a potted hyacinth which he laid on the windowsill of a café frequented by diplomats, and, having lit the fuse with a touch of his long ivory cigarette holder, settled down to a glass of absinthe at another café down the road to watch the show. When eventually tried for acts of which he was self-evidently guilty, he charmed the jury into acquitting him. From the court transcript:


Judge: ‘It is documented that you were intimate with the German terrorist Kampfmeyer.’


Fénéon: ‘The intimacy cannot have been great as I do not speak German and he does not speak French.’    


‘But it has been established that you surrounded yourself with Cohen and Ortoz.’   


‘One cannot be surrounded by two persons; you need at least three.’    


‘You were seen conferring with them behind a lamppost!’     


‘Can you tell me where behind a lamppost is?’       


‘What do you mean?’


‘A lamppost, your Honour, is round.’


What does all this go to show? Something about the versatile, even explosive potential of the written word? I’d think so. The dynamism of the short form? Yes, probably that too. The way that the aesthetic and the political are inseparable, and the need for their union to be cemented with a wit and an imagination that themselves require reinvention with each age? Yes, all that stuff. Really I just love Félix Fénéon. If the new Revue Blanche can harness half the vision and power of his spirit, then it should turn out to be one of the best cultural ventures of recent years.


And so, to the announcement. The inaugural White Review Short Story Prize goes to a text which the judges unanimously felt was the hands-down winner. They were impressed by what they’ve described to me as its ambition, its steely delicacy and, above all, pace Fénéon, its modernity. The winner is Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘The Lady of the House’.



is an English novelist and author of Tintin and the Secret of Literature and three novels, RemainderMen in Space and C. He was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and, in his capacity as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, has put on events at art galleries all over the world.



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