Les grandes découvertes des plus célèbres voyageurs constatées et résumées dans un rapide et charmant volume de science et d’histoire—de l’imagination et de la vérité—voilà ce qui distingue le brillant début de M. Jules Verne. Son livre restera comme le plus curieux et le plus utile des voyages imaginaires, comme une de ces rares œuvres de l’esprit qui méritent la fortune des Robinson et de Gulliver, et qui ont sur eux l’avantage de ne pas sortir un instant de la réalité et de s’appuyer jusque dans la fantaisie et dans l’invention sur les faits positifs et sur la science irrécusable.1George Sand is known to have written a letter to her (and Verne’s) publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel saying: “J’ai beaucoup de tes livres...mais je n’ai pas tous ceux de Jules Verne que j’adore, et je les recevrai avec plaisir pour mes petites et pour moi.”2 And the following observations in 1866 by Théophile Gautier, when reviewing Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras, were also among the first critical commentaries on Verne’s works from the French literary community:
Il y a une volumineuse collection de voyages imaginaires anciens et modernes: depuis l’Histoire véritable de Lucien jusqu’aux Aventures de Gulliver, l’imagination humaine s’est complue dans ses fantaisies vagabondes où sous prétexte d’excursions aux contrées inconnues, les auteurs...développent leurs utopies ou exercent leur humeur satirique.From the ranks of the French scientific community, the following review by the geographer Saint-Martin is quite representative. It appeared in the popular scientific journal L’Année géographique:
Les voyages de M. Jules Verne n’appartiennent à aucune de ces catégories. S’ils n’ont pas été réellement accomplis et si même ils ne sauraient l’être encore, ils offrent la plus rigoureuse possibilité scientifique et les plus osés ne sont que la paradoxe ou l’outrance d’une vérité bientôt connue. La chimère est ici chevauchée et dirigée par un esprit mathématique. C’est l’application à un fait d’invention de tous les détails vrais, réels, et précis qui peuvent s’y rattacher de manière à produire l’illusion la plus complète...
M. Jules Verne, dans son récit exact et minutieux comme le livre de bord, fait naître l’absolue sensation de la réalité. La technicité maritime, mathématique et scientifique employée à propos et sobrement imprime un tel cachet de vérité à ce fantastique Forward qu’on ne peut se persuader qu’il n’a pas accompli son voyage d’exploration. ... En outre, M. Jules Verne, qui ne néglige pas le côté humain et cordial, sait faire aimer ses personnages.3
Il est bien difficile que la science et la fiction se trouvent en contact sans alourdir l’une et abaisser l’autre; ici elles se font valoir par une heureuse alliance qui met en relief le côté instructif de la relation tout en laissant son attrait au côté d’aventures. Les plus habiles y trouvent à apprendre, et la masse des lecteurs y puisera presque à son insu, des notions irréprochables que bien peu auraient été chercher dans des livres d’un aspect plus sévère. J’ajouterai, et c’est là pour moi le plus grand mérite des compositions de M. Verne, que loin d’éloigner des lectures plus graves, elles y attirent plutôt d’acquisitions variées dans les récits d’un voyageur instruit qui est en même temps un conteur spirituel.4Lastly, a small number of literary critics contemporary to Verne also commended his works. One of the most interesting and detailed is Marius Topin’s Romanciers contemporains (1876), a 417-page collection of literary discussions about such celebrated authors as Hugo, Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert, and Zola. The following selection of excerpts gives a reasonable idea of Topin’s opinions concerning Verne’s œuvre:
Voici maintenant le roman scientifique...le genre don’t M. Jules Verne est l’incontestable inventeur. Assurément bien d’autres avant lui s’étaient efforcés de mêler dans leurs récits, avec une juste mesure, l’utile à l’agréable, et d’être à la fois instructifs par la portée sérieuse de leur œuvre et piquants par l’invention ingénieuse. Mais nul n’y a réussi comme M. Verne.5
Toutes les combinaisons...tous les artifices que les romanciers ordinaires imaginent pour nouer et dénouer une situation, M. Verne les a empruntés à la science. Aux merveilles usées de la féerie, il a substitué les merveilles réelles de la nature; aux crimes accumulés du roman d’aventure, il a substitué des procédés don’t les notions récentes de la science font les frais.6
M. Verne est le romancier le plus populaire de notre temps et, nous l’ajoutons avec joie, le plus justement populaire. Il est de ceux qui honorent leurs lecteurs, car rien n’est sorti de sa plume qui ne soit sain, substantiel, et élevé...dans ses œuvres le beau moral resplendisse dans tout son éclat à côté du vrai scientifique.7It is also interesting to note that Topin’s discussions of Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires seem more textually oriented than most critics from this period; the majority appear to deal almost exclusively with Verne’s personal life. Consider, for example, Adolphe Brisson’s chatty discussion of Verne in his Portraits intimes,8 Georges Bastard’s newspaper account in “Célébrités contemporains: Jules Verne en 1883” where he describes the author’s physionomy, his yacht, and his work habits,9 and Jules Clarétie’s accurate but also strictly biographical Jules Verne of the same year10 (the first of many Vernian biographies to be published in the years to follow). In surveying most of the early criticism and reviews of Verne’s novels, it is evident that his growing popularity as a writer seems to have produced more interest in him as a public figure than in his actual works.
