Thursday, February 8, 2018

Birthday: "I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through."

Jules Gabriel Verne (1838-1905)
Author, playwright

All French authors of the 19th century seem to have been young men who frustrated their bourgeois fathers’ desires to see them successful lawyers: Verne’s father, more than most. He grew up in Nantes and had a dreamy streak from the get-go. His elementary school teacher was the wife of a sea captain who had disappeared thirty years earlier. She often spoke of him to her students, assuring them he would return, like Robinson Crusoe.

Young Verne found the notion of the castaway fascinating and managed to work the theme into three books he wrote as an adult. Verne was prone to work out personal issues in his writing: after his marriage proposal was rejected by the family of a young lady he loved- they thought she could do better, and proved it- he produced three future novels featuring women married against their wills.

By his late teens, Verne was turning out dramatic, epic poems in the manner of Hugo, which did not impress his father a bit.

Verne moved to Paris to pursue his legal studies, arriving just in time for the Revolution of 1848. He used his family’s connections to gain entry to the city’s literary salons. He spent as much time going to the theater as he did studying law, then took to writing his own. He began suffering chronic illness: recurrent stomach cramps (since diagnosed by medical scholars as possible colitis), and episodes of facial paralysis. He also suffered, later, from diabetes.

He dodged another bullet in 1851, when he was required to register with the military, but was not chosen in the sortition- drawing lots- process. Verne annoyed his father with a firmly anti-war stance and held to it his entire life.

Having met Alexandre Dumas, the son, in 1849, Verne gained entree to the Paris theater world, and the two produced one of his plays to some success. Verne got several more comic operettas on stage, and found a magazine publisher for some early stories. By now he was in a Fennimore Cooper stage of fanboyism, and wrote of adventures in the Americas, like “The First Ships of the Mexican Navy” in the prints.

None of this impressed Verne’s father a bit, either. In 1852, his father offered him his law practice in Nantes. It was a take it or leave it deal, and Verne left. He insisted he knew where his future lay, and it wasn’t drafting writs in the provinces.

Verne’s interest in adventure, and the seemingly endless scientific discoveries of the age, prompted him to develop a new form of adventure tale that bolstered its imaginative elements with serious research. By the late ‘50s he was fleshing out the concept of the roman de la science: the scientific novel.  In 1856, he attended a friend’s wedding, where his head was turned by the bride’s sister, a widow with two children. He hit it off with her brother as well, who offered Verne a job in his Paris brokerage house. The chance to improve his fortunes and court his new infatuation in one fell swoop was too good to pass up.

They married in 1857, and Verne became a stock-jobber, rising early- a la Trollope- to write before heading off to a day of shouting in The Bourse. Though a friend recalled Verne “did better in repartee than in business,” he was able to keep up his household, his theater-going, his club (formed by eleven bachelors, all of whom eventually married), and research at the National Library. He also got two free trips at sea: one to Scotland, another to Scandinavia.

All of this was grist for his mill. His idea for the scientific novel came to fruition with an African adventure tale, Five Weeks In A Balloon. The book was serialized in a newly-launched family magazine aiming to combine scientific education with quality fiction, and came out in 1863. Verne signed a deal with the publisher, Hetzel, to provide three books a year at a fixed fee. For a new author, it’s hard to beat guaranteed publication and a guaranteed paycheck, and most of Verne’s works made their first appearance in the Magazine of Education and Recreation for the next forty years.

Another North American adventure followed: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864-65). The reception of Verne’s work was so favorable that Hetzel, his publisher, announced future novels would be as a series. Verne’s “voyages extraordinaires” would “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe.”

Verne, keen to please his publisher, agreed to edits Hetzel felt would boost sales. So Captain Hatteras survived the book, rather than meeting a grisly death. Verne agreed when Hetzel turned down his third submission, Paris in the Twentieth Century, finding the vision of the City of Light in August 1960 too dark and fantastic. "I did not expect something perfect," the disappointed publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, wrote the author in late 1863, "but I expected better." And as if testing fate, Hetzel added, "My dear Verne, if you were a prophet, no one would believe your prophecies today."

By 1869, however, Verne held the whip hand in the deal, at least as to artistic freedom; though he got the production quote cut to two books a year, he was never able to get the flat fee per book raised). The original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cast Captain Nemo as a Polish scientist whose family had been killed by the Russians in the January Uprising of 1864, and who sought revenge with his fabulous undersea machine.

Hetzel balked, fearing the story line would hurt sales in Russia, and demanded the Nemo’s renegade campaigns be explained by his opposition to the slave trade. Verne, in an inspired compromise, rewrote Nemo as a man of a murky past whose motives are not entirely clear.

The 1860s were Verne’s halcyon years. He published Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon in addition to his Nemo tale. His tale of a lunar mission showed his exhaustive research; he calculated the ideal range of latitudes in which to launch a rocket and set his base near the modern-day Cape Canaveral in Florida (though his launch method, a giant cannon buried in the earth, would have been a soggy affair in the barely-above-sea-level landscape), and north of the French space program’s launch pad in the Guyanas.

