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.
Hetzel was in the process of founding Le Magasin d’Education et de Récréation, a fortnightly periodical intended for family reading, and Verne was a godsend to him, as he was to Verne. As Lottman says, they constitute a rare case of perfect symbiosis between author and publisher. Hetzel, who was the elder by fourteen years, had already had considerable experience of publishing, having dealt with both Balzac and George Sand. He read Verne’s manuscripts with an eagle eye, and didn’t hesitate to point out weaknesses in plotting or expression, as if he were marking a student’s composition.
Instead of taking offense, as many writers might have done, Verne was eager to learn and willingly made alterations, except when his instinct dictated otherwise. He had a genuine desire to write as well as possible—it must be said that his French is never less than sprightly—and he labored over his texts, rewriting certain passages several times and then making further abundant corrections on the proofs. Occasionally, Hetzel requested changes for commercial reasons, but there is no evidence that he in any way limited or altered the nature of Verne’s output, which was what it was. Nor, as Ishall argue later, can it be held against him that he rejected Paris in The Twentieth Century, the manuscript of which remained undiscovered until 1989. There is no comparison with André Gide’s blind spot about A la Recherche du temps perdu, or T.S. Eliot’s rejection of Orwell’s Animal Farm; Verne’s book is genuinely feeble.
Once Verne had found his genre, his life became synonymous with his work and he settled down into a strict routine, from which he rarely wavered. An extraordinary thing about the author of the Extraordinary Journeys is that he traveled so little. One might have expected someone whose name is so much connected with balloons to have been keen on the sport, but he made only one twenty-four-minute flight, in 1873, at the invitation of an amateur balloonist. In his younger days, he enjoyed three foreign trips, each lasting only a week or so: first to England and Scotland, secondly to Scandinavia, and thirdly to New York; that was the sum total of his ventures abroad, apart from the later Mediterranean tour already mentioned. His only recreation was sailing in the Channel; in middle life, he bought a small yacht when he could afford to do so, and later replaced it in turn with two larger ones. He arranged his cabin as a study in which he could carry on with his writing.
His sentimental life was similarly uneventful. There are suggestions that he may have had one or two extra-marital affairs but, if so, he was too discreet for anything definite to be known about them. Michel, his only son, an intelligent but unruly boy, kicked over the traces in adolescence, perhaps because of the “famous father” syndrome; he was readmitted to the family fold at the age of twenty-five, and later collaborated with his father. From 1888 to 1904, Jules was a conscientious member of the town council of Amiens.
His last years were clouded by increasing physical disability that he grumbled about humorously in his letters. He asked a friend to send him a new or secondhand stomach, if he had one at his disposal; this suggests that Verne might have played with the theme of organ transplants, had nineteenth-century medicine not been backward in relation to the other sciences. Medicine as a scientific subject is almost totally absent from his fiction; in particular, he slides unrealistically over the intimate organic problems for human beings that would be involved in some of his more spectacular fictional journeys.
The aim of Le Magasin was to cater to the contemporary public’s interest in science and exploration by dispensing knowledge in an appetizing and amusing form. Verne never explained exactly how he devised the winning formula; he does, however, quote Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allen Poe as sources of inspiration, the first no doubt because of the theme of resourcefulness in the midst of untamed nature, and the second because of his use of mystery and suspense. The question to which one would like to have an answer is: How did Verne acquire his enthusiasm for science, which seems to have been a rather sudden conversion? As Lottman points out, when he wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon, he had no connection with scientific circles. It was only later, through making the acquaintance of Nadar, the balloonist and photographer, that he got to know certain scientists.
The enthusiasm for science once acquired, Verne studied assiduously to turn himself into an amateur scientist with a happy knack of extrapolating from the present to the future. Although this prophetic faculty is what he is principally renowned for, it was not his primary interest; he explained in later life that his real passion was for geography, and that he hoped before he died to exploit all possible natural settings. Certainly, he was an armchair traveler who, with the help of books, described more countries than any other French writer has ever done. He varies the recipe by moving from area to area, from the equator to the North Pole, from the open sea to dense forest, from the fjords of Norway to the plains of Australia, and in each case he brings in a wealth of instructive detail about the weather, the flora and fauna, and the geological substructure for the benefit of those readers, young or old, who like their reading to be factual and educational. It must be said that he teaches with zest; he positively loves making lists of curious details, and his documentary fervour must have had a strong appeal in the days before the advent of the cinema and television.