In this context, mention must also be made of two additional popularizers
of Verne’s novels in France which eventually brought him more public
recognition (and certainly more wealth) than his texts themselves: those
theatrical productions adapted from his novels and two early experiments
in the new art of cinematography. The former include Le Tour du monde
en 80 jours which Verne co-produced with Adolphe d’Ennery in 1874 (a
huge box-office success, eventually chaulking up over 50 years of
performances at the Châtelet Theatre), Le Docteur Ox in 1877 (with
music by Jacques Offenbach), Les Enfants du capitaine Grant in
1878 and Michel Strogoff in 1880 (both also with d’Ennery), and
Voyage à travers l’impossible in 1882 (a fanciful pastiche of a
variety of Vernian “voyage” motifs—some found in his earlier novels,
others not). The latter included
But the word “popular” in French literary circles is a two-edged term. It was undoubtedly due to his “popularity” that Verne was systematically shunned by the French literary and university establishment as being “a mere writer of children’s stories.” Very representative, for example, were the views of Emile Zola who repeatedly dismissed both Verne and his novels as totally non-literary:
...un aimable vulgarisateur, M. Verne obtenait des succès énormes avec ses livres qui succédaient aux contes de Perrault, entre les mains des enfants. Les féeries d’il y a trente ans étaient tirées de ces contes; il devenait logique que les féeries d’aujourd’hui fussent tirées des livres de M. Verne.11
Si les Voyages Extraordinaires se vendent bien, les alphabets et les paroissiens se vendent bien aussi à des chiffres considérables... [Ils sont] sans aucune importance dans le mouvement littéraire contemporain.12Verne’s lack of “official” literary status is also reflected in the strange irony of the Académie Française’s “crowning” the Voyages extraordinaires in 1872 (along with the poetry of Coppée)—an award which Verne’s publisher Hetzel thereafter unfailingly mentioned in the frontispiece of each of Verne’s novels—whereas their author, Jules Verne himself, was consistently snubbed and never offered membership in this prestigious assembly. It should be noted, however, that Verne apparently never expended much energy in soliciting such an appointment. Time and time again, his publisher and friends encouraged him to push his own candidacy more insistently and to be more sensitive to the political and social amenities that were prerequisite to such a nomination. But Verne invariably refused. One wonders, in retrospect, if Verne’s reluctance was a product of his disinterest or, as is more likely the case, a question of pride coupled with a fear of overt rejection. Verne’s correspondence indicates that he repeatedly discussed with Hetzel his chances of entering the Académie—several letters even show a great deal more than just passing interest in such a possibility. But, as Verne himself
admitted in one such letter, the very genre itself of his Voyages Extraordinaires would probably preclude any chance of his being nominated:
Je ne vous ai parlé de l’Académie qu’à propos des genres de littérature, et je n’ai pas dit autre chose que ceci: dans l’échelle littéraire, le roman d’aventures est moins haut placé que le roman de mœurs. Aux yeux de tous les critiques, Balzac est supérieur à Dumas père, ne fût-ce que “par le genre.”13And Verne then goes on to say, in a very rare and revealing commentary on his own literary beliefs:
Je ne dis pas autre chose, grand dieu! que ce que je fais! ... Je crois d’une grande façon générale, et question de forme à part, que l’étude du cœur humain est plus littéraire que les récits d’aventures. Ces récits peuvent réussir davantage, je ne dis pas non. Mais il vaut mieux avoir fait Eugénie Grandet que Monte-Christo [sic]...14As excerpts from these letters clearly show, Verne was well aware of how his scientific-adventure tales were viewed within the dominant literary ideology of his society. And, homme de lettres himself (and being well-schooled in French literary history), he shared these fundamental values. Nevertheless, despite his self-deprecating remarks about the overall worth of his own efforts, Verne must have also realized that the Académie Française was not the exclusive reserve of writers of romans de mœurs, and his correspondence suggests that he continued to hope that he might someday be recognized as having made an important contribution to his country’s belles lettres and eventually be awarded his place in the history of French literature. But he was to be bitterly disappointed in this regard. The Académie Française—although willing to acknowledge the popularity and “wholesomeness” of his Voyages extraordinaires—was adamant in its unwillingness to acknowledge Jules Verne as a writer of “real” literary merit. Even the most noted educators and literary historians of the time such as Ferdinand Brunetière, Emile Jaquet, Jules Lemaître, and René Doumic never once mentioned Jules Verne or his romans scientifiques in their respective books on French literature—a silence more damning than the worst reviews, and more painful than the Académie’s refusal to recognize him personally.
But what were the underlying social reasons for Verne’s lack of
“official” recognition? First, although quite difficult to pinpoint in
retrospect without venturing into anachronistic revisionism, one obvious
factor seems to have been the rigid and hierarchically-defined notion of
littérature itself during this period: a very deeply-rooted social
concept in France—consecrated not only by time and ideology, but also by
the French educational system—and
Second, as the notion of what truly constituted a roman was itself slowly evolving, the widespread belief still persisted in 19th-century France that its primary subject-matter should continue to be a psychological portrayal of human love. In the words of one critic:
[Verne] n’est pas à proprement parler un romancier, car l’amour, base de tous les romans, brille par son absence dans la plupart de ses ouvrages. La femme y est presque toujours réléguée au second plan ... ses héros n’ont pas de temps à perdre aux doux propos du petit dieu malin.17From a 20th century perspective, of course, this convention seems rather quaint and ironic. And it seems even more so when viewed historically—i.e., when considering the difficulty that the roman (romance) had originally encountered in becoming an acceptable literary genre in the first place, precisely because of its subject-matter!
