Jules Verne

When I was young, I read most of the works of Jules Verne with enthusiasm. Thinking that my own children might one coming day also start doing this, I recently started looking again at some of the books I remember particularly, to check whether this infatuation was something to hide shamefully, or if instead I could only hope that my boys would develop a liking for them too. (As an aside, it should be said that in the Standard Model of French Literature, it is indeed a shameful thing to like Jules Verne; if I remember right, not a single line of his was included in the textbooks of French literature that I used in high-school — which, it must also be said tangentially, only had a single short excerpt from the terrible Vicomte de Bragelonne to represent the whole output of Alexandre Dumas père and his many “collaborators”, a book so bad that only a professor of literature with a spoilt and perverse mind would read it entirely to select parts of it instead of picking instead one of the many outstanding pyrotechnic displays of Les trois mousquetaires or some of the quite deep psychology of Le comte de Monte Cristo).

Thanks to the internet (and the fact that the works of Jules Verne, including many translations, belong to the public domain) it is fairly easy today to survey the whole Voyages extraordinaires without moving from one’s armchair. I recommend (for French-reading readers) to look at the versions in the French National Library archive since, being original versions, they contain the drawings which were part of the charm of the books for me (though I would typically read them in second-hand modern paperbacks, those always included the same drawings to illustrate the most suspenseful parts of the action).

The previous paragraph probably already reveals that my conclusion is that there is a lot to like in Jules Verne. The most obvious (and the most attractive force for me then) is that Jules Verne is, if not the only one, then certainly the best known writer in French literature of the 19th Century to show some interest in science. This must have been rather striking at that time (and must explain partly his success). It is not even simply that he has a positive attitude to science (which after all can be argued endlessly to be a misguided viewpoint), but the simple fact that science exists at all in his work isolates him from all of his equally-remembered contemporaries (I have no idea if there existed similar writers at the time who just never became successful enough to be remembered). He certainly conveys a strongly positive idea of science overall, and manages in his books to present aspects of it in very different styles: mineralogists, natural scientists, physicists, mechanicians, aeronauts, all appear somewhere. These scientists are not always mad or paranoiac or even absent-minded (though those also appear!), and can be very fascinating and attractive for children or teenagers interested in scientific matters. There are touches of humor which are also very pleasant (another quite un-French trait at that time), as for instance the deadpan description of the “Gun Club” and its artillerists disappointed by peace at the beginning of De la Terre à la Lune (“From earth to the moon”).

How far he was ready to include science in his plots can be seen from this equation appearing in the sequel to De la terre à la lune, where it plays the role of a thunderbolt showing to the three brave men in the cannonball that the amount of powder was miscalculated and would prevent them from reaching the moon. Even more impressive is the final chapter of Sans dessus dessous (“Topsy-turvy”) — with the charming subtitle Dont peu de personnes prendront connaissance (“That few people will acquaint themselves with”) — where M. Badoureau, Ingénieur des Mines, gives full and complete details of the computations explaining how a gigantic cannon, firing cleverly at the right point and time, might change the orientation of the earth so that its axis of rotation would become perpendicular to the ecliptic plane (i.e., bringing the axial tilt to zero). It is revealed in the book itself that the characters again miscalculated, underestimating the size of the earth by a factor of one thousand, so that their cannon shot barely moved the earth by the amount of three microns…

It has to be admitted that (as far as I remember) the scientists of Jules Verne are always male. He was not particularly progressist in many respects, as can also be seen from the many occasions when colonial questions and settings arise (in Africa and India in particular), but in one other aspect his world is strikingly different from the one that might be inferred from reading other 19th Century French novelists (beside containing those strange characters, scientists): it includes other countries besides France (!). In fact, his heros originate from a remarkable variety of places, and are portrayed with a remarkable display of sympathy. There are Frenchmen, of course, but also Englishmen (the heros of Trois semaines en ballon, for instance, though one is a Scotsman), Americans (from both North and South America, as in La Jangada), Russians (in Michel Strogoff), Germans (professor Lidenbrock in Voyage au centre de la terre, where the old Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussem also plays an important role…), Dutchmen, Turks (both in Kéraban le têtu, “Keraban the stubborn”), etc.

Here are a few of the books which I remember with pleasure, and which are not among his best known works:

(1) I already mentioned Kéraban le têtu; the plot device here is quite bizarre: the Turk merchant Keraban, who is visited by a Dutch friend, refuses to pay a new tax to cross the Bosphorus to go back to his house on the Oriental side of Istanbul; being moreover prone to sea-sickness, he chooses to go back home by going around the Black Sea on land. At the very end, finally arrived after much delay and subplotting, pressing circumstances require that he cross the Bosphorus in the opposite direction without losing a minute. How will he do it without paying the iniquitous tax?

(2) The little-known La Jangada is the story of a big log-raft going down the Orinoco river over 800 miles. I don’t remember much of the plot, except that there is a secret message that is only decrypted in the nick of time to save an innocent man at the end, and that a crucial part of the plot involves an amusing game of following an almost infinitely long liana in the surrounding jungle — of course, at its end is found a poor young fellow trying to use it to hang himself, and who, being saved, will find love during the remainder of the work…

(3) In Le testatement d’un excentrique, a rich millionaire leaves a last will where more or less randomly chosen strangers will play a gigantic Game of Goose with the States of the Union taking the place of the spaces of the board. (This type of idea has apparently been used in other books afterwards). Who will win?

