Lamplight Voyage: the Magic of Jules Verne

“You will travel through a world of marvels!” –Captain Nemo

Baudelaire’s great poem “Le Voyage” opens with the image of a child, happily daydreaming over maps and pictures. “How large is the world when seen by lamplight!” Baudelaire doesn’t mention books, but I always imagine that nineteenth-century boy or girl lying on the floor with an oversized Hetzel edition of Jules Verne, its sumptuous covers decorated with elephants and airships and, inside, page after page of evocative, black-and-white steel engravings.

Baudelaire actually wrote a few years before Verne launched his astonishing career — Five Weeks in a Balloon appeared in 1863 — but French children were soon growing up on his Voyages Extraordinaires or “Fantastic Journeys.” As it happens, so did I.

One of the first “grown-up” books I read on my own was a Scholastic paperback of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and it enchanted me as much as the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles or H. Rider Haggard’s African quest-romance, King Solomon’s Mines. I later went on to discover both Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and its sort-of sequel, The Mysterious Island (1875). The latter had to be reserved at the library, and by the time I was able to check it out my excitement was such that I devoured it in three days.

We now know that Verne’s editor and publisher, Jules Hetzel, exercised close, indeed restrictive, control over his star author’s texts. Most of Verne’s work first appeared in serial form in a magazine for young people — Le Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation — and Hetzel didn’t want to offend any bourgeois parents with sex, politics, or controversial material. He made Verne alter entire sections of his books, when he didn’t meddle with them himself. In the case of Twenty Thousand Leagues, he even compelled Verne to adjust his conception of its main character. Originally, Captain Nemo was to be a Pole whose family had been slaughtered by the Russians and who, consequently, took his revenge by sinking that country’s ships. In the version that we read today, Nemo’s background is kept tantalizingly enigmatic, and we don’t learn the rationale behind his moodiness and restless traversal of the depths until the very end of the book (and even then, further revelations occur in The Mysterious Island).

Even now many people know the plot of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, if only from the enjoyable but Disney-lite film version starring James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre. Relatively faithful to the novel, that 1954 movie didn’t feature a single woman. Five years later, though, a cinematic treatment of Journey to the Center of the Earth — also very entertaining — would take the original’s male trio and invent a ruthless rival explorer and a female love interest. Its blithely cavalier attitude to a classic sadly conforms to a long tradition of Verne bowdlerizations, mistranslations, and abridgments. Even the edition of Journey that I read as a boy is notoriously bad, going so far as to change the professor-hero’s name from Lidenbrock to — of all things — Hardwigg.

Happily, most of the major Verne titles, as well as several underappreciated but powerful ones, such as The Begum’s Millions (1879) and The Self-Propelled Island (1895), are now available in reliable English versions from Oxford World’s Classics, the University of Nebraska Press, Penguin Classics, Wesleyan University Press, and BearManor Media. Of recent English translations of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, William Butcher’s Oxford World’s Classics edition stands out because of its suite of illuminating endnotes, but David Coward’s new Penguin arrives as a sturdy hardcover, with reproductions — albeit rather fuzzy ones — of many of the original engravings. Coward doesn’t always stick quite as close to the original as Butcher, but he carries the reader smoothly along. He begins the novel this way:

The year 1866 was marked by a strange occurrence, an unexplained and indeed inexplicable phenomenon which surely no one can have forgotten . . . The fact of the matter was that, for some time past, various ships at sea had encountered a long cigar-shaped object which could at times be phosphorescent and was infinitely larger and faster than a whale.

The steamship Abraham Lincoln is commissioned — by concerned insurance companies, of course — to hunt down this monster with the help of the French marine biologist Pierre Aronnax, his Flemish servant and assistant Conseil (whose genius for taxonomic classification is obsessive-compulsive), and the celebrated Canadian harpooner Ned Land. When the Abraham Lincoln finally locates what it supposes to be a supersized “narwhal,” the creature jolts the ship and sends two huge waves across its decks, and these three experts on sea life are swept overboard.