However, if this were his major characteristic, it would hardly keep his work alive today, when television and movies can carry out the descriptive function much more vividly than the novel. In any case, he applies the formula rather mechanically in his dullest books, such as The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China and The Lottery Ticket (set in Norway).
One could argue that his essential quality lies elsewhere. In his denser texts, among which Iwould put The Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Mysterious Island, he goes beyond mere geography or any particular local color into a truly imaginative area, which might be called a cosmic vision. He revels both in the multifarious surface life of the earth and in its mysterious depths. Perhaps his originality shows itself most clearly not in Around the World in Eighty Days, that jolly hymn to surface travel, but in the dark subterranean and submarine fantasies, where the reader’s vicarious fear of suffocation or drowning forms a constant, tingling accompaniment to his appreciation of the author’s scientific or pseudoscientific inventiveness. In Twenty Thousand Leagues, there is something naively grandiose in the way that Captain Nemo, the epitome of civilization, goes back into the sea, from which, we are told, all life originally came, to escape the pressures of vulgar society in the security of his submarine, Nautilus, the perfect, subaqueous gentleman’s residence.
Generally speaking, Verne seems to be compiling a sort of fatalistic, yet jubilatory, inventory of the planet as it hangs in space. He sees it in relation to the other heavenly bodies, liable to be hit by meteorites, or even deflected from its course, for particular reasons, by human ingenuity. Also, more than most, he is sensitive to the phenomena of time and the seasons, and to the confrontation between man and the four ancient elements, earth, air, fire, and water, which take on the role of dramatis personae that have to be contended with, exploited, and conquered as far as possible. Against the welter of natural phenomena, he sets the heroi-comic exploits of a group of humans, struggling to chart and control their environment, and holding their own most of the time. The vision may be rather crude, but it is fundamentally bracing, and this may help to account for Verne’s continuing vitality as a popular author.
The best definition of Verne along these mythic or phenomenological lines that I have come across is contained in an apparently forgotten book, not mentioned by Lottman, Jules Verne by Kenneth Allott:
He [Verne] was a Peter Pan, who created a self-consistent world in which real evil or real women had no place; in which the man of action was both the ideal and the norm, and adventure the prevailing pattern; in which a peripatetic curiosity, a love of the mysterious and a penchant for practical jokes were an accepted part of human behavior. *
Allott further argues that Verne, in his peculiar way, is a poet, whose romantic energy, instead of being focused on the human love relationship, is diffused over the whole of his theater of operation, i.e., his view of the world. In support of this contention, Allott transcribes a long passage from The Journey to the Center of the Earth—Axel’s daydream about the changing pageant of the world as he goes back up the stream of geological history. Here is a fragment:
Then my dream went back into the ages before the creation of living beings: the animals disappear, then the birds vanish, then the reptiles of the secondary period, and finally the fish, the crustaceans, molluscs and articulated beings. Then the zoophytes of the transition period return to nothing.
I am the only living thing in the world; all life is concentrated in my beating heart alone!
There are no more seasons; climates are no more; the heat of the globe continually increases and neutralizes that of the sun.
Ages seem no more than days. I am passed against my will in retrograde order through the long series of terrestrial changes. Plants disappear; granite rocks soften; intense heat converts solid bodies into thick fluids; the waters again cover the surface of the earth; they boil, they rise in whirling eddies of steam; white and ghastly mists wrap the shifting forms of the earth, which by imperceptible degrees dissolves into a gaseous mass, glowing fiery red and white, as large and shining as the sun.
Allott calls this “a piece of scientific Ossian,” “the complete marriage of romantic poetry and nineteenth-century science, written in a cadenced melodious form.” I find the example convincing, and could quote some other purple passages. Verne’s verve is particularly excited by storms, eruptions, maelstroms, and other rages of nature: witness the elephant stampede in The Aerial Village, or the earthquake which puts an end to The Mysterious Island.