Third, there was the inevitable question of style. Echoing the pejorative comments of Zola, Charles Lemire paraphrases the reactions of most late-19th-century French littérateurs who condemned Verne’s works as follows:
Jules Verne? ...un conteur de contes de fées à prétentions pseudo-scientifques! Un amuseur de collégiens! ...un tissu d’invraisemblances sans psychologie et sans style! ...Littérairement, cela n’existe pas!18Verne himself was very sensitive to this prerequisite for literary respectability, and he laboriously reworked his compositions time and again to improve their style. At one point, he confided in his publisher and friend Hetzel (who often acted as his sounding-board on such questions), saying:
Ce que je voudrais devenir avant tout, c’est un écrivain, louable ambition que vous approuvez pleinement. Vous me dites des choses bien aimables et même flatteuses sur mon style qui s’améliore... Rien ne m’a donc fait plus de plaisir qu’une telle approbation venant de vous... Tout ceci, c’est pour vous dire combien je cherche à devenir un styliste, mais sérieux; c’est l’idée de toute ma vie.19But Verne’s efforts to conform his writing style to historical expectations were obviously doomed from the start: his very subject matter dictated a kind of style that had never before been attempted. In creating his romans scientifiques, Verne was combining two very different sorts of discourse—scientific and literary—traditionally viewed as mutually exclusive. As Roland Barthes has observed:
Il est bon ton aujourd’hui de contester l’opposition des sciences et des lettres... Mais du point de vue du language...cette opposition est pertinente; ce qu’elle met en regard n’est d’ailleurs pas forcément le réel et la fantaisie, l’objectivité et la subjectivité, le Vrai et le Beau, mais...des lieux différents de parole... [L’écriture] vise le réel même du language; elle reconnaît que le langage est un immense halo d’implications, d’effets, de retentissements, de tours, de retours, de redans... L’écriture fait du savoir une fête.20But Verne’s own stylistic “fête du savoir”—his plays on words, anagrams, cryptograms, and double-entendres, his complex juggling of narrative voice and point of view, his revoltionary creation of technological and scientific exoticism—this entire critical perspective on his Voyages extraordinaires was totally alien to and ignored by the critics of his time. From a typically nineteenth-century and purely quantitative frame of reference, Verne was
But there are three other social reasons why Verne’s works could not be recognized as canonical during the latter half of the nineteenth century: certain changes taking place within the French literary establishment, the continuing conflict between the Catholic Church and the forces of anti-clericalism, and the progressive rise of anti-scientism in the French public itself.
The first of these was the emergence of a new ideological mandate for writers of “true” literature in France during this period: they were expected to write in opposition to their (presumably bourgeois) reading public. In reaction to the growing presence of what Sainte-Beuve had earlier castigated as la littérature industrielle21 (i.e., mass-produced and inexpensive books churned out in ever-increasing quantities) as well as to the oppressive bourgeois social climate of the Second Empire, a new literary and artistic aesthetic took shape in the world of French letters around the middle of the century: l’Art pour l’Art. As Sartre described this unique development in his Qu’est-ce que la littérature?:
A partir de 1848, en effet, et jusqu’à la guerre de 1914, l’unification radicale de son public amène l’auteur à écrire par principe contre tous ses lecteurs. Il vend pourtant ses productions, mais il méprise ceux qui les achètent, et s’efforce de décevoir leurs vœux; c’est chose entendue qu’il vaut mieux être méconnu que célèbre, que le succès, s’il va jamais à l’artiste de son vivant, s’explique par un malentendu. Et si d’aventure le livre qu’on publie ne heurte pas assez, on y ajoutera une préface pour insulter. Ce conflit fondamental entre l’écrivain et son public est un phénomène sans précédent dans l’histoire littéraire.22All literary works viewed as having some “useful” function to society in practical, moral, or educational terms immediately became suspect. Any novel, short story, collection of poetry, or theatrical play that was believed to harbor any intentions toward public edification was dismissed by the intellectual elite as intrinsically non-literary. For them, true literature must focus, to the exclusion of all else, on a portrayal of le Beau and on the primacy of Form over Content. Judged according to these criteria, Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires—overtly didactic and strongly referential—were obviously not “true” literature.
Secondly, there was the question of Voyages extraordinaires and
the Catholic Church. The intense religious debates in France during the
second half of the nineteenth century are familiar to any who have
studied the history
Monseigneur,And Verne himself, because of his immense popularity, was not immune to concern by religious authorities. Although his novels are teeming with references to Dieu, la Providence, and le Créateur, they just as often tend to cite le hasard, le destin, and la fatalité as the hidden forces governing the actions of his heroes and villains. This particular narrative trait, while not meriting a total condamnation by the Church, nevertheless earned him the following warning by the powerful Catholic journalist Louis Veuillot (in a letter addressed to Hetzel):
J’ai lu avec une douloureuse surprise à la suite d’une lettre que vous avez publiée récemment une note relative au Magasin d’Education et de Récréation dont j’ai seul la direction. Je ne vois qu’un moyen de convaincre votre conscience qu’elle s’est méprise ou qu’on l’a abusée, c’est de mettre sous vos yeux l’ouvrage dont vous parlez et que vous réprouvez cette note. Je regrette extrêmement, Monseigneur, de ne pouvoir vous épargner de lire les huit volumes dont se compose le Magasin que vous avez condamné. Pour un enfant ce serait tout profit et tout plaisir peut-être. Pour Votre Grandeur, ce sera une pénitence. Si l’avez un peu méritée, vous me pardonnerez de désirer vous l’imposer.23
Je n’ai pas encore lu les Voyages extraordinaires de M. Verne. Notre ami Aubineau me dit qu’ils sont charmants, sauf une absence...qui désembellit tout et qui laisse les merveilles du monde à l’état d’énigme. C’est beau mais c’est inanimé. Il manque quelqu’un...24Needless to say, the quelqu’un referred to in this letter—the one who, according to Veuillot, seemed conspicuously absent from Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires—was God and/or Jesus Christ.
