Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jules Verne

The story goes that when Jules Verne was about eleven years old, he ran away to become a cabin boy on board a sailing ship. His father found out about it and was able to intercept the ship at it's next port and dragged little Jules home. Jules vowed to his father "From now on, I will travel only in my imagination."

He did not keep the vow exactly, because as an adult he actually did a great deal of traveling; but it is the extraordinary voyages of his imagination which earned him the title "Father of Science Fiction."

Verne was born in Nantes, France in 1828, the son of a sober, methodical attorney. When he was a young man, Jules was sent by his father to Paris to study Law, but young Jules slacked off on his studies and wrote theatrical libretti on the side. He made the acquaintance of some of the leading lights of French literature, including Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and the scandalous George Sands.

When Pierre Verne found out about his son's theatrical dabbling, he cut off Jules' funding, forcing him to take a job as a stockbroker to support himself. Verne married about this time, and his wife, Honore, encouraged his writing. There's a story that he once threw a manuscript he was working on into the fireplace in frustration. Honore rescued it and persuaded him to finish it.

He sent the manuscript to a publisher named Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who saw possibilities in Verne's scientific speculation about the feasibility of exploring the African continent via balloon. He suggested that Verne re-work the idea as an adventure story, and the result, Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon), marked a turning point in Verne's career.

About this time, Hetzel was publishing a magazine titled Le Magasin d'éducation et de récréation ("Education and Entertainment Magazine"). He recognized that Verne's blending of science and story was a perfect fit, and contracted him to write two novels per year which were serialized in the magazine under the overall title of "Voyages Extraordinaires". He also gave Verne advice about his writing, acting as a mentor and helping him to shape it to better appeal to the audience. The sense of technological optimism that pervades many of Verne's novels was an editorial mandate from Hetzel. One early novel, "Paris au XXe siècle" (Paris in the Twentieth Century), was rejected by Hetzel for being too downbeat and was not published until nearly a century after Verne's death.

The early novels Verne wrote for Hetzel include some of his most famous ones: A Journey to the Center of the Earth; From the Earth to the Moon; and what is arguably his most popular work, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Although best remembered today as a prophet of science and for the incredible inventions such as the Nautilus from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or the Columbiad from the novel From the Earth to the Moon, the common theme of all his books was travel; journeys to distant and remarkable places. He might employ a hot-air balloon or a steam-powered mechanical elephant to get there, but the travel was the important part. Many of his novels, such as Michael Strogoff, a suspensful adventure of a courier traveling across Siberia, have no steampunk in them at all.

His work for Hetzel gave him financial stability, but his stage adaptation of his novel Around the World in 80 Days made him wealthy. His success enabled him to buy a small yacht, the Saint-Michel, where he did much of his writing. He received a knighthood in the French Légion d'honneur.

In 1886, while walking home one day, his nephew Gaston met him with a gun and shot him in the leg. It was said that the young man suffered from a persecution complex and the family bundled him off to an asylum. The wound left Verne partially crippled for the rest of his life and he was forced to give up sailing. Shortly afterwards both his mother and Hetzel, his mentor died. His works took on a more somber note.

No longer able to sail, Verne developed an interest in local politics. He was elected town councilor of Amiens, the city in which he lived; a position he held for the next fifteen years.

He continued writing until his death in 1905 of complications from diabetes. at the age of 77. He left several unfinished manuscripts which his son Michel published, sometimes drastically revising them.

Verne lived during a century of rapid technological change and we often think of him primarily as a Prophet of Science; but his lifetime also saw tremendous political upheavals as well. Many of his works have deep political themes which tend to be overlooked, partially because his chief English translator, Mercier Lewis, tended to cut those parts out of his translations, and partially because we in America know little of our own history, let alone the history of France.

Jules Verne was born during the Bourbon Restoration. The Emperor Napoleon had been finally defeated about 14 years earlier and a King of the old Bourbon dynasty, Louis XVIII, the younger brother of Louis XVI, had been placed on the throne with the clear understanding that the French Revolution Would Not Happen Again. But revolution is a genie that cannot be easily put back into the bottle. Louis XVIII established a constitution which preserved some of the liberties won in the Revolution, and set up a parliament. but only the wealthiest of men were permitted to vote.

The Restoration lasted only until 1830, when street protests led by students and working men who barricaded the streets of Paris led to the deposition of the Bourbon king, Charles X, and his replacement with Louis-Phillipe, the "Citizen-King". Louis-Phillipe was a constitutional monarch, unlike the Bourbons who considered their power absolute. He was backed by the haute bourgeoisie; bankers, financiers and industrialist, who although technically commoners, had greater influence than the aristocracy due to their enormous wealth. This early Occupy Paris movement wound up putting one of the 1% in power, although he was undoubtedly considered a better choice than the old aristocracy.

