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.”  

Verne’s tales of adventure beyond the limits of the known world customarily require a visionary savant and explorer, prodigious in his knowledge of natural history and of what used to be called natural philosophy but also versed in the practical survival skills of an engineer, outdoorsman, and high-end handyman. And while a man thus equipped might still know fear, he must possess the will to overcome it. Such are the virtues of Dr. Samuel Fergusson in Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863); Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864); Impey Barbicane in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870); Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869); and Captain Cyrus Smith in The Mysterious Island (1874). 

The Verne hero is a walking encyclopedia, an immensely resourceful toolmaker, a stargazer who intends to reach the stars. True human majesty comes from an intellect capable in every useful matter. Recalcitrant Nature cannot but yield before this paragon of pragmatic brainpower. Thus, Impey Barbicane commands the first successful moonshot: 

There was no limit to the invention of his practical mind. For him there were no obstacles, no difficulties, no embarrassments. He was as much a miner, a mason or a mechanician, as an artillerist. He had answers to every question, and solutions for every problem.

Likewise, Professor Lidenbrock, who leads two dutiful followers into the crater of a dormant Icelandic volcano, taking the underground expedition nearly 3,000 miles from the starting point, confronts the fear that there is no way up and out:  

The very elements are against me. The air, the fire, the water conspire to bar my passage. Well! they shall know what my will can accomplish! I will not yield: I will not go back a step, and we shall see whether man or nature will win.

The 19th century marked the coming-of-age of the Philistine, as worldly philosophers and political men proclaimed the New Dispensation of Never-Ending Progress and the Gospel of Work, and the legions of technicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers undertook to bend matter to their will, reshape reality to human advantage. In his essay “Francis Bacon” (1837), Thomas Babington Macaulay rejoiced in the obsolescence of the ancient philosophy of Socrates, Aristotle, and all that lot, which had been “meanly proud of its own unprofitableness,” and cheered on the ascendancy of the sovereign belief in “Utility and Progress,” the practical wisdom “which adds to the comforts or alleviates the calamities of the human race.”   

Everybody got in on this act. Here was the newly founded realm of thought devoted to action in which Verne’s heroes were conceived. Yet while these heroes display the markings peculiar to modern scientists and technical experts, these wonder workers also epitomize the supreme virtues that most modern men pride themselves on having outgrown—but which, in fact, they have grown too small to appreciate and to cultivate. The intellectual passions of Verne’s best men encompass not only the impulse to master Nature that drives the modern scientific project, but also the pure desire to know that made men such as Aristotle god-like.  

In his extraordinary voyagers, Jules Verne reveres the intellectual beauty of the knowledge-seeker and the moral excellence of the warrior. In these new exemplars, the philosopher’s and the fighter’s courage are of a piece. Impelled to search the world by the ardent desire to touch and understand all that it holds, Verne’s seeker withstands every physical ordeal and outfaces every terror that he encounters—and the adventurer’s world of wonders is replete with trial and frightfulness. These heroes embody the best of ancient wisdom and of modern know-how.  

Yet even boldness secured by expertise can come up against overwhelming perils—at which point the most formidable men turn to a power greater than their own and resort to prayer. In the classics that enchanted Verne as a boy and helped direct his creative mind, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), the courage, industry, adaptability, and innovation that enable victims of shipwreck to survive on remote, uninhabited islands are the natural gifts bestowed by God on pious minds and hearts. To thank Him and to accept His guidance, especially when it comes as chastisement, are indispensable parts of wisdom. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and He is also known to come to the aid of those beyond human help. 

When violent winds whip Verne’s balloonists this way and that over a remorseless African desert, Professor Fergusson instructs his right-hand man in the need for faith: “I was wrong to doubt; Providence knows better than we what is best for us.” The wind bloweth where it listeth, and men must surrender their mastery to a will superior to their own. In The Mysterious Island, the eminently adroit engineer Cyrus Smith invokes Providence again and again, and while Captain Nemo, in his supreme technical skill and benevolence, largely takes the role of local divinity, in the end even he is mortal, and the island he had effectively ruled like a techno-wizard Prospero is obliterated in a volcanic explosion. 

Nature is not so readily mastered. Even macrocephalic heroes must accept their limitations.

Verne recognizes that human presumption abetted by burgeoning scientific knowledge can plunge mankind into the abyss. The same energetic minds that launch men into the heavens have created weaponry destructive of life on earth. Verne’s moon expedition is the brainchild of the most accomplished members of the Gun Club, an American institution led by Civil War veterans susceptible to warlike outbursts. The biggest cannon ever built fires these astronauts into space. 

In Five Weeks in a Balloon, a vista from on high of pristine African beauty inspires Dr. Fergusson to predict a radiant, productive future with the aid of the most advanced agricultural machinery. But his sidekick Dick Kennedy fears human industry carried too far: “If men go on inventing machinery they’ll end by being swallowed up by their own machines. I’ve always thought that the last day will be brought about by some colossal boiler heated to three thousand atmospheres blowing up the world.” Dr. Fergusson replies that it is best to admire the virgin magnificence of the land while they have the chance.

One work, in particular, stands out as a warning against infatuation with technological advancement and the annihilation of much that once made human life beautiful: Paris in the Twentieth Century, the second novel Verne wrote, depicts the world of 1960 with fantastic luxury, engineering wonders, life conducted at breakneck speed, and a virtuous citizenry still Parisian in name but all American at heart—which is to say, all business, driven under the merciless flail of “the demon of wealth.” Genuine art is defunct, the very names of Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire erased from public memory. Schlock, kitsch, and dreck are all produced by teams of writers for consumption by multitudes who need diversion and have no idea that something finer might once have existed. Love is out of the question; one marries for money, comfort, respectability. The novel’s poet-hero is doomed to ridicule, penury, loneliness, heartbreak, and early death.

Verne’s publisher told his young writer that this novel would never sell: It was too far out, too depressing, and had the wrong attitude toward the glorious future that science would bring about. Verne took this advice and got his mind right, producing thereafter some 60 novels that sold big-time.

In 1989, his great-grandson uncovered the handwritten manuscript of this youthful fiasco in a safe. It was first published in 1994, and after being translated into English in 1996, it became the bestselling French book ever in the United States. Jules Verne had achieved more than fame: He was a brand name. Isn’t that the success that Verne really wanted? Isn’t that the success that every popular adventure writer wants, to found a literary empire for the pleasure of boys who are not quite men and men who are still boys? But of course that needn’t mean that Verne’s books hold no interest for readers who customarily aren’t interested in such things. 

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.