Finally, another reason for Verne’s rebuff seems to have been more sociological than literary or religious. Verne was the one of the first novelists in France to attempt to bridge a deep cultural chasm that divided French society as a whole throughout the nineteenth century. On the one side were the progressive and energetic Positivists who, taking full advantage of the tools of the Industrial Revolution and a Guizot-type laissez-faire brand of governmental capitalism, were rapidly industrializing the French countryside in the name of Progress and Science. On the other were the partisans of anti-scientism and the practitioners of l’Art pour l’Art (both sometimes in uneasy coalition with the Catholic Church) who viewed such unrestricted technological growth as a direct threat to human values. This age-old struggle—as exemplified in the twentieth century, for example, by C.P. Snow’s celebrated “Two Cultures” debates25 and by New Criticism’s stinging denunciation of Science as “the villain of history which has...made man the alienated, rootless, godless creature that he has become in this century”26—was particularly acute in France throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the works of respected writers like Michelet,27 Vigny,28 Flaubert,29 and the Goncourt brothers,30 to the post-war Dada and Surrealists, French littérateurs continually attacked the positivistic precepts and false hopes of France’s social engineers Auguste Conte, Ernest Renan, Hippolyte Taine, and others. Note, for example, Brunetière’s catchy slogan popularized during the 1890s where he speaks of the demonstrated “faillite de la Science,”31 or Marcel Schwob’s demand that all “descriptions pseudo-scientifiques, l’étalage de psychologie de manuel et de biologie mal-digérée” be permanently banned from the French novel.32 Despite the attraction that modern technology held for a few (initially) “non-mainstream” writers like the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the satirist Alfred Jarry, such public sentiments of anti-scientism in France reached a zenith immediately after the cataclysm of the first World War. Although dozens of French literary works and paintings from the 1920s might be cited as examples of this prevailing public attitude, it is perhaps fitting that the French novelist and caricaturist Albert Robida be singled out. As the well-known proselytizer of scientific progress and technological gadgetry during the 1880s and 1890s—in several humorous and popular novels such as Le Vingtième siècle and La Vie électrique—Robida suddenly became in 1918 one of their most ferocious critics. Consider, for example, his (appropriately titled) novel L’Ingénieur Von Satanas where the narrator describes
...le débordement d’horreurs apportées par ce qu’on appelait Science et Progrès, Civilisation et autres fadaises écroulées, illusions noyées dans les fleuves de sang. ...Consequently, amid such rapidly rising tides of anti-scientism in France during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is hardly any wonder that Jules Verne’s romans scientifiques might be viewed, in certain circles, quite unfavorably.
Où nous a-t-elle conduits cette Science haïssable? ... Oui, l’engin est tout, et la valeur de l’homme, son esclave, rien, ou presque rien...
page 21Dans quel gouffre sanglant nous a-t-il précipités, ce fameux Progrès dont nous étions si fiers, quand nous nous rengorgions bouffis d’admiration pour nous-mêmes, ce Progrès qui a permis soudain la démolition rapide et complète, l’écroulement subit d’une civilisation illusoire, laquelle en réalité n’était qu’un dégénérescence, et une maladie mortelle?33
Thus, it appears to have been a convergence of many different factors which dictated that Jules Verne, despite the enormous popular success of his Voyages extraordinaires, was not recognized as an important literary figure in France during his lifetime. Of course, no simple answers can be given to such a complex question. In the preceding pages, I have discussed several different hypotheses to account for why I believe Jules Verne did not (or could not) become part of the French literary canon during his lifetime. But two facts are inescapable: Verne’s works were indeed rebuffed by the French literary establishment of his time, and the author himself was painfully aware of this rejection. As Verne explained to one of his American interviewers in 1894:
The great regret of my life is that I have never taken any place [sic] in French literature... A little more justice to me from my own countrymen would have been prized by me... That is what I regret and always shall regret... Dumas used to say to me when I complained that my place in French literature was not recognized: “You should have been an American or an English author. Then your books, translated into French, would have gained you enormous popularity in France and you would have been considered by your countrymen as one of the greatest masters of fiction.” But, as it is, I am considered of no account in French literature.34
