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Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, Joanna Neborsky, tr. Luc Sante. (Mark Batty Publisher) $24.95

Joanna Nebrosky studied under Maira Kalman, and it shows. That influence has less to do with the collage and drawing techniques employed than its general aesthetic, which combines intelligence with whimsy in equal portions. The concept is simple: Nebrosky illustrated Fénéon’s newspaper bylines, first published in Sante’s translation by the New York Review Books as Novels in Three Lines. Some of my favorites include:

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Giquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophîle Papin of Ivry collapsed.

The laundrymen of France welcomed yesterday at the Gare du Nord the illustrious laundrymen of London.

Most of Nebrosky’s collage incorporates old newsprint, especially to populate its characters, but her work also demonstrates skill in a wide variety of other mediums, from colored pencil to marker and water color, each well chosen for its specific effect. In her own introduction, she writes

I have spent the last year elbow-deep in the newsprint and gore of Félix Fénéon’s antique news briefs, severing bowler-hatted heads from ascots and vested bodies from pantaloons in fields of torn Xerox and construction paper. A gruesome business, collage. The form lends itself to depicting unlucky ends, which is good news for the collagist illustrating Fénéon, if not such good news for Bonnaut (stabbed by a gangster named Shoe Face, Montreuil), Mme Lesbos (run over by a tourist omnibus, Versailles), and Inghels (pile of logs, Qaui d’Austerlitz). The true short stories of Félix Fénéon, in which people die ignoble, comic, half-forgotten deaths, confirm that we are each hurtling toward unseen disaster. The thousand of them attest, like collage itself, to the absurd miscellany of life.

Three-Line Novels is beautifully produced: the first thing I noticed upon removing it from its packaging was the smell of ink. It’s colors are bright and Mark Batty Publisher has done what small publishers do best, by managing this edition with care so that the “gruesome business” of collage truly does attest “to the absurd miscellany of life.”

DS

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