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Jules Verne is arguably one of the most underestimated writers of the entire French literary tradition. Although ranked as the fifth most-translated author of all time (behind Lenin, Agatha Christie, Walt Disney, and the Bible—according to a UNESCO poll), Verne and his Extraordinary Journeys (1863-1910) were until recently persistently denied any literary recognition in France. In America, Verne is largely unstudied but widely recognized as the father of science fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Nantes: The Art of the Sea and of the Machine
Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, to a middle-class French family in the western port city of Nantes. His mother, Sophie (n^e Allotte de la Fuye), was the daughter of a prominent Nantes family of ship owners. His father, Pierre Verne, was a lawyer and the son of a Provins magistrate. Verne had three sisters— Anna, Mathilde, and Marie—and one brother, Paul, who eventually became a naval engineer and helped his older brother from time to time with the mechanical details of his imaginary technological marvels.
Verne was a good student. He repeatedly won awards, and he passed his baccalauréat easily in 1846. But he especially loved the sea. The small shipyard docks of nearby île Feydeau and the bustling Nantes harbor itself never failed to spark his youthful imagination with visions of far-off lands and exotic peoples. And he also loved machines. Reminiscing about those formative years when interviewed by a British journalist in 1894, Verne compared the pastime of watching them to viewing the art of Raphael or Correggio.
Indentured to Law, Aspiring to Theater
Intending that his son follow in his footsteps as an attorney, Verne’s father sent him to Paris in 1848 to study law. Not distracted from his studies by the political turmoil that engulfed the city—The French Revolution of 1848 ended the reign of King Louis-Philippe and, ultimately, led to the creation of the Second French Empire—Verne took his education seriously. He completed his law degree in just two years. Perhaps most significantly, while at law school Verne discovered a new vocation, literature. The young Verne wrote plays, some of which were performed in local theaters. He even managed to become the secretary of the Theatre Lyrique in 1852. Verne also composed poetry and penned several short stories, including ”A Balloon Trip” (1851) and ”Wintering in the îce” (1855). He was, however, to become better known for his novels.
From the Stage to the Library
Many years were to pass before Verne would reluctantly decide to abandon his theatrical aspirations and redirect those energies toward adventure stories. During those difficult years of 1850 to 1862, he spent more and more of his time writing lucrative short stories and nonfiction articles for popular journals, such as the Musée des Familles. This work was fascinating for Verne, but it required long days in the Bibliotheque Nationale researching geography, world history and popular science.
During these extended work sessions at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Verne first conceived of the possibility of writing a wholly new type of novel, what he first called a roman de la science (novel of science). This new form would fully incorporate the large amounts of factual material that he was accumulating in his library research, would combine scientific discovery, action and adventure, history and geography, and be patterned on the novels and tales of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe.
The Settled Life and the Mental Journey
In 1857, Verne married Honorine Morel (neée de Viane), a twenty-six-year-old widow with two daughters. With his new father-in-law’s contacts in Paris and a monetary wedding gift from his own father, Verne reluctantly took a position as a stockbroker at the Paris Exchange with the firm Eggly & Cie and spent his early mornings at home writing. When not writing or at the stock exchange, Verne spent his time either with his old theater friends or at the Bibliotheque Nationale. His long-contemplated ideas for a roman de la science soon crystallized into a rough draft of what would later be titled Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863)—the first novel of the Extraordinary Journeys.
After a heated dispute with the editor in chief of the Museedes Eamillesin 1856, Verne stopped contributing his writing to this journal. Still determined, however, to expand his short narratives into a full-length scientific novel, Verne discussed his ideas with his friends and colleagues. Then, in September 1862, Verne was introduced to Pierre-Jules Hetzel through a friend of both the publisher and Alexandre Dumas. Verne promptly asked Hetzel if he would consider reviewing for publication his manuscript, ”An Air Voyage.” Hetzel agreed to the request, and a few days later Verne and Hetzel began what would prove to be a highly successful author-publisher collaboration, lasting for more than forty years and resulting in more than sixty romans scientifiques. Soon after, Verne quit his job at the stock exchange and began to write full-time.
