Fait Divers

Teju Cole whose recent novel, Open City, I greatly admired, is now at work on a non-fiction account of Lagos, his hometown for seventeen years. He writes, “And what is there to know about a city beyond statistics, beyond population, tallest buildings, GDP, is individual human experience.”

To capture this aspect of city life Cole was drawn to what he refers to as “small news,” the sort of thing your read about in the local newspapers and crime sections, or see on the Internet. He says this type of writing is best described by a French term, fait divers, which he translates as “incidents” or “various things.” Here are two examples he mentions:

“Raol G, of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.”

Another: “A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frerotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.”

Both of these fait divers are short, small incidents with large effects, at times ironic in tone, at other times rather humorous on first reading. Cole has begun posting these pieces on his Twitter page. He says that what all his small fates have in common is their “closed circle of the story. It needs neither elaboration nor sequel.”

He also claims you never see anything like them in the New York Times. I disagree. Although not quite as short as those he has selected, the Times routinely publishes short local tales in its daily New York news section and even shorter ones in its Metropolitan Diary column that appears each Monday in the West Coast edition. Here is one from last month:

“I was on my way to the local library near Battery Park City to return a book of short stories, and made several stops on my way … when I realized that somehow in one of the establishments, I had misplaced the book. The librarian informed me that if the book didn’t turn up, it was going to cost me $25. I complained that I wouldn’t mind so much if the stories and the writing hadn’t been so awful. I made a pest of myself with the Duane Reade [pharmacy] manager, who promised to keep an eye out for the book. Two weeks later, there at the drugstore’s service desk was the book. A young woman had returned it several days before and told the manager not to bother reading it, as none of the stories were interesting.”

I have also been collecting incidents or happenings from my daily encounters in whatever city I happen to be in; I call them Urban Tales. Here are a few examples:

The Fish Market
Annie is gone. She had not been there all week. I assumed she was on vacation. But she was not there the following week either. They told me she was working at another store on the other side of town now. I couldn't believe it. We spoke often, called each other by our first name. We exchanged stories. The weather, the bus trip over, where the ahi tuna came from this week. She was my friend. I felt I let her down if I didn't buy something each time I went in. She never told me she was leaving.

Happy Birthday
I like going to Sunday matinees, especially when it is cold and rainy and as dark as it usually is outside around here. As I was going to my seat on such a recent Sunday afternoon, a young woman came down before the audience and asked for everyone's attention. She announced to the puzzled assembly that it was her mother's birthday, indeed, a very special one, and asked it we would all join together to sing happy birthday to her. Without a moment's delay everyone took up her request and sang a lusty Happy Birthday to her mom, Sandy.

Next Door
I used to live high up in the hills above Portland before moving to the neighborhood below. One day, in the market up there, a man approached and greeted me as if we were old friends. I stopped, stared at him for much too long, looking puzzled and uncertain. Eventually I confessed I had no idea who he was. He didn't pause a moment to tell me he was X, my next-door neighbor. We had been neighbors for three years up there in the hills above the city.

I am indebted to Macy Halford on the Book Bench for introducing me to Teju Cole’s Fait Divers.