... c’est la traversée du désert. Hetzel (fils), sans prévenir Michel [Verne], cède en 1914 ses droits exclusifs sur les Voyages Extraordinaires aux editions Hachette, qui laissent épuiser la plupart de ses titres. Jules Verne est considéré comme un auteur pour enfants passé de mode. Les précieuses éditions polychromes “au phare” se couvrent de poussière dans les greniers ou dorment dans les bibliothèques. De temps en temps, un jeune garçon curieux grimpe en haut de la tour, se pique au fuseau, et alors c’est le grand réveil, parfois l’éblouissement, qui décide d’une vocation: celle des aviateurs Byrd, Wright, Bréquet; du chimiste Georges Claude, etc. Jules Verne, c’est aussi le mot de passe, la référence secrète des plus grands artistes de Tolstoi à Apollinaire, de Raymond Roussel à Michel Tournier.35The enshrinement of Jules Verne (the man) as a kind of French folk hero was propagated by two highly reverential biographies published soon after his death in 1905: Charles Lemire’s Jules Verne36 and Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe’s supposedly authoritative Jules Verne: sa vie, son œuvre.37 The former author, a resident of Verne’s adopted hometown of Amiens, spared no effort in eulogizing Verne’s mythical life with venerative discussions of his personal habits, his family, his friends, and his world-wide popularity—all continually punctuated with homages paid to Verne by other writers and journalists from his time. But Lemire’s well-meaning biography also tampered with established historical fact, “retouching” Verne’s public image for the sake of posterity. The following small but all too typical example shows the effects of such distortions: C.P. Cambiare’s otherwise fine 1927 study of Edgar Allan Poe’s influence in France contains the following statement:
As Verne knew English very well, he did not need to have recourse to translations. Speaking of him, Charles Lemire writes: “Ses livres de prédilection étaient Walter Scott, Fenimore Cooper, et Dickens qu’il lisait en leur langue et citait souvent...”38In this passage, some twenty years after Lemire’s biography originally appeared, one can witness the inevitable aftermath of Lemire’s myth-making. Henceforth, Jules Verne would be known as able to read English fluently—whereas, as the author himself had stated on several occasions (to his Anglo-American interviewers among others): “Unhappily, I read only those works which have been translated into French. ... Owing to my unfortunate inability to read English, I am not so familiar as I would like to be with Mayne Read and Robert Louis Stevenson...”39 Unfortunately, Lemire’s biography was only the first to “improve” on Verne’s life with such laudatory fabrications—there would be others much worse.
Such creative embellishments on Verne’s life had no greater practitioner
than Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe. As Verne’s great-niece and one
Ironically, while his enshrinement as a national legend made a cultural hero of him, Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires themselves sank deeper and deeper into oblivion. Hetzel fils sold his rights to the novels to the large publishing house Hachette in 1914. And, to remedy a sluggish sales problem, Hachette decided to revamp Verne’s most popular novels and launch their famous series called the “Bibliothèque Verte”: severely abridged and watered-down versions of Verne’s original works, adapted specifically to young boys (a counterpart to their “Bibliothèque Rose” series intended for young girls). Sales immediately picked up, the strategy was seen as an unqualified business success, and the two series continue today. As a direct result, educators and literary historians now discussed less often the question of Verne’s appeal to adults versus children and more often the question of his appeal to young boys versus young girls. Consider, for example, the following observations by Marie-Thérèse Latzarus in her 1924 book on children’s literature in France:
Les petites filles aiment, sans doute, les romans de Jules Verne; pourtant elles les apprécient généralement moins que ne le font les petits garçons. Le plus souvent, elles lisent rapidement les pages dans lesquelles sont décrits les appareils. ... Elles sont plutôt attirées par le but poursuivi; les petits garçons, eux, s’intéressent en général à toutes les questions de mécanique...42And while this and other studies43 consecrated Jules Verne as a writer of fine children’s stories, the French literary establishment gradually forgot about him altogether. Erudite literary critics persisted in panning his works (convinced, no doubt, of the wisdom of their fin-de-siècle predecessors), academics shunned any mention of his contribution to French literature, and publishers discontinued printing full-length versions of the Voyages extraordinaires. It is quite emblematic that the 1920s and 1930s are extremely
Another important constituency within this growing “Jules Verne cult” during the first half of the 20th century was a number of young French writers who had been weaned on the Voyages extraordinaires during their formative years. Many went on to become celebrated littérateurs in France’s most elite literary circles—authors like Jean Cocteau, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Blaise Cendrars, Raymond Roussel, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Aymé, René Barjavel, Claude Roy, Michel Carrouges, Michel Butor, and Roland Barthes among others.44 And they ultimately paved the way for the sudden renaissance of public interest in Jules Verne and the scholarly (re)discovery of the Voyages extraordinaires in France during the 1960s and 1970s. Defying many decades of canonical repression and politico-literary correctness, they unabashedly proclaimed their admiration for Verne and his “prodigieuse puissance de faire rêver.”45 Raymond Roussel, for example, repeatedly sang the praises of Verne’s “genius” in his own fiction and personal correspondence, saying:
Je voudrais aussi...rendre hommage à l’homme d’incommensurable génie que fut Jules Verne. Mon admiration pour lui est infinie. Dans certains pages de Voyage au centre de la Terre, de Cinq semaines en ballon, de Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, de De la Terre à la Lune et Autour de la Lune, de L’Ile mystérieuse, et d’Hector Servadac, il s’est élevé aux plus hautes cimes que puisse atteindre le verbe humain...46