In the 1870s, he hit home runs with Michel Strogoff and Around the World in Eighty Days (1874). Wealthy- he was earning almost $225,000 a year for the voyages books in 2015 money- he bought a yacht, became a country gentleman and local councilor in Amiens, and became a chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.

Drama is visited upon every celebrity, though: his son, Michel, was such a terror that Verne had him sent to a French penal colony for six months at fifteen. At 19 he eloped with a famous, rather older actress; having fathered two illegitimate children with a sixteen-year-old he married her after divorcing the actress;  and piled up debts.

In 1886 a nephew had a mental breakdown and shot Verne, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. Illness, family deaths and troubles and aging began to cast a darker tone in his writing. He abandoned his Catholic upbringing for science, becoming a deist.

All told, Verne produced 56 novels in the voyages extraordinaires series. The last, Robur the Conqueror (1904), picked up the tale of an idealist-turned-megalomaniac in his 1886 work, Master of the World. Robur, a Nemo of the air, built an airship of incredible destructive power in an extinct volcano in Rutherford County, North Carolina (the perfect, cover, he reasoned, for all the smoke and noise of manufacture) and set out- in the film version- to end all wars (North Carolina seemed to fascinate Verne, as his Captain Hatteras character further demonstrates).

Paradoxically, Verne’s critical reputation plunged as his sales rose. The novelty of his genre came to be dismissed as popular fiction, even juvenilia. The leading lights of French literature dismissed him; he was blackballed for election to the French Academy. His son Michel did Verne no favors, rewriting the eight novels and five short stories he left behind for the Voyages series. When Verne died in 1905, at 77, The New York Times cemented his reputation in their obituary:

In Jules Verne there passes away one who is still the idol of boys, who is still the idol of many who were boys fifty years ago.

After World War II, Verne returned slowly to favor in France, aided by the formation of the Jules Verne Society, which published definitive editions of his works, and the rise of space exploration, about which Verne had proved so prescient.

In the English-speaking world, Verne has suffered from being pigeonholed as the author of three books- Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. His modern translator, Adam Roberts explains why:

Those are the three books that have been filmed most often and most memorably, the ones that lend themselves best to filmic spectacle - the wondrous subterranean caverns and prehistoric monsters of the first, the aquarium of splendours in the second, the scenic travelogue of the third. And it is true that, better than almost any writer of the 19th century, Verne knew how to stage the sort of spectacular 'event' that blockbuster cinema was later to make central to its artform.

Roberts argues what makes Verne unique- and better than the movies of his work- is his ability to ask, “What if-?” and play it out on a global scale. He cites 1877’s Hector Servadac, in which a comet’s glancing blow with the Death severs a portion, casting it into an increasingly cold outer space, where the human castaways struggle to survive before their eventual return to a restored earth:

Verne wanted to portray a world still reeling from the devastation caused by the comet's impact; but his publisher Hetzel persuaded him that readers would rebel against such a downbeat conclusion. In the case of Hector Servadac this results in a hallucinatory final chapter, where the returning travellers come back to a world that seems never to have been struck by a comet at all - nobody remembers the catastrophe, the world seems wholly unaffected, and the travellers themselves begin to doubt the veracity of their own experiences.

But this is not mere oddness for oddness' sake; it is a work that captures with considerable force the way catastrophe can come clattering unexpectedly into our lives, and more importantly the way we cling to the remnants of our lives after this catastrophe has struck. Life changing events are by definition estranging, and deeply odd. It takes a properly imaginative, metaphorical literature, like science fiction, to do justice to them. There's something particularly wonderful in seeing Verne's typical scientific clarity of tone used to tell a story so plump with impossibilities - that the comet's impact didn't pulverise, or vaporise, what it struck, that any subsequent fragments retained their water and atmosphere, to say nothing of the impossible interplanetary balloon flight and miraculously undamaged world at the end. It seems to me that this is a novel that not only contains impossibility, but is actually about impossibility; the impossible voyages the imagination is capable of; that charting of impossibility we call science fiction.

In a 2007 article, Roberts, himself a science fiction author and reviewer, as well as a professor of 19th-century literature in London, wrote:

Whilst a few of Verne's most famous titles have been retranslated by proper scholars (for instance, William Butcher's recent Oxford University Press translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is very good), in most cases the only editions we have of these works are the hacked-about, disfigured, and in some places rewritten versions originally published in the 19th century.

It's a bizarre situation for a world-famous writer to be in. Indeed, I can't think of a major writer who has been so poorly served by translation.