It has to be admitted, however, that Verne rose to these heights only intermittently, and in some books didn’t reach them at all. Even in the better ones, there are sudden transitions from seriousness to bathos. Some astonishingly unscientific features are brought in no doubt as jokes, and work, if at all, only on a schoolboyish level—e.g., in The Mysterious Island, the tame orang-outang, Jup, who is taught to wait at table and insists on tucking up his master into bed at night. It is almost as if Verne oscillated between little boy and grown man, not because he was catering to a juvenile readership, but because that was the way he was.
The intense pleasure he took in writing, which, despite his physical disabilities, only increased as he got older, shows that, for him, the vital part of his life was the hours he lived in his imagination during his regular morning stint of composition. He declares exultantly in a letter to Hetzel:
I must be slightly off my head. I get caught up in all the extraordinary adventures of my heroes. I regret only one thing, not being able to accompany them pedibus cum jambis.
But, as the books demonstrate, his imagination was patchy; it contained an element of genius, but at the same time it was a mixture of vague humanitarianism and conservative bourgeois assumptions about the social hierarchy and the role of religion. Notwithstanding his early rejection of a straightforwardly middle-class career for himself, in his basic attitudes he remained a conventional Catholic paternalist, a “man of ‘order.”‘ The master- servant relationship is essential to the human groups in his stories; each major figure is accompanied by a useful and devoted sidekick: Phileas Fogg by his valet, Passe-Partout in Around the World in Eighty Days, Professor Liedenbrock by the Icelandic guide, Hans, in The Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Cyrus Smith by his colored cook, Nab, in The Mysterious Island. As for Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, he commands a whole crew with God-like assurance.
It is a sad fact that anti-Semitism sometimes rears its ugly head in the stories, and native tribes tend to be dismissed as irredeemable savages. All this suggests that bourgeois prejudice, laced with a certain kind of poetry, may not be an incongruous ingredient in best-sellers. Incidentally, in real life, Verne was an unrepentant anti-Dreyfusard to his dying day and, at the time of the Commune, he expressed the view that all socialists should be shot, as indeed a lot of them were.
The blurb on the cover of Paris in the Twentieth Century implies that Hetzel was mistaken in turning it down for publication:
This astonishing book is comparable to Brave New World and 1984 in its chilling, dystopian view of a future world, and although it predates both novels by about seventy years, its predictions are much closer to the truth.
Actually, as regards psychological truth it doesn’t bear comparison with either Huxley or Orwell, and some of its predictions—e.g., that science has eliminated the need for armies, that is, for traditionally heroic warriors—are regrettably wide of the mark. The book’s only interest is as a record of Verne’s initial attitude to science, which, most surprisingly, was one of fascinated repulsion rather than positive enthusiasm.
The hero of the book, Michel Dufrénoy, an orphan with poetic aspirations, is living in the household of his uncle, Boutardin, a crass and wealthy banker. Paris in 1960 is full of scientific improvements in transport and communications, such as a Métro system driven by compressed air, but it has become a soulless place, from which literature, music, and culture in general are fast disappearing, if not already dead. Michel cannot adapt to any of the technical occupations proposed by his materialistic and scientifically minded uncle. He finds solace for a while in the company of one or two other sensitive and artistic individuals, but in the end, destitute through being out of key with the scientific world, he collapses in the snow and dies.
Verne offered the text to Hetzel soon after the latter’s acceptance of Five Weeks in a Balloon, but its date of composition is unknown. Since it is a rudimentary treatment of the common nineteenth-century theme of the otherworldly poet versus the complacent philistine, I guess it to have been written much earlier, probably when Verne’s relationship with his father was going through a crisis, and before he found some financial relief through his earnings as a broker. However, the central mystery of his conversion to a favorable view of science remains intact. Had the conversion not occurred, and had he not remained sufficiently bourgeois in spirit to be capable of negotiating an arranged marriage for himself, it is just possible, I suppose, that he might have ended up as another Michel Dufrénoy, un poète maudit, like a number of his minor French contemporaries whose lives were as disastrous as those of Baudelaire and Verlaine, but who lacked the exceptional poetic gifts thanks to which the two glorious dropouts rose above their catastrophic existences. And no doubt, on a personal level, Verne enjoyed a reasonable fate as a dyspeptic, but enthusiastic, writer of best-sellers, even though, in his lifetime, he never received, within France, the serious recognition he yearned for.
Nocamus August 14, 1997
Crescent Press, 1940. ↩