(4) In Les aventures d’Hector Servadac, one of the strangest, a comet just barely touches the Earth tangentially around Algiers and takes with it a small part of land including atmosphere. After one orbit that takes it and its unfortunate inhabitants far from the Sun in the coldness of space, the comet comes back and brings the heros back in the exact same spot (though they do have to escape in a balloon; amusingly, the “vilain” in this tale is the French astronomer who tries to stay on the comet to continue exploring space…)

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

10 thoughts on “Jules Verne”

  1. You might be interested in this article, published in Scientific American a while ago, on Verne’s attitudes towards technology, which were a lot more ambivalent and skeptical than what might be expected from his most popular books.

  2. I think Verne’s book make excellent reading material for a child; I read many of them (~20) when I was 8-10 and they surely played an important role in establishing my interest for science, especially my great favourite, L’Île mysterieuse.
    Some of them contain racist observations, I remember terrible remarks about the aborigenes in Les Enfants du capitaine Grant and the portrayal of a black servant in Robur-le-Conquérant, but fortunately they stroke me as such even as a child.
    Among his less known titles I liked very much Une fantaisie du docteur Ox.

  3. Thanks for the pointer to the Scientific American article, though it is a bit short and doesn’t quite clarify if, say, Jules Verne got a more somber point of view about technology in later life, or if he always had such views. I think his novels are never purely based on the idea of describing some scientific concept: the human aspect is always very present and the characters of interest. Even in 20000 lieues sous les mers, in more than a few occasions it is human energy, courage, and ingenuity which are crucial, not simply the amazing technology of the Nautilus; and he wrote quite a few novels where technology/science is almost completely absent — among those I mentioned, only #4 has such a connection, as far as I remember, if one forgets about the cryptographic subplot of La Jangada, and there are also Deux ans de vacances (one of my favorites at the time…), Un capitaine de quinze ans, or even Les enfants du Capitaine Grant (though the last has an excentric French geographer).

    I had never heard of Une fantaisie du docteur Ox… I will have to look it up…

    (I don’t remember much about Robur le conquérant, but it’s true that Jules Verne describes the New Zealand aborigines of Les enfants du Capitaine Grant as terrible savages, as he does with some of the African tribes that the explorers of Cinq semaines en ballon encounter; on the other hand, when writing about the US Civil War, he seems very staunchly anti-slavery).

  4. Actually, Jules Verne’s pessimistic novel Paris in the XX Century was one of his earliest works, and thus cannot be used to argue that Verne’s view of technology darkened with time.

    On the matter of racial stereotypes: I can now look back at a time when, looking back at Jules Verne’s Nemo cycle, I was thoroughly impressed by his lack of racism – a lack in the strongest sense of the term; none of Nemo’s character traits seems to relate to any sort of racial construct. (As I had the benefit of a non-racist upbringing, I did not particularly realise this back when I read the novels.)
    Nemo’s motivations are deeply intertwined with his personal history, and this personal history involves the effects of colonialism and the fight against it in a very direct fashion; at the same time, his response to it is something that would suit a tragic character of any background.

    I later learned that Verne had originally conceived of Nemo as a Pole. Still, I did not perceive the entrance of any stereotypes in the later novels in the cycle. (Perhaps I should reread it.)

  5. @Francesco Veneziano.
    “I remember terrible remarks about the aborigenes in Les Enfants du capitaine Grant and the portrayal of a black servant in Robur-le-Conquérant, but fortunately they stroke me as such even as a child.”
    Yes,Francesco,it brings tears to my eyes that already as a child you were so morally superior to Jules Verne.
    Of course literary criticism
    consists in checking how accurately a nineteenth century writer conforms to the dictates of contemporary thought police.
    Believe it or not, I can vividly imagine your enlightened comments on Othello or The Merchant of Venice by that ueberracist Shakespeare…

  6. I edited Comment #4 (as requested in a separate comment by Harald, writing “Nemo’s motivations” instead of “His motivations” for clarity).
    As for Comment #5, it’s very close to the limit of what I’m going to accept as comments here in terms of civility of discourse, and I hope it will be an isolated case.

  7. @Struwwel
    I am not a literary critic, and of course I agree that judging the literary value of a book using 20th century political correctness as a standard is completely meaningless, and of course I do not claim any “moral superiority” on Jules Verne, given how the set of moral values has changed in the last 150 years.
    My remark was not about how good a writer Verne was, but about how suited for a 21th century pre-teen his books are, sorry for not making it clear.
    My point is that a 9-year-old child may not have developed yet a firm critical thinking. I acknowledge, sometimes with concern, than most of my mindset was acquired directly from my very early readings, and I used to trust Verne’s books acritically (perhaps I was just a particularly gullible boy); I remember the disappointment when I realised, few year later, that the theory of the internal heat and the formation of continents as explained by Verne—who couldn’t know about plate tectonic—was wrong. In conclusion, and to prevent other misunderstandings: I am not advocating any censorship of Verne’s book and I believe they are very good reading material for a child, I was only saying something a parent concerned with his child’s readings should consider.

    About Verne’s view on technology
    I read (and liked) Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum and, while grimmer than other books, revanchisme may easily explain that.
    Of the books published after Hetzel’s death I only read Le Sphinx des glaces, which is one of the few I didn’t like; it is a sequel to Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym and the scarcity of whales is the initial situation that sets the plot in motion; what follows is, if I remember correctly, an adventure story with very little science in it.

  8. @Francesco Veneziano
    Although I am really hostile to political correctness, my sarcasms at your expense were completely unsuitable. Especially since your second message makes it quite clear that we have picked the same side of this dispute on changing moral values.
    All my apologies for the snarky tone.
    Mi ero alzato col piede sinistro: non avercela con me!

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