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Prescient and Accounted For

A century after his death, novelist Jules Verne, who imagined Moon flight and deep-sea voyages, looks more prophetic than ever

Jules Verne, the French science fiction pioneer who died 100 years ago this month, is typically viewed in this country as a lightweight. For that, Hollywood deserves some blame. The 1959 movie adaptation of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth is a "juvenile adventure maintaining a credible tone of silliness," one critic recently wrote, noting that the expedition "includes a goose called Gertrude."

Verne is the second-most-translated author on earth, after Agatha Christie, and it's not because his books are silly. For the record, the original expedition in Verne's 1864 Journey includes no barnyard animals. The novel remains one of the liveliest introductions to earth science, fossil biology and evolution in literature. And it's one of the earliest: it appeared just five years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Best-known for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, Verne has always been a major cultural figure in his native land. This month, his hometown of Amiens is scheduled to celebrate the centennial of his death with parades, exhibitions and literary conferences. Yet in the English-speaking world, Verne has been pigeonholed as merely a boys' adventure writer, even though he foresaw heavier-than-air flying machines and Moon voyages, and 20th-century pioneers such as the polar explorer Richard Byrd, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and the astronaut Neil Armstrong have said that Verne's writings inspired them. But now Verne enthusiasts are pushing for a reconsideration of the writer as an influential literary figure whose 64 novels and stories (of admittedly varying quality) offer not only startling prophecies but also sharp commentary on the Europe and America of his day.

"There's a Jules Verne renaissance going on, and it's building," says Arthur Evans, a professor of modern languages at DePauw University in Indiana and a self-described Verne freak. Backed by scholarly articles and new translations of Verne's work, Evans and other revisionists argue that Verne's writings are more complex, more skeptical and more politically charged than is commonly supposed. Most English-language editions of Verne's novels are public-domain texts more than a century old. Victorian translators blithely removed references to Darwin, politics, the ills of British imperialism—and much of Verne's humor. Entire chapters were literally lost in translation. "For the first time," says Evans, "people in the English-speaking world are seeing what Verne actually wrote, as opposed to the bowdlerized hack translations that have been available previously."

A milestone in the reevaluation of Verne came in 1989, when his great-grandson, Jean Verne, of Toulon, had the door of a rusting family safe blasted open. Inside he found a small yellowed manuscript containing Verne's unpublished third novel, written in 1863 when he was a 35-year-old law-school dropout and part-time stockbroker. It's no uplifting tale of technological derring-do but a bleak melodrama of Paris circa 1960. Verne forecast execution of criminals, harried Frenchmen bolting their food and warehouse bookstores whose clerks have never heard of Victor Hugo. Published in 1994 as Paris in the 20th Century, the work is not great literature—a New York Times critic called its plot "rudimentary"—but its release was a major literary event in France.

The novel had languished for 131 years because of Verne's editor and publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, a heavy-handed literary mogul who also published (and rewrote) Balzac. "No one today would believe your prophecies," he wrote his chastened young author in rejecting the manuscript. Indeed, with few exceptions, Verne never again indulged in open-ended imaginings of a distant future. "Virtually all his books are placed in the present or the immediate past," Evans says. "There are no ray guns or bug-eyed monsters. He wrote Industrial Age adventure stories." In fact, though Verne deserves credit for a certain amount of technological clairvoyance, critics today point out that he is most properly characterized as an author of scientific fiction, in that he made use of actual achievements like the newly invented submarine.

Under Hetzel's tutelage, Verne hit on the narrative formula he would follow for 40 years: a breathless adventure based on a scientific or geographic topic then making headlines. His first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, a bestseller about an aerial expedition across Africa, appeared in 1863, when real-life explorers David Livingstone and John Speke were bushwhacking through the heart of what was then, to Europeans, the Dark Continent. (Many readers assumed the book was nonfiction.) Around the World in 80 Days was published in 1872, within three years of the completion of transcontinental railroads in the United States and India and the opening of the Suez Canal. For readers of the day, Phileas Fogg's breakneck rail and steamship itinerary was realistic, if high, adventure. When the Paris newspaper Le Temps serialized the book, its circulation tripled.

Verne's contract with Hetzel obligated him to produce three books a year, which were giddily packaged as "Extraordinary Journeys." The series, the publisher proclaimed, was intended "to sum up all the geographical, geological, physical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science, and to rewrite the history of the universe." Verne, who never profited as richly from his work as his publisher did, exhausted himself researching his quasi-educational tales. "If only I could slip in a few adulteries," he remarked, "how much easier it would be!"

Hetzel urged him to inject some romance, if not adultery, into his plots, but Verne's great theme was not the stirrings of the heart but man against the elements. "Love is an all-absorbing passion," he once said. "My heroes need all their wits about them, and the presence of a charming young lady might now and again sadly interfere with what they have to do." The women who do figure in Verne's novels are typically ethereal background characters. To be sure, he had his own difficulties with the opposite sex. In 1857, after rejection by a string of belles, Verne, then 28, married Honorine Deviane, a widow with two young daughters. They were not well matched. Verne was a bookish, socially awkward workaholic who almost never traveled, except for excursions in his beloved sailboat. Afloat, he spent much of his time writing. "Idleness is torture to me," he once said. Honorine, by contrast, was a free-spending extrovert with little interest in her husband's work. Walter James Miller, a Verne scholar at New York University, believes the Frenchman's action-packed books were an outlet for his stifled personal life. "Work was an escape from his awful disappointments in love, his marriage being the worst disappointment of all," Miller says. Still, recent biographers, including the author's grandson Jean Jules-Verne, have reported that Jules Verne almost certainly had a mistress or two.

Verne's most popular novels, written in the 1860s and '70s, seem to be upbeat paeans to scientific progress. But this may have more to do with the narrative recipe he cooked up with Hetzel than with Verne's own feelings. His tale of Paris as a 20th-century horror isn't the only clue that his worldview wasn't entirely sunny. A lot of his heroes find happiness in remote refuges (a ship, an uncharted island) by escaping the dreary conventions of ordinary society, with its hypocrites and heartless capitalists. (In 1892's Propeller Island, Verne's floating utopia is mostly off-limits to doctors and lawyers, to protect its citizens from malpractice and litigation.)

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