Demandez-moi ma vie mais ne me demandez pas de vous prêter un Jules Verne! J’ai un tel fanatisme pour ses œuvres que j’en suis jaloux. ... C’est Lui, et de beaucoup, le plus grand génie littéraire de tous les siècles; il “restera” quand tous les autres auteurs de notre époque seront oubliés depuis longtemps.47And, in Roussel’s case at least, one astonishing fact emerges: Verne’s influence on him was just as often stylistic as it was thematic. Roussel’s
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, several new critical studies on Verne and his romans scientifiques appeared from within the very heart of the French literary community. The soon-to-be-famous author Michel Butor and the respected critic Michel Carrouges spearheaded this seminal avant-garde with two articles entitled “Le Point suprême et l’âge d’or à travers quelques œuvres de Jules Verne”48 and “Le Mythe de Vulcain chez Jules Verne”49 published in the 1949 edition of Arts et Lettres. In the former, Butor shrewdly and sensitively analyzes many of the leitmotifs in Verne’s opus: primordial initiation rites and the human quest for rebirth, the use of symbols and cryptograms, the Earth’s elements, the role of Providence, etc. In these recurring themes throughout the Voyages extraordinaires Butor finds many parallels to André Breton’s hypothetical “point suprême” described in the latter’s Seconde manifeste du surréalisme, to Henri Michaux’s hallucinatory visions, to Lautréamont’s oxymoronic juxtapositions, and to the haunting images of Henri Rousseau and Max Ernst. In the latter, Carrouges examines Verne’s apparent obsession with volcanoes and eruptive islands—especially as they relate to humanity’s age-old mythic battle with the forces of Nature, its descent into subterranean netherworlds, and its heroic rebirth. Whereas Butor integrates Verne solidly into the French literary heritage, Carrouges links Verne to the mythological origins of all Western literatures and concludes his richly suggestive psycho-historical study of these human archetypes by concluding:
Chez Jules Verne, la mythologie anthropomorphique du type greco-latine antique est évacuée au profit d’exposés scientifiques, mais à travers ces descriptions positives, tous les éléments du vieux mythe vulcanien reparaissent rénoués, laïcisés, mais intacts. D’une façon générale, on peut dire que les grands romans d’aventure modernes représentent un mode profane de transposition des vieilles épopées sacrées.50These ground-breaking critical analyses by Butor and Carrouges contributed to a growing impetus for a complete reappraisal of Jules Verne and his works in literary and academic circles throughout France. But yet another critical work (published the following year) provided further credentials to Verne’s slowly growing stature in literary history: Jean-Jacques Bridenne’s La Littérature française d’imagination scientifique.51 Bridenne’s detailed, historical survey served to define a scientifico-literary lineage for Verne
L’indifférence ou l’antipathie de pontifes et de snobs à l’égard de la littérature d’imagination scientifique a empêché le créateur de Phileas Fogg et du capitaine Nemo d’être un Wells avant la lettre, un répondant moderniste à Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, un Loti technicien.52
Quelles que soient les réserves s’imposant et qui, en bonne justice, ne doivent pas être automatiquement portées à son débit, Jules Verne, premier romancier véritable de la Science, n’est pas plus méprisable littérairement que scientifiquement, il s’en faut de beaucoup.53And finally, in 1953 and 1955, the pathway toward more extensive scholarship on Verne was permanently opened by several more French studies. Parménie and Bonnier de la Chapelle published the personal correspondence of Verne’s publisher P.-J. Hetzel,54 casting an entirely new light on the editorial environment in which Verne worked and clarifying many previously-unknown aspects of Verne’s private life, stylistic concerns, and literary opinions. One of the first modern, scholarly, and non-biographical books on Verne, Voyage au monde de Jules Verne by René Escaich was published two years later. It discussed Verne’s sources, his major themes, his fictional characters, and his treatment of history, nationalism, and geography.55 And, during the same year, two preeminant French literary journals—Livres de France56 and Europe57—made the decision to dedicate an entire issue to Verne and his works, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the author’s death. The former included a variety of essays by recognized figures like Georges Duhamel, Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe, Bernard Frank (who had earlier published a rather undistinguished biography on Verne58), and Jean Guermonprez of the Société Jules Verne, as well as excerpts from Verne’s correspondence and various hommages to him by famous public figures (such as the Emperor William II of Germany, among others). Europe offered a considerably more sophisticated selection of critical articles by Pierre Abraham, Georges Fournier, Georges Sadoul, and Pierre Sichel and covered topics such as Verne’s public versus private life, his political leanings, his
In the wake of this sudden influx of scholarly and semi-scholarly publications into the French belles lettres marketplace, Verne and his Voyages extraordinaires began gradually to emerge from hallowed oblivion. And, as the 1960s and 1970s approached—years which were to witness a veritable explosion of renewed interest in Verne in all segments of French society—it was already evident that Jules Verne’s reputation in his native land was undergoing a cultural metamorphosis that could be described as nothing less than extraordinary.
