Saturday, September 08, 2007

Slivers of occurrence

James Fenton has a rather lovely little piece in the Guardian about anarchists and other matters (including Luc Sante's translation of Novels in Three Lines which I am now sort of Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-level slavering for):
Tailhade had been an anarchist, as had the mysterious writer Félix Fénéon, whose newly translated Novels in Three Lines I have been reading. According to Luc Sante's introduction, during a series of anarchist bombing activities in Paris, a man called Ravachol planted bombs intended to kill two judges in a recent case. Although no one was killed, Ravachol was guillotined. In 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. Again no one was killed, but Vaillant went to the guillotine, where he predicted his death would be avenged. The prediction was fulfilled in an incident at the Café Terminus near the Gare Saint-Lazare: one killed, 20 injured.

Tailhade notoriously remarked on this occasion: "Qu'importent quelques vagues humanités, si le geste est beau?" Sante's translation: "Of what importance are a few vague people if the gesture is beautiful?" It is one of those lines that seem to sum up an epoch, and Tailhade paid for this observation - as Sante says - "with unimprovable irony", by losing an eye, as the sole victim of the next major bombing. A bomb had been left on the windowsill of the restaurant where he was dining with his mistress.

The person who left the device in the restaurant was never identified; clearly he, too, would have been guillotined if he had been. The writer Fénéon was among those arrested in the aftermath, and had to explain how a search of his office cupboard turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 10 detonators. Fénéon claimed in court that his recently deceased father had found them in the street. The prosecutor suggested this was unusual.

Fénéon's reply gives us a flavour of his sly wit and insolence: "The examining magistrate asked me why I hadn't thrown them out the window instead of taking them to the Ministry [where he worked]. So you see, it is possible to find detonators in the street." Mallarmé, among those who came to Fénéon's defence, said: "You say they are talking of detonators. Certainly, for Fénéon, there are no better detonators than his articles."

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