Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography
Paris in the Twentieth Century
Jules Verne poses an unusual problem. He enjoys the unique distinction of being the most widely translated, and therefore in a sense the most genuinely world-famous, of all French writers, yet it is still debatable whether he belongs to serious literature at all. During his lifetime, his books were immensely popular in France, but they were rarely, if ever, discussed by critics as part of the contemporary literary canon. The fact that they were often first serialized in a periodical intended for adolescents as well as adults may have something to do with this, but it cannot be the whole explanation. Several volumes were given the modest accolade of being “couronnés par l’Académie Française,” but Verne, to his private sorrow, was never considered as a possible candidate for election to the Academy itself. He received only the banal recognition of the Légion d’honneur; he was made Chevalier in 1870 and promoted to Officier in 1892, and even then not so much for his novels as for his service to the town council of Amiens, his wife’s home town, where he settled in middle life in preference to Paris.
Abroad, on the contrary, he was accepted unreservedly as a great representative of French culture. When, in later life, he made a boat trip around the Mediterranean, he was fêted spontaneously in Gibraltar, North Africa, and Italy. In Rome, he was received in audience by Pope Leo XIII, who blessed his books for their spiritual and moral value and urged him to carry on the good work. When he died in Amiens in 1905, no governmental personality came from Paris to attend his funeral, but the Kaiser sent a chargé d’affaires to follow the coffin and present the imperial condolences to the bereaved family. The question arises then: Had official France failed to recognize a genius, or had the foreign public mistaken the author of topical best-sellers for a great writer?
By now, it is true, Amiens is home to the Université Jules Verne, and there is a Société Jules Verne for devotees. Several of the novels have been reissued in the Livre de poche series, so there must still be a public for them, and a TV channel is currently serializing an adaptation of Michel Strogoff. Yet I suspect that most people in literary circles would be content to leave Verne in an honorable but sub-literary niche as a writer of scientific adventure stories for boys—or for the boy who tends to survive in the grown man—a writer whose prolific nineteenth-century output happened uncannily to anticipate many of the technical achievements of the twentieth century. To guess at the future development of submarines, heavier-than-air flying machines, and space rockets shows great technical imagination, and it certainly excited the contemporary public, but it is not necessarily a guarantee of literary quality or sociological influence. When Ray Bradbury asserts, “Without Jules Verne, there is a strong possibility that we would never have romanced our way to the moon,” he may, as a writer of science fiction himself, be exaggerating the importance of the genre. Journeying to the moon is an old theme, and the political shock caused by the launch of the first Sputnik was probably the decisive factor in its modern realization.
Only in one notable way has Verne’s status in France changed during the last half-century or so. Certain critics—Marcel Moré, Charles-Nöel Martin, Marc Soriano, and others—intrigued by Verne’s paradoxical situation as a celebrated author neglected by the elite, have investigated his life and work with the obvious conviction that there must be more to him and his books than meets the eye. Their approach has been primarily psychoanalytical, and they have put forward some startling suggestions.
Since Jules was a rebellious son who preferred to embark on an uncertain literary career rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, it is assumed that he was in the Oedipal position of defying his father and being too close to his mother. Then there is the curious fact that, at a time when other French novelists, such as Flaubert and Zola, were being scandalously outspoken about sex, women are few and far between in Verne’s novels, which contain a great deal of male comradeship but treat the theme of heterosexual love in the most conventional and perfunctory fashion. Add, as a third pointer, that in 1886, Jules’s favorite nephew, Gaston, then a young man of twenty-six, attacked him in a fit of dementia and shot him in the shin. Jules limped for the rest of his life, and Gaston never recovered his sanity. Given these circumstances, it is not difficult for neo-Freudians to suspect the existence of some dark secret in the Verne family and to assume that sex is une absence-présence in the novels.
Various theories have been put forward. Verne was a latent homosexual or an unconfessed bisexual; Gaston was jealous of Jules’s intimacy with one of his, Gaston’s, young friends, Aristide Briand (later the famous statesman); the machines in the stories are sexual symbols; the curious names of some of the characters hint at obscene puns; The Journey to the Center of the Earth is an initiation ceremony, or alternatively a return to the womb followed by a rebirth. Unfortunately, these assertions not only remain unprovable in themselves; it is not clear that they have any bearing on the assessment of Verne’s literary quality or on his appeal for the general public who read him in all innocence.