Cette œuvre offre en effet un remarquable terrain d’études pour les techniques d’analyse des textes les plus actuelles: lecture mythologique, psychanalytique, idéologique, politique, initiatique, épistémologique; analyse structurale du récit, du discours, voire “analyse textuelle.” Par ailleurs, maints contextes s’y croisent: échos de la littérature générale, scientifique, politique de l’époque; domaines, complémentaires, de la littérature “marginale”; littérature pour la jeunesse, récit d’aventures, d’anticipation ou de terreur, roman populaire; influences contemporaines...sur des écrivains aussi divers que Roussel ou Cendrars, Cocteau ou Saint-Exupéry, Butor ou Le Clézio.59But the question is a bit more complex than it might appear at first glance. For example, the first stirrings of this renewed interest in Jules Verne and his romans scientifiques came neither from the universities nor from those more sophisticated literary scholars later to be associated with Vernian criticism. It came, rather, from the French public at large, from private groups of Verne enthusiasts, and from the French publishing industry itself. At the outset of this Jules Verne revival, one reviewer for Le Figaro littéraire, for instance, made the following observation about Verne’s burgeoning popularity: “Il est lu, traduit, célébré comme les plus grands, mais sa position littéraire ne va pas s’améliorant.”60 And another popular sf writer and critic, while acknowledging the broad-based appeal which Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires seemed to be enjoying, nevertheless complained of an almost total lack of “serious” university study of Verne’s texts:
Plus surprenante encore est l’abstination de la critique et en particulier de la recherche universitaire. Les bons ouvrages sur Jules Verne sont rares et, à ma connaissance, aucune thèse de lettres ne lui a été consacrée. La Sorbonne le juge-t-elle trop scientifique? Ou bien trop populaire et, par là, trop suspect? Que faudra-t-il pour que nos savants professeurs découvrent enfin que la littérature n’est pas une collection d’œuvres arbitrairement, sinon capricieusement, définies mais ce qui se lit?61But this critical “time-lag” was relatively short-lived. The often stodgy French universitaire community eventually joined the French reading public in its renewed enthusiasm for Verne’s Voyages extraordiaires, and by 1978 Verne was comfortably ensconced in the French university curriculum.
Let us take a closer look at the details of this Vernian renaissance in France during the 1960s and 1970s. It appears to have occurred in two successive waves, peaking in the years 1966 and 1978. The first crescendo seems to have been generated by two scholars in particular: Roland Barthes and Marcel Moré. Perhaps inspired by the 1955 quindecennial celebrations and the popular interest in Verne’s works that resulted from it, Roland Barthes included in his 1957 collection of articles called Mythologies an insightful essay titled “Nautilus et Bateau Ivre.”62 This essay, when viewed in retrospect as part of the history of literary criticism, was profoundly prophetic:
L’œuvre de Jules Verne (dont on a fêté récemment le cinquantenaire) serait un bon objet pour une critique de structure: c’est une œuvre à thèmes. Verne a construit une sorte de cosmogonie fermée sur elle-même, qui a ses catégories propres, son temps, son espace, sa plénitude, et même son principe existentiel.63Although many years would pass before Barthes would return to Verne’s œuvre and actually sketch the outlines for just such a comprehensive structural analysis—in the critical journal Poétique64—and although even more years would pass before Verne would finally receive serious university study, Barthes was nevertheless among the very first to recognize Verne’s works as an ideal narrative template for advanced literary exegesis. Marcel Moré’s contribution to the reexamination of Verne’s novels was even more provocative. He created an immediate public controversy with two psycho-thematic studies, Le Très curieux Jules Verne65 in 1960 (referringt to Mallarmé’s 1874 cryptic comments on Verne) and, three years later, Nouvelles explorations de Jules Verne.66 Moré not only traced Verne’s possible sources and influences in a totally unorthodox manner (e.g., Huysmans, Dostoievsky, Wagner, Nietszche, et al.) but also convincingly analyzed many apparent obsessions present in the Voyages extraordinaires: the search for a father-figure (recalling Verne’s “curious” relationship with his own father and with his surrogate father Hetzel), the need for brotherly love (Verne’s rapport with his brother Paul), and others. Moré’s study was one of the first to apply Freudian psychoanalytic methods to Verne’s life and works and, by slicing through many of the established myths surrounding Verne’s patriarchal and grandfatherly image—even hinting at possible latent homosexual tendencies in this revered cultural icon—Moré’s publications caused a small scandal in France.
The door for a more profound examination on Verne’s life and works was
now wide open. As 1966 dawned, the literary journals
L’Arc,67 Arts et
Loisirs,68 and Nouvelles
littéraires69 devoted special issues to
The impetus given to the study of Verne by the many events of 1966
continued through the end of the decade and into the next. As the
republication of his Voyages extraordinaires continued unabated,
the Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne was resuscitated in 1967
through the efforts of Joseph Laissus, Oliver Dumas, and other “amateur
scholars.” The Bulletin immediately reprinted in toto their
earlier pre-WWII issues and then continued their quarterly publication of
articles and current-events information about Verne’s life, works, and
international status. Of particular value were the efforts made to
establish a comprehensive bibliography for Verne’s many works.75 The Bulletin rapidly became the leading
source for serious scholarship on Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires.
