The Magazine

Fantastic Voyage

The literary (?) career of Jules Verne

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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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.