During this period, the Romantic Movement in French literature was in flower, and writers like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, who became friends with Verne and were a big influence on him, were in their prime. But Louis-Phillipe's reign was a troubled one, having to deal with worker's revolts on the one side and disgruntled monarchists seeking to overthrow him on the other. Louis-Phillipe responded with increased oppression of his political enemies and by banning political meetings. It was against this background of creative flowering and political suppression that Verne worked as a stock broker by day and a struggling librettist by night.

Things came to a head in 1848, the year of revolutions in which virtually every nation in Europe faced political uprisings of some sort or other. Louis-Phillipe was forced out and replaced by the Second Republic. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew and heir of the late Emperor, was elected president; mostly by promising low taxes and being vague about what his actual policies would be. His administration on the whole was a conservative one which saw an increase in industry and a robust, but less successful, foreign policy. When his term of office expired, he had himself declared president-for-life, and and took the title Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III is probably best known for getting suckered into declaring war on Prussia. During the war, Verne and his yacht were drafted into the coast guards. One of the books he wrote while patrolling the Bay of the Somme, Measuring a Meridian, has as its theme the folly of war and nationalism. It's about an international group of scientists performing a survey in Africa when they learn that their countries have declared war. Verne was privately pessimistic about how the Franco-Prussian War would turn out. He was right. France got its butt kicked and was forced to pay Prussia humiliating reparations. In Verne's early novels, you occasionally see a sympathetic, even a heroic, German. After the Franco-Prussian War, all the Germans are bad guys.

Following France's defeat, a new National Assembly was convened which established the Third Republic in 1871. This new government had to deal with more civil unrest and workers' rebellions. The National Guard in Paris revolted against the government, set up barricades in the streets once more, and declared The Paris Commune. It took months of bloody fighting in the streets to crush the revolt.

(You've perhaps heard the joke that Paris has wide tree-lined boulevards so that the German army can march in the shade? The truth of the matter is, that the famous broad boulevards of Paris were built so that Revolutionaries couldn't easily barricade them any more.)

In the late 1890s, France was rocked by the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer in the French Army was accused of passing secrets to the Germans. Like much of France, Verne got caught up in the anti-Dreyfus hysteria; but as evidence eventually came to light of Dreyfus's innocence and of the Army's cover-up of the true culprit he supported a judicial review of the case. His 1896 novel Facing the Flag, about a bitter scientist wishing to sell his discovery to the highest bidder, is thought to contain echoes of the Dreyfus Affair.

The turbulent political period Verne lived through might explain the respectable, conservative middle-class aspect of his public life. When he served as town councilor of Amiens, even though he ran as a progressive and pushed for civic improvements, he also cautioned women to beware the perils of feminism. He was the model of bourgeois respectability. But he did not forget the wild romantic friends of his youth, and in his writings he tends to sympathize with the outcasts and the rebels, like Captain Nemo.

Verne's views of colonialism are also a bit difficult for the modern reader to untangle. His stories of travels to exotic lands often brings his characters in contact with the natives of those lands. On the one hand, he often reflects the idealistic 18th Century notion of the "noble savage" living in a state of nature; on the other hand, he also betrays the mindset that primitive people are barbarians in need of the White Man's Civilization. And sometimes both views can be found in the same paragraph.

Although I think Verne's intentions were noble regarding race, it's also telling that the black characters in his novels tend to be virtuous but subservient, such as Neb from The Mysterious Island, or stock comedic figures, such as the cowardly Frycollin from Robur the Conqueror. He never created any black characters as strong or as compelling as those of H. Rider Haggard; who, although a champion of colonialism, had lived in Africa and had personal experience with and a respect for its people.

Perhaps the last word on Verne's politics should go to one of his final novels, The Survivors of the "Johnathan". The main character, a recluse calling himself Kaw-djer , is an anarchist and a pacifist whose motto is "Neither God nor master", living on a small island near Tierra del Fuego. When a shipload of colonists is wrecked on a nearby island he finds that he is the only one competent enough to help them survive. Unwillingly, the man who does not believe in authority finds himself compelled to take on a leadership role. And when gold is discovered on the island and outsiders try to seize it, he winds up leading his unasked-for community in war. Although Verne shows Kaw-djer's personal anarchism to be unworkable in a practical setting, he nevertheless portrays the man and his beliefs in a sympathetic manner.

Over his span of over fifty novels, Verne led his readers through some extraordinary journeys through not only geography, but through science and political thought as well.

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