From the Earth to the Moon
In 1864 Verne published A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The work proved to be one of his most popular Extraordinary Journeys volumes. Verne’s famous From the Earth to the Moon (1865)—along with its sequel, Round the Moon (1870)—was the first ”realistic” (that is, scientifically plausible) manned moon voyage in Western literature. Verne based his extrapolative tale on the lessons of modern astronomy and astrophysics. In 1868, Verne moved his family to the northern coast town of Le Crotoy. He purchased his first yacht, and, during his frequent voyages on the Somme River and along the coast of France, he began revising an early manuscript called ”An Underwater Voyage.” A year later, in early 1869, Verne put the finishing touches on his first novel of the sea, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869-1870).
During the summer of 1870, Verne received the Legion d’honneur (ironically, one of the last official acts of a corrupt government that the author despised). At the start of the short-lived Franco-Prussian War—the conflict that, ultimately, brought an end to the Second French Republic and established the modern German nation-state at its conclusion in 1871—he moved his family to Amiens to stay with his wife’s relatives and joined the Le Crotoy home guard. After the ensuing German occupation and the Paris Commune (the socialist-anarchist self-rule of Paris in the wake of a revolt against the traditional authority that had driven the disastrous war just ended), Verne himself moved permanently to Amiens, where he spent the remaining thirty-three years of his life.
Around the World
In 1873, Verne published his most commercially successful novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, a book inspired by rapid advances in transportation capabilities and communication technology in the late nineteenth century. For example, in the United States the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, linking the east and west coasts. In the early 1870s, advances in steamship design made international trade and travel much faster and economical. Also by the early 1870s, telegraph lines link ran virtually around the global, making rapid communication between places as distant from each other as Britain and India inexpensive and easy. The hardcover edition of Verne’s book quickly set new sales records both in France and abroad, selling more than a half-million copies during the first year alone. Verne’s growing celebrity correspondingly soared: in 1874 he was elected to the Academie d’Amiens, his Extraordinary Journeys were officially recognized by the Academie Française, and an extravagant stage adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days proved to be a resounding success and would play uninterrupted at the Theatre du Chatelet for a record-breaking fifty years. Verne’s theatrical ambitions were finally satisfied. In 1877, Verne successively purchased two more yachts, and for the next few years he sailed to ever more distant ports of call. Not surprisingly, many of these locales found their way, sooner or later, into the settings of his subsequent Extraordinary Journeys.
During his final years, despite increasingly poor health, the death of his brother, Paul, in 1897, and annoying family squabbles, Verne continued diligently to churn out two to three novels per year. Verne fell seriously ill in early 1905, a few weeks after his seventy-seventh birthday. Lucid until the end, he told his wife Honorine to gather the family around him, and he died quietly on March 24,1905. He was buried on March 28 in the cemetery of La Madeleine in Amiens. Two years later, an elaborate sculpture depicting the author rising from his tomb and engraved with the words ”Toward immortality and eternal youth” was placed over his grave.
Works in Literary Context
In the history of literature, Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys constitutes the birth of a unique, hybridized form of novel. This new brand of fiction was to be a forerunner of what would eventually evolve into the genre called science fiction. By any name, it represents the first successful attempt to incorporate science into literature by a delicate intertwining of fact with fantasy, mathematics with myth, and education with adventure—which constitutes the core of Verne’s narrative recipe for the vast majority of his Extraordinary Journeys volumes.
A Dizzying Range of Contemporary Influences
Perhaps more than most authors of fiction, Verne wrote in response to the perspectives and exploits of a wide range of his contemporaries. Among these were friends and colleagues including the famous explorer Jacques Arago, Verne’s mathematician cousin Henri Garcet, and notorious daredevil balloonist Felix Tournachon, known to most Parisians by his popular pseudonym “Nadar.” Nadar especially helped Verne, initiating him into the mysteries of air travel and bringing Verne into his own circle of friends, which included noted engineers and scientists who ultimately provided Verne with the technical knowledge that enabled him to write his first roman scientifique. A second influencing factor on the author was the list of current events themselves: stories about balloon travel and daily newspaper accounts of exotic new discoveries kept Verne informed about the world around him, and he saw in these ideal scenarios for his first scientific adventure novel.