...I'd heard that the original translators into English felt at liberty to cut out portions of Verne's original text, particularly where they felt he was getting too "technical" or "scientific"; and I'd heard that one of those early translators - the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier - had bowdlerised any sentiments hostile towards or injurious to the dignity of Great Britain (such as might be uttered by Captain Nemo, an Indian nobleman who had dedicated himself to an anti-imperialist cause). I knew too that the original English translators tended to mangle the metric system measurements of Verne's careful measurements and descriptions, either simply cutting the figures out, or changing the unit from metric to imperial but, oddly, keeping the numbers the same.

In his work translating Hector Servadac, Roberts found,

[W]hen I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne's actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as "...said Isaac Hakkabut" with idioms such as "...said the repulsive old Jew." And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30) - quite a long one, too - presumably because she or he wasn't interested in, or couldn't be bothered to, turn it into English.

For Americans, Verne is what Walt Disney thought of him. His 1954 Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea had a strong cast, and stayed true to the plot until Disney decided to hop it up with some of his trademark chirpy slapstick: Kirk Douglas playing the ukulele, for example, while singing to a pet seal.

Other studios followed suit. RKO’s 1958 version of From the Earth to the Moon showed the effects of the studio’s last gasps before bankruptcy, in its dumbed-down plot and cheesy sets.

1961’s Master of the World was American International Pictures’ attempt to copy the success of United Artist’s 1956 Verne movie, Around the World in Eighty Days, with its stock footage from other movies and requisites of American sci fi (a pretty girl and an action man, in this case- the ever-wooden Charles Bronson), and Vincent Price at his campy best.

More recent works have followed in the formula. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan mugged their way around the world in 2004. Brendan Fraser’s 2008 journey down a volcano was an excuse to update the rock ‘em, sock ‘em dinosaur special effects (truly inventive exceptions to the general film carnage of Verne’s works include George Melies’ A Voyage to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Journey (1904); and 1998’s Alien from L.A., in which Wanda Saknussemm, a descendant of Verne’s medieval Icelandic alchemist who made the first trip down under, finds the map and makes her way to the lost city of Atlantis).

Verne seems destined to be trapped in translation Hell for eternity. The old versions are in the public domain; a freshened up cover and voila! a saleable name for a new generation of kids! The very things that made Verne Verne- the research, the maps, the calculations, all the nerdy stuff that makes sci fi sci fi- is largely lost.

Still, and despite all, Verne casts a long shadow. He influenced the development of surrealism as well as science fiction. Generations of scientists and explorers heard their callings in his books: Beebe, Cousteau and Ballard underwater; Shackleton and Byrd at the Poles; Sikorsky in the air; Goddard, Hubble, von Braun and Tsiolkovsky in space. Marconi tipped his hat to the French master, too. A crater on the back of the moon bears his name, as do ships and trains and a prize for around the world sailing.

Verne’s bet on circumnavigating the globe inspired a 24-year-old woman reporter, Nellie Bly, to try it herself. She knocked eight days off Verne’s mark in the winter of 1888-89, stopping in Amien to visit Verne en route, and followed by reporters from other newspapers. George Francis Train, an eccentric, if aptly name, railway magnate, made the last of his three trips around the globe (the first, in 1870, helped inspire Verne’s book) a year later, in sixty days. By 1913 the record had fallen to 36. In 1992 the supersonic jet Concorde made the trip in 32 hours and change.

Michel lived until 1925, a successful writer and editor in Paris. In 1989, Michel’s grandson, Jean Jules- then 26- hired a locksmith to open a safe passed down through the generations with no idea of its contents. In it, he found the manuscript to Verne’s 1863 Paris in the Twentieth Century. Thought lost after it was noted in Michel’s inventory of his father’s estate, the book was published in Europe in 1994 and in America two years later. A New York Times review thought the work Verne at his visionary best, set in a 1960

where people traveled by subway and in gas-driven cars, where they communicated by fax and telephone, where they used calculators and computers, where "electric concerts" provided entertainment.
It was also a world in which everyone could read but no one read books, where Latin and Greek were no longer taught in schools, where the French language had been bastardized by "disagreeable" English words. It was a society dominated by money where destitute homeless people roamed the streets...In one grim passage, Verne forecasts the electric chair, which did not make its appearance until 1888, in the United States. "What a sinister sight," he writes. "Singing workers were already building the platform. Michel wanted to avoid the sight, but he bumped into an open crate. As he stood up, he saw an electric generator. He understood. People were no longer being beheaded. They were being electrocuted."
Here and elsewhere, it is apparent that Verne disapproved of many of the social changes that he described, and in that sense, the book is as much a warning as it is a prophecy. The technological wonders of 1960 did not make people happier, he wrote, because "in their hurried walk, their rushed bearing, their American impetuosity, one felt the demon of money was driving them without respite or mercy."
Verne also got a last word of sort in, cocking a snook at the French literary establishment. In the book, the narrator an impoverished poet, walks into a bookstore and asks for the complete works of Victor Hugo.
“Victor Hugo?” the clerk responds. “What did he do?”

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #JulesVerne

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