The Magazine

Fantastic Voyage

The literary (?) career of Jules Verne

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Certain amusements appropriate to childhood or adolescence have established a beachhead in adulthood, or its 21st-century American simulacrum. Grown men and women indulge, with or without shame, in video games, fantasy football leagues, sitcoms, online porn, comic books, and movies based on comic books—or that involve Las Vegas, 33 shots of tequila, and waking up athwart two female Sumo wrestlers and a chimpanzee.

David Niven and Shirley MacLaine in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (1956)

David Niven and Shirley MacLaine in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (1956)

And of course, for those who still feel obliged to read something semi-respectable but prefer not to trouble themselves with heavy lifting, there is science fiction, as well as the fantastic adventure tales that don’t quite fit into that genre but are the next best thing.  

This literature has its own canon, and some of its eminences are familiar, if only by name, to all who read books, even heavy and troublesome ones. The early masters are the most famous: H. G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs. And everyone knows the founding father, Frenchman Jules Verne (1828-1905).  

William Butcher, the foremost English Verne scholar, boasts that his man is “the world’s most translated writer, the best-seller of all time, the only popular writer to have increased in popularity over more than a century.” Yet in the next breath the enthusiast bleats that too few know that Verne, in fact, reigns supreme in worldwide popularity and that all too few serious persons realize how serious Verne really is. The raging scandal is that he “remains the opposite of a classic: a household name from Taipo to Tucson, but absent from the school curricula and histories of literature.” Simply to read Verne is not enough. His greatness demands that he be studied. 

Certain masters of science fiction suggest that their work is best taken less seriously. Haggard dedicated King Solomon’s Mines (1885) “To All the Big and Little Boys Who Read It.” Conan Doyle introduces The Lost World (1912) with a snappy epigraph in a similar vein: I have wrought my simple plan / If I give one hour of joy / To the boy who’s half a man, / Or the man who’s half a boy.  

What, then, is the proper angle of approach if one is to do justice to Jules Verne? In New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), Kingsley Amis got the essentials right that the earnest Verne specialists get wrong: 

With Verne we reach the first great progenitor of modern science fiction. In its literary aspect his work is, of course, of poor quality, a feature certainly reproduced with great fidelity by most of his successors.

Amis does not go on at length, but points the way in.  

Verne may be a master of sorts, but he is not a master of high art. A casual reader, even in English translation, can see that Verne’s prose is rarely more than serviceable and that it gets overheated when he presumes to court eloquence. This Everyman edition of three Verne novels uses some of the first English versions, from the 1870s, and they read well enough. But even the editor acknowledges that William Butcher improved on the earlier translations in his renditions for Oxford World’s Classics in the 1990s. 

Each of Verne’s heroes is a nonpareil, the most remarkable man in the world—as long as the reader is immersed in his particular story. Only in other Verne novels—and in television commercials for a Mexican beer—can one find his equals. And the ideas in the novels are of interest chiefly for being indicative of the thinking done by persons of that time who are no long-er esteemed for their thought. 

The literary critic with traditional aesthetic concerns, Amis declares, will find less to engage him than will “the cultural diagnostician, or trend-hound.” Amis was born sneering and couldn’t resist the chance to mint such a taunt; but he quickly takes pains to point out that an approach to science fiction by way of the history of ideas is “worthy enough, or even praiseworthy.”