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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.