Instead of drowning, they find themselves clinging to a metallic hull just as a hatch opens, and they are hustled down into a strange vessel’s interior. There, after a period of isolation, the trio meets Captain Nemo, the builder and master of the Nautilus, a seventy-meter-long submarine powered by electricity generated from seawater. Nemo — from the Latin for “nobody” — has turned his back on society and the land, determined to fulfill all his needs from the ocean’s bounty. His age is somewhere between thirty-five and fifty, and he appears to Aronnax as “the most perfect specimen of manhood I ever came across.” His wide-set eyes could search distant horizons or “see into your soul.”

The Nautilus proves to be a remarkable vessel, in multiple ways, with a largely invisible, international crew that speaks its own shipboard lingua franca. (In real life Verne championed Esperanto as a universal language.). On the inside, much of the submarine resembles an exclusive gentleman’s club, complete with a library of 12,000 volumes and a small art gallery, as well as an organ, upon which the multitalented Nemo plays his own melancholy compositions.

Wishing to keep knowledge of the Nautilus secret, its dark-skinned commander makes clear that his three “guests” can never return to the outside world. As the author of The Mysteries of the Great Ocean Depths (which Nemo has read), Aronnax quickly recognizes that he has been granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study marine life close up. Conseil, the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, lives only to serve his master. But for Ned Land, a man of action, the lack of freedom grates. He soon dreams of escape.

When I reread the book earlier this summer, I remembered nearly all its most dramatic scenes from my first encounter with the novel half a century ago: the underwater cemetery, the coconut-sized pearl, the tunnel to the Mediterranean, Nemo’s visit to Atlantis, the disaster in the Antarctic ice, the giant squids, the ramming of the warship, and the Nautilus‘s uncertain fate in the swirling waters of the Maelstrom.

Yet exciting as these chapters (and others) are, they pale before the romantic grandeur of Captain Nemo himself, this man with no name, a Byronic wanderer who tells us that he loves only liberty, music, and the sea. Noble-hearted and ecologically minded, he financially supports freedom fighters, refuses any gratuitous slaughter of animals, and scorns Aronnax, Conseil, and Land for looking down on tropic islanders as “savages”: “Where aren’t there savages? Are they any worse than other men, the local natives you call savages?” Yet Nemo also attacks ships with the suddenness of a modern terrorist. Are the Turks, American slavers, the Russians or the British his actual enemy? Or does he hate the whole world? He coldly informs Aronnax, “I am not what you call a civilized man. I have cut off all relations with the whole of society for reasons which I alone am entitled to judge. So I do not obey its rules and I insist you undertake never to refer to them in my presence.”

Throughout, Verne’s novel emphasizes the abundant richness of life in the sea — and yet its pages are regularly darkened with images of death. At one point Nemo declares: “I, professor, am dead, as dead as any of your friends who are at rest six feet underground.” On several occasions, the captain guides Aronnax on underwater treks like Virgil conducting Dante through the afterlife. At one point the Nautilus sails by a recently sunken ship, and Aronnax observes on its deck, held fast by ropes, a drowned woman, young and pretty, and her baby: “With one supreme effort, she had raised her child above her head, a poor little thing whose arms still clung around its mother’s neck!” To me, the pathos of this maternal gesture makes for the most moving sentence in the entire book, but also one we are meant to remember, for it forms part of a pattern. After sperm whales are attacked by an enemy species, Verne again pauses over a dead mother: “From the end of its ravaged fin still hung a small calf which it had not been able to save from the massacre.” Both these images will be echoed a third time, when Aronnax and the reader discover the tragic reason why Captain Nemo roams the seas.

Meanwhile, as the Nautilus travels toward the then undiscovered South Pole, its journey grows increasingly visionary, calling to mind the death-in-life realm of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Verne depicts the Antarctic landscape in terms of the romantic sublime:

Of the sea, meaning unfrozen water, we could see nothing. In front of the bow of the Nautilus extended a vast, broken plain, a litter of jumbled ice blocks . . . Here and there were pointed peaks like slender needles rising 200 feet into the air; while further off a series of sheer cliffs, darkened by areas of grey, acted like enormous mirrors reflecting back the few rays of the sun which pierced the mist. And over this scene of desolate nature hung a fierce silence . . .

