A Visit to Jules Verne and Victorien Sardou


Edmondo de Amicis

The Chautauquan 24.6 (March 1897): 701-705.

Translated for The Chautauquan from the Italian Nuova Antologia

Edited to HTML by Zvi Har’El from an Etext by Arthur B. Evans

To find Verne we went to Amiens, where he stays all the year, two and a half hours from Paris by rail. A letter written by him to my good friend Caponi assured me that his greeting would be more than courteous. This certainly made my old desire, and the desire of the two dear boys who were with me as well, all the more keen to become personally acquainted with the admired and loved author of so many extraordinary journeys. We had never seen even a photograph of him and consequently he was entirely unknown to us outside of his books. On the way we talked about the curious fact that the readers of this living French writer, cele brated as he is, should have so little information about him while of all the others there are minute, constant, and abundant details, both of their lives and characters. And the mystery surrounding Jules Verne increased our curiosity.

We knocked at the gate of a miniature palace, situated at the entrance of a deserted street in a lordly quarter that seemed void of inhabitants. A woman opened it for us, and made us cross a little garden and enter a room on the ground floor which was full of light. Suddenly Jules Verne appeared, with smiling face and outstretched hands.

If, meeting him without knowing who he was, I had been asked to divine his profession, I would have said he was a retired army general, or a professor of physics and mathematics, or a cabinet officer—never an artist. He does not show the burden of his

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almost eighty years, he has somewhat of Verdi’s build, with a serious, kindly face, no artist-like vivacity, in look or word, very simple manners, the imprint of great sincerity in every fleeting manifestation of feeling and thought, the language, the bearing, the manner of dress of a man who considers appearances of absolutely no account. My first sensation, after the pleasure of seeing him, was one of stupefaction. Apart from the friendly look and the affable demeanor I could recognize nothing in common with the Verne who stood before me and the one that had a place in my imagination. And these words came back to me which a friend of mine at Turin had said, half jestingly, half seriously: “You are going to see Jules Verne? But suppose Jules Verne does not exist! Don’t you know that his stories of adventure are by a company of writers who have taken a firm pseudonym?”

My wonder increased when, induced to speak about his works, he spoke of them with an abstracted air, as he would have done of someone else’s writings, or rather of things in which entered no merit of his—as he would have spoken, of a collection of engravings or coins he had acquired, and with which he occupied himself more from the necessity of doing something than from any passion for the art. Several times at first he tried to turn the conversation from himself to somebody else, and not succeeding in this he made it fall on his two boy callers. But finally he was forced by a direct question to tell of his way of conceiving and writing, and he did this in few words with great simplicity and admirable clearness.

Contrary to what I had thought, he does not first imagine the characters and facts of the novel he is to write, and then begin to make investigations into one or more countries for his scene of action. On the contrary he reads up the history and geography of the countries first , just as if he intended to do nothing else than describe them fully and minutely. His characters, the leading facts and episodes of his story, rise up in his mind during the reading, which is really an object in itself and not a mere means to acquire useful notes for his book. The varied information regarding physics, chemistry, astronomy, and natural history in which his stories abound he has not needed for many years to look up in scientific works. These were his favorite reading from early youth, and he has his scientific material already in his memory, or selects it out of an enormous amount of facts which he is constantly acquiring from books, reviews, and newspapers. He neglects nothing which pertains to travel, discovery, phenomena, unusual events, or characters, and which he thinks may be useful in any way whatsoever to his future labors.

In regard to the choice of countries which are to be the scenes of his romances he is guided by an idea I was very far from anticipating. His intention is to describe the whole earth in his books and he goes from region to region in a certain predetermined order, not retracing his steps unless through necessity, and then as quickly as possible. He still has many parts of the world left, and has estimated the number of stories he must still write in order to fill out his entire plan. “Shall I have time for them all?” he asked, smiling. He hopes so, as we all do, and in the meantime he does not lose a single day. He writes two novels a year regularly, but gives only one of them to the printers so that they may not come too closely together. In this way he always has some in reserve, waiting their turn. He retires almost every night at eight o’clock. At four in the morning he is already up, and works until noon. This is his manner of life except when he is traveling, and he intends to measure his time in this way so long as he can. “I need to work,” he added. “Work has become a vital function for me. If I don’t work I don’t seem to myself to live.”