In view of these recent and very modish French probings, it is odd to read on the cover of Mr. Lottman’s volume:”Jules Verne (1828-1905) has never been the subject of a modern biography until now.” Lottman’s immediate French predecessors drew on the same documentary sources as he has—the correspondence and other material in the Verne collections in Amiens, Nantes, and the Bibliothèque Nationale—and while he gives little credence, or even attention, to their more adventurous theories, he covers exactly the same ground, conscientiously and objectively. Too objectively perhaps; I have found this book less stimulating than his earlier study of Albert Camus, which contained a lot of original research. Disappointingly, he never directly raises the two essential questions about Verne: What sort of writer was he exactly? Where does he stand on the literary scale?Without such a critical approach, the external biographical facts about someone who was not a man of action but a studious homme de cabinet can seem rather humdrum.
Verne was a workaholic who, once he had found his true vocation at the age of thirty-four, pegged away day after day (piocher is the verb he uses) until the end of his life, by which time he had produced around a hundred volumes. Consequently, the more eventful period of his career was his early struggle to discover what he really wanted to do with his existence.
He was born in Nantes, then a prosperous seaport, and this no doubt helps to explain why ships and sailing play such a prominent part in his stories. His father, Pierre, was a prosperous solicitor, and Jules, as the elder son, was expected to take over the family practice. The Vernes were a typical provincial Catholic family, conventional but cultured, used to making music in the home and to writing occasional verse to celebrate special occasions. Jules realized early that he had no taste for the law, and although he obeyed his father’s wishes to the extent of taking the necessary examinations in Paris, he kept insisting that he would only make a bad solicitor, since his real vocation was for the theater, music, and writing in general. While still in Nantes, he had already tried his hand at verse plays in the Romantic style.
There was the usual tug-of-war between father and son, but it did not lead to a definite break. Even when Jules complained about the poverty-stricken life he was leading in Paris on his meager allowance, he and his father still corresponded in good-humored comic verse. Jules clearly had a vocation for which he was prepared to suffer, and it was during this period that he first described physical symptoms—digestive troubles and partial paralysis of his facial muscles—brought on by nervous strain, malnutrition, or some other cause. He is so explicit about his bowel movements in his letters to his mother that Lottman, appealing for once to Freud, suggests that he was perhaps the anal type, inclined to avarice and persecution mania. But Verne doesn’t seem to have been uniformly costive either physically, mentally, or financially; he later continued to subsidize his errant son, Michel, even when he disapproved of Michel’s behavior. The symptoms may have been psychosomatic, but since they recurred at intervals even after he had become a celebrated author, they could alternatively have had a purely physical basis, such as Crohn’s disease or what is now called irritable bowel syndrome. Despite his bluff outward appearance and frequent jokiness of style, which is particularly noticeable in his correspondence, Verne was a hypochondriac, or an intermittent invalid, for reasons that are now beyond investigation.
During his twenties, braving this handicap, Jules achieved some minor success as an author of light comedies in collaboration with theater people and composers, but not enough to give him financial independence. Feeling the need for a more settled existence, he fell back on the bourgeois expedient of an arranged marriage with a young person of means. “Find me a hunchback with a good income,” he wrote to his mother, and his parents duly made some effort to discover a suitable match for him in the Nantes area, but all their negotiations came to nothing. Eventually, at the age of twenty-nine, while attending a wedding in Amiens, Jules met a young widow with two daughters. As it happened, she also had a brother with connections on the Paris stock exchange, through whom Jules could make a supplementary income as a broker. It is not clear how far love entered into the bargain; the marriage lasted, but there is evidence that it was more a matter of mutual convenience than a source of joy.
For three years, he combined the roles of broker and struggling writer until, in 1862, he hit on the genre which was to make him famous and, through a happy coincidence, also found a publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who was to be his lifelong mentor, promoter, and friend. Five Weeks in a Balloon, an instant best-seller, was the germ from which all the Extraordinary Journeys were to grow. It contains the basic ingredients of his best-known works:a small group of male adventurers with sharply differentiated stock characters, an exotic setting (in this case Africa) which is described in great detail, the use of an exciting means of transport, the ingenious overcoming of technical difficulties, and, above all, suspense, the facing of mystery and danger with courage and sardonic humor.