Oppression, Animal Abuse, and Environmental Concern
Two distinct thematic trends can be seen in the two different periods of Verne’s writing life: in the first period, his outlook is more optimistic, some say shallowly so. In the post-1886 period, a variety of proenvironment and critical social themes emerge in his works. Readers can see the oppression of the Quebeyois in Canada in A Eamily without a Name (1889), the ignorance and superstition of humans in the world in The Castle of the Carpathians (1892), and a concern for the imminent extinction of whales in An Antarctic Mystery (1897), among many others.
Works in Critical Context
Literary criticism has taken a number of wild turns over Verne’s work. In the early years of his career it was Verne’s (or, more precisely, Hetzel’s) English connection with the Boy’s Own Paper that exacerbated the growing tendency among French literary scholars to categorize Verne as an author fit only for adolescents. There was also recently a controversy over how much of the post-humous novels of the Extraordinary Journeys Verne’s son Michel altered prior to their publication. Close inspection has revealed that Michel, who frequently assisted and collaborated with his father during the latter’s final years, is now known to have been the principal author of one posthumous and several other texts normally credited exclusively to Verne. Nevertheless, verified Jules Verne works enjoyed a renaissance long after the author’s death.
Extraordinary Journeys (1863-1910)
One hundred years after the publication of the first novel of the collection, Verne and his Extraordinary Journeys were the rage of Paris. Reprints of his novels appeared from a variety of prestigious French publishing houses. Universities began to analyze his works. Respected literary journals began to publish articles about him, with literary critics, for the first time, placing Verne ”in a first-rank position in the history of French literature,” according to scholar Marc Angenot. Outside of France, too, though it took a little longer, the Verne vogue caught on. With the growing academic respectability of science fiction and the sudden popularity of ”new” French literary critics, such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, on Western campuses, the study of Verne increased as well. After nearly a half-century of virtually no serious Anglo-American literary criticism on Verne, the period from 1975 to 1990 witnessed no fewer than two biographies, seven monographs, one primary and secondary References:, and dozens of scholarly articles in a wide variety of academic journals on this prolific French author who was for so long deemed unworthy of critical attention. And the Verne renaissance continues even today.
Although earlier responses to Around the World in Eighty Days: The Extraordinary Journeys tended to dismiss it as light entertainment, more recent scholarly responses have regarded it in both an analytical and historical light. Edmund Smyth, for instance, suggests that ”it would be fair to state that in the popular imagination Verne and science fiction are largely synonymous, even if modern science fiction has moved far beyond the narratives of travel and endeavour which are found in Voyage au centre de la terre. He notes, too, that Verne’s ”writing is self-consciously wrestling with language itself, rather than being a vehicle for representation.” Coming from another angle, literary critic Daniel Compere observes, ”[Verne] also tried to use the poetic function in scientific discourse, emphasizing the formal aspect of language, something unheard of in discourse of this type.
- Allot, Kenneth, Jules Verne. London: Crescent, 1940.
- Angenot, Marc, ”Jules Verne: The Last Happy Utopianist.” In Science Fiction: A Critical Guide. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. New York: Longman, 1979.
- Barthes, Roland. “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat.” In Mythologies. Trans. A. Lavers. New York: Hill & Wang, 1972.
- Lemire, Charles, Jules Verne. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1908. Periodicals
- Angenot, Marc, “Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism, Part 1.” Science-Fiction Studies 1 (1973): 33-37.
- Asimov, Issac, “The Little Tin God of Characterization.” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1985.
- Hillegas, Mark R., “A References: of Secondary Materials on Jules Verne.” Extrapolation 2 (December 1960): 5-16.
- “Jules Verne at Home, an Interview with Marie A. Belloc.” Strand 9 (February 1895): 206-13.
- Rose, Mark, “Filling the Void: Verne, Wells and Lem.” Science-Fiction Studies 8 (1981): 121-42.
- Winandy, André, “The Twilight Zone: Image and Reality in Jules Verne’s Strange Journeys.” Yale French Studies 43 (1969): 101-10.
- Jules Verne Virtual Library. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://JV.Gilead.org. il/works.html
- Audio A Journey to the Interior of the Earth Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://librivox.org/a-iourney-to-the-interior-of-the-earth-by-iules-verne
- Smithsonian Institution Libraries. A Jules Verne Centennial. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.sil.si.edu/OnDisplay/JulesVerne100 .
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