Verne wanted us to see the whole house. We went up-stairs. Everywhere was there a severe and simple elegance. Nowhere any luxurious furnishings, which he is well able to have since his rights as a dramatist bring in an income sufficient to be considered riches. His study is a singular room, being a study and a bedroom at the same

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time. It is very small. In one corner, opposite a large window, is a great work-table with a green table-cloth and covered with books and maps arranged in symmetrical order. In the opposite corner is a small camp bed, narrow and very low, without any hangings. It is on this soldier’s couch that Jules Verne has slept from shortly after sunset to the first hours of daylight, winter and summer for I know not how many years. The room, full of sunshine, opens out on a long solitary passageway beyond which are seen the towers of the famous cathedral of Amiens. There were some manuscripts on the table which I looked at with much curiosity, sheets covered with compressed lines, written in minute characters, regular and firm, with very few corrections. For Jules Verne, after having used much diligence in preparing his work and after having thought of it for a long time, writes rapidly. When he had gone into his library with my sons his wife, who had joined us soon after our arrival, told me that his health had been somewhat impaired the previous year by an event of which I had not heard. A nephew of his, losing his mind, had attacked him, pistol in hand, and had inflicted a severe wound in his leg, from which he had been ill for a long time.

In the room adjoining the study is a rich collection of books of travel, works of science, and atlases. In one section are collected the various translations of Verne’s works, hundreds of volumes of all sizes and in all tongues, among them translations into Arabic and Japanese. Another shelf held all his works in French; “Eighty volumes!” he said with a smile, shaking his head as if he would have said, “Eighty years!” They were arranged according to their dates, one after the other, forming a many-colored, shining squadron, proud and resplendent as a row of banners.

Ah, what memories came back to me as I gazed on that glittering line—memories of the pleasure all those books had given my early youth, and the consolation and rest they had granted my later years! How many dear memories of plans of travel, of vast and strange dreams made with open eyes after reading one of them, of immense visions of forests, deserts, and oceans, of mountains of ice and mountains of fire, of mysterious solitudes outside of earth’s pale, in planetary space, of frightful abysses in sea and land, and cataclysms wonderful and formidable! There sounded in my ears all at once the names of Nebo, Hatteras, Grant, Strogoff, Robur, Craits [sic]—persons mysterious and terrible, inventors of machines prodigious in their effects, discoverers of unknown worlds, victims and heroes of gigantic struggles with nature.

Remembering all these and the multitudinous minor characters and the multifarious details of their adventures, I wondered once again that all this had come out of the mind of that simple, quiet man, leading so peaceful a life, uttering such placid sentiments, and having such calm desires. I could not refrain from expressing to him my thoughts and no less wonderful and lovable was the simplicity of his answer: “You see,” he said “that this great popularity of my writings is mainly due to the fact that I have always proposed, even to the sacrifice of art, not to ever suffer a page or a line to escape from my pen which the boys, for whom I write and whom I love, cannot read.”

I asked for his photograph, on which he wrote the pseudonym of the cooperative association which made his works, as my Turin friend would say. His wife remarked that he had forgotten the date, and I begged her to write that, so I might possess her autograph also. She laughed at this, not understanding, that I meant it. But she wrote it finally, continuing to laugh. Then we all went out of the house, and from that moment Jules Verne was nothing but a common councilor of the city of Amiens. He showed me the city buildings, discussed municipal questions, asked me concerning the municipal administration of Italian towns, with which I was well acquainted in my capacity as member of the common council of Turin. The acquaintances we met on our way would laughingly joke with our guide, seeing him abroad at an hour he generally gave to his writing. We visited the city hall,

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then the cathedral and the art gallery, where his official attention was directed by me to a doubtful quotation from Dante inscribed on the border of a beautiful modern painting.

From this we went to the café, which he had not entered for several years, again to the great wonder of its customers and of the passers-by who saw us there. Such derogation from the usual habits of his life was almost unheard-of. He had the further kindness to accompany us to the railroad station. I expressed to him there what I had gained that day and what memories I should bear away with me. I certainly must have expressed myself in accents that art does not invent, for I saw his friendly, smiling eyes moisten, and I and my sons felt in his embrace that he returned to us the same feeling we gave to him. His dear countenance remained with us all the journey back, until we were aroused from our beautiful dream by the thousand lights and the ceaseless din of the Northern Railway Station at Paris.

My visit to Sardou was made under somewhat different circumstances. ...

Copyright ©Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/11/08 22:22:50 $