Even when trapped by the ice, Captain Nemo continues to display his usual sangfroid: ” ‘Gentlemen,’ he began in a calm voice, “in the predicament in which we find ourselves, there are two ways of dying. The first . . . is to be crushed to death and the second to suffocate to death. I shall leave aside the possibility that we shall starve to death, because the provisions carried on board the Nautilus will certainly last longer than we shall.’ ” Still, Nemo will try one last desperate measure to escape an icy doom.

A modern reader of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea quickly realizes that he or she must adjust to its nineteenth-century rhythms, its regular tick-tock between scenes of action and pages of icthyological or historical observation. The catalogues of the fishes that swim by the observation window of the Nautilus easily grows tedious, even if one understands their dual purpose: first, to impart knowledge of undersea life to landlubbers and, second, to grant verisimilitude and weight to Arronax’s account of this underwater voyage around the world. Some of Verne’s occasional prose arias about early maritime heroes and explorers also go on a bit too long. One can understand, if not condone, the impulse for abridgment.

As a technological fantasist, Jules Verne holds an honored place in Wesleyan’s Early Classics of Science Fiction series, and, as it happens, that press has just issued an admirable new translation by Alex Kirstukas of Robur the Conqueror. Since “The Conquest of Air” was that 1886 novel’s original title, it conveniently complements Verne’s more famous conquest of the ocean depths. And, like Captain Nemo, its eponymous protagonist is yet another solitary, ambiguous antihero.

The novel opens when the meeting of a Philadelphia ballooning society is interrupted by the self-styled Robur, master of a piratical airship of his own design. In short order, two of the leading balloonists — “Uncle Prudent” and Phil Evans — are kidnapped, along with a black servant, and taken on a journey around the world in the Albatross. The book closes with a confrontation between Robur’s heavier-than-air flying fortress and a state-of-the-art super balloon called The Go-Ahead.

In between, Verne provides yet another “voyage extraordinaire.” Many pages are Vernean “info-dumps,” piling on instructive facts about the earth’s geography and accounts of previous aeronautical pioneers. As usual in adventure fiction, nearly every character in the book is one-dimensional, with the partial exception of the reclusive, and elusive, genius-engineer Robur. The kidnapped Americans come across as jingoist boors, while their timorous black servant is, regrettably, a racist caricature. But even with these weaknesses taken into account, Robur the Conqueror thrillingly captures the passion and excitement of early aviation and, more poetically, the enchantment of flight. The reproductions of the original nineteenth-century steel engravings add immensely to the charm and humor of the work. Admittedly, some of that humor derives from the slapstick rivalry between Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans, their constant conniving against Robur, and Verne’s notion that Americans bear improbable names like “Bat T. Fyn” and “Truk Milnor.”

All in all, Robur the Conqueror starts and ends particularly well (though too abruptly). Today, however, we quickly register the moral ambiguities running throughout its text, as when the Albatross intervenes in a Dahomey ceremony, asserting the right of Western might over African tradition (though an inhumane tradition), or when Robur shows off his firepower by using a whale for target practice. Still, I love both the book’s first description of the Albatross at night on the ground — it looked like “a flour mill, with a whole set of windmills, their sails now immobile, grimacing in the half darkness” — and the revelation that the flying machine moves across the sky almost silently. More personally, I covet Robur’s brass knuckles, which he’d repurposed into “little pocket machine guns.” Very steampunk.

Just as The Mysterious Island provides a kind of sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, so Verne has Robur return — albeit coarsened and more violent — in Master of the World (1904). Whereas this insulted, misunderstood genius christened his first airship after a romantic sea bird, this time he calls his new invention — a warship that can travel on land, air and sea — by a more chilling, twentieth-century name: The Terror.

Though Verne may have started out as a children’s author, today his novels are studied as significant works of literature, and four of his books — including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — are included in France’s prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the partial model for our own Library of America. Admiration for Verne is correspondingly widespread. Long ago, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire spoke approvingly of his style as consisting entirely of nouns. The arch-experimentalist Raymond Roussel — a master of intricate wordplay — forthrightly named Verne, who was himself fond of cryptograms and double-entendres, the greatest writer of all time. That’s certainly going too far. Still, the recent Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio is onto something when he notes that some of the Voyages Extraordinaires are as powerful as ancient myths. This seems about right to me, but then I’m a member of the North American Jules Verne Society.

The post Lamplight Voyage: the Magic of Jules Verne appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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