Sunday, April 1, 2012


Having just recently finished the very lovely collection of Robert Walser's work, Berlin Stories, I have a fair amount of confidence that I would know a feuilleton if I ran into one. I have less confidence that I could actually define one. I suppose  feuilletons might be described as sketches.

Walser wrote up these brief descriptions of the early 20th century Berlin he encountered as a Swiss visitor. Apparently at that time, newspapers, at least German newspapers, actually had sections for feuilletons. Some of Walser's writings are character studies, some are of particular places, many are simply a detailing of his own sensations.

I thought I'd find out a bit more about the tradition of these missives.


For anybody still perplexed by what this form is, I liked the Wikipedia suggestion that a modern day English equivalent would be the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker.  From that example, you can see that its topics are quite wide ranging, but almost always of the comtemporary moment. As is not always true of The New Yorker, but is definitely true of Walser, they tend to be quite subjective compared to more formal journalism, and show off the writer's wit and stylistic skill.

The first use of the term, though, was not for the literary form itself but for the entire section of the newspaper this kind of thing would be found in. Originally, the "Arts and Style" section of the paper was just at the bottom of the page, often separated from the 'real' news by a bar. It was sometimes known as 'the bottom floor' or 'the basement'. It was the French  Journal des débats that first brought  out a supplemental section which they called Feuilleton in January, 1800.  Feuille means 'leaf', so a feuilleton means 'little leaf', or as we might say, a 'leaflet'.

Uh, no, that was not the way I was pronouncing it in my head.

Though you can see that the word began in France, the French grew to think of the feuilleton as something a bit different. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, after the fall of Napoleon, news was in short shrift, so they began serializing stories in the feuilleton section.  It's a bit hard to imagine writers like Alexandre Dumas, pere being thought of as filler, but there you have it. And in keeping with this, it's not hard to see how the word migrated across the media, so that it is now used to refer to French television soap operas.

Aside from 'Talk of the Town', I'm not really sure what our current examples of the feuilleton are. It's possible that you might find a good example in the blogosphere. I'm getting the sense that a great feuilletonist might be in need of a great city to fully display his or her skills. But I'm certainly willing to be proven wrong.

I'm updating this blog to add another pronunciation of 'feuilleton' offered by Google, which was suggested by daveblake in a comment below.


  1. I always think of Colette and "Mes Apprentissages" as much of her work appeared first in installments (like Dickens's writing) in magazines, before being printed in book form.

    Traditionally, that is what a "feuilleton" is and a search for "roman-feuilleton" could explain this further, though the links will probably be in French.

    The meaning you have chosen is more modern, I think, and refers to a column by a regular writer, always appearing in the same place in a magazine or, possibly?, a newspaper.

    1. Maria, from what I'm reading, the trajectory goes something like this. There's a miscellaneous assortment of non-political or non "serious" news which is set apart from the "real" news in some way. (It's still a little unclear to me whether the bar separating the page or the separate "leaf" of paper came first, but in any case the term comes from the time that one particular journal decided to actually title their separate section as Feuilleton in 1800. All kinds of things were included in that section, including theatre reviews and fashion,and what look a bit like our modern day feuilleton. This type had already reached Russia by Pushkin was already writing them under a puedonym in 1831. The first appearance of a fictional serial in a French paper was 1829, and all major papers had these, roman-feuilleton by 1836.

      From then on, the two senses somewhat diverge and it seems like the French kept the fictional meaning, while other countries like Germany and Russia tended to keep the journalistic essay meaning.

      I found a lot of this in an article from The Big Soviet Encyclopedia 1970, but this and other interesting things about the form are published at a website called

  2. I was pronouncing it in my head like this French woman does:

    1. Kathleen, I think I could get my moutht around this translation a lot more easily than the one I gave. However, in my head it was sounding a lot more like fweyehtawn.

    2. Well, googletranslate says it pretty much the way it played in your head.
      (where they also give a first translation as serial). Don't know where you got the pronunciation link you embedded, but it's absurd.

      Don't know why your site's software is rejecting my typepad id, daveblake.

    3. Thanks, daveblake. I just added that pronunciation to the post above.

      I don't know why typepad isn't accepted either. It must be a blogger thing. This blog is set up to be as unrestricted as possible. Glad you persisted in any case.

  3. I always wanted to be a feuilletonist if I couldn't find work as a flanneur.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

    1. Peter, if Robert Walser is any example, and I think he is, you could easily do both.

  4. The closest I come is the blog posts I make when I travel. And I love doing that; I wish I could do more of it.

    1. I think blogs are probably the descendants of the feuilleton. Hope you get more shots at the travel type.