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Paris is burning

August 19, 2007|Jill Leovy

We gaze at history with an eye that is blind to inertia. Looking for change, we fail to notice the hum of life through the ages. "Novels in Three Lines" (New York Review Books: 176 pp., $16.95 paper), Luc Sante's seemingly effortless translation of Félix Fénéon's three-line police blotter items for a Paris newspaper in 1906, offers a corrective lens.

In these artfully concise summaries of news events, Fénéon, an enigmatic French journalist and publisher, provides a glimpse of a belle époque that belongs not to artists or intellectuals but to locksmiths, plumbers, seamstresses and the occasional sex offender.

In Fénéon's Paris, war and politics are distant echoes. Parisians' concerns run more to bar fights, brush fires, bomb threats and traffic accidents. Theirs is a world governed by ordinary problems: the tendency for lovers to quarrel, for children to get lost, for the old to despair and the young to rebel.

To be sure, there are differences. Suicide is rampant. The steeliness of people -- in setting themselves on fire or slashing their own throats -- suggests an attitude toward pain at odds with the modern temperament. Domestic violence is spectacularly homicidal. (A disconcerting number of these stories involve throwing acid). People encounter lime kilns, laundry vats, speeding carriages and flammable piles of straw.

Yet how little has changed. Then as now, terminal illness drove people to end their lives, and families were torn by allegations of abuse. Newborns were abandoned, motorcycles crashed and all politics were local.

"For having put God back in schools or having prevented his being removed, the mayors of Coquerel and Fricourt, Somme, have been ousted," reads one entry. Fénéon's implication is clear. Out or in, it matters not: Some problems never go away.

-- Jill Leovy

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