Many years before the universities in France began to consider Verne as
an appropriate author for advanced literary study, scholars like Jean
Chesneaux, Daniel Compère, Piero Gondolo della Riva, Simone Vierne,
Pierre Terrasse, François Raymond, Robert Taussat and others were already
widening and deepening the scope of Vernian criticism. And work of the
Société Jules Verne (and its international counterparts76) continues today. For example, adding to those
archival and research possibilities offered by the Musée Jules
The final years of the 1960s and early 1970s continued this now-ineluctable trend toward Jules Verne’s popular rehabilitation and eventual literary canonization. For example, an early harbinger of things to come, Jules Verne and his Voyages extraordinaires were cited for the first time in 1967 and 1971 in two academic anthologies of French literary history: Paul Guth’s Histoire de le littérature française,77 and the authoritative sixteen-volume Arthaud series entitled Littérature française.78 Following a successful 1965-66 exposition in Nantes celebrating the centennial of Verne’s prophetic De la Terre à la Lune, Paris’s Ecole Technique Supérieure also held in 1967 an elaborate exposition called “Jules Verne et le courant scientifique de son temps.” The Apollo moon flight in 1969 and Neil Armstrong’s comments in Paris years later78 further served to heighten international interest in Verne as a technological visionary. French university scholars and various “learned amateurs” found their book-length studies on Verne immediately accepted for publication: Ghislain Diesback’s Le Tour de Jules Verne en quatre-vingts livres (1969),80 Jean Chesneaux’s very influential Une Lecture politique de Jules Verne (1971),81 Marie-Hélène Huet’s L’Histoire des Voyages Extraordinaires (1973),82 Simone Vierne’s myth-oriented Jules Verne et le roman initiatique (1973),83 the long-awaited “authoritative” biography on the author by Jean Jules-Verne entitled simply Jules Verne (1973),84 and finally Michel Serres’ highly structuralist Jouvences sur Jules Verne (1974).85 And French radio and television, as well as the French film industry, began to further popularize this unusual cultural phenomenon by broadcasting literary discussions on Verne’s works, televising TV dramatizations of some his Voyages extraordinaires, and producing full-length films of several of his novels.86
It was toward the end of the 1970s in France, during the heyday of the
French Structuralist movement in literary studies, that Jules Verne
definitively shed his “paraliterary” image within the French
Academe. For example, the prestigious Revue des Lettres
Modernes in 1976 began to publish, under the direction of François
Raymond, an on-going series called Jules Verne.87 This series was to become the scholarly forum for
serious university-level critical analyses of Verne’s texts from a wide
variety of methodological perspectives and academic disciplines. In
another valuable book for advanced Vernian research (and sponsored by the
Société Jules Verne), Piero Gondolo della Riva published
Thus, three quarters of a century after his death, Jules Verne finally
gained the literary recognition denied him during his own lifetime.
Although perhap not (yet) viewed as being of the literary stature of a
Baudelaire or a Zola, his place in the history of French literature
In English language criticism to date, for instance, the same basic four notions seem to be repeated over and over.But during the mid to late 1980s, partly due to this renaissance of French interest in Verne during the previous two decades, his literary reputation suddenly began to improve in Great Britain and America as several university scholars completed their Ph.D.s on his Voyages extraordinaires: Andrew Martin at Cambridge in 1982, William Butcher at Queen Mary College in 1985, and myself at Columbia University also in 1985. These doctoral dissertations on Verne were subsequently published as books100 and constituted the first serious English-language scholarship on Verne in several decades, paving the way for more advanced study of this French author in the United States and England.
First, Verne is thought of as a writer of adventure novels for children. Unlike Gullier’s Travels, “Rip Van Winkle,” or Frankenstein, however, Verne’s works do not repay rereading as an adult. ...
Second, Verne is thought of as unreservedly pro-science and pro-technology. ... In a world which has found more relevance in the dystopian vision, Verne simply seems old-fashioned.
Third, much English language criticism of Verne contrasts him with the great science fiction writer who preceded him, Edgar Allan Poe, and with the one who followed him, H.G. Wells. ... Verne took from Poe the nuts-and-bolts, realistic, plausible dimension that has earned him such titles as “the poet of hardware” and “the Father of Hard Science Fiction,” but this quality too has seemed less appealing to modern readers than Wells’ “soft” social science fiction. While Verne was writing “Facts Every Boy Should Know” and mechanically writing thrillers to the end of his life, Wells has a sense of social injustice and thus performed a social mission. ...
Fourth, Verne, who said “What one man can imagine, another man will someday be able to achieve,” has been thought of as a prophet whose careful, scientific presentations have caused imagination to become reality by inspiring others to great scientific achievements. ... True as these statements are, prophetic skill is not
page 34a good literary criterion, and Verne’s literary currency has faded as the science and technology he foresaw has advanced.
Thus, English language criticism has not passed beyond the sterile and superficial level. There are few provocative overviews, few close analyses of individual works, and the pessimistic dimension to his works are virtually unknown. ...the main insights of English language criticism are relatively undeveloped and scattered in diverse places.99
As we now enter the new millenium, the flow of both French- and
English-language Vernian criticism has not diminished. The discovery and
publication by Hachette in 1994 of Verne’s “lost novel” Paris au XXe
siècle (translated and published in English by Random House in 1996
as Paris in the Twentieth Century) drew unparalleled world-wide
attention to Verne and to his often-misunderstood literary legacy. In
France, the continuing efforts of scholars like Simon Vierne,101 Olivier Dumas,102
Daniel Compère103 the late François
Raymond,104 Piero Gondolo della
Riva,105 Jean-Paul DeKiss,106 Michel Lamy,107
Christian Robin,108 and those participating
in the Colloque d’Amiens109 have provided
sophisticated bibliographical, biographical, and analytical commentary on
Verne and his works. For Anglo-Americans , the 1990s have witnessed the
birth of the North American Jules Verne Society (1993-94, Arthur Edwards,
president) as well as a flood of new English-language studies and
reference texts on Verne including those by Lawrence Lynch,110 Peggy Teeters,111
myself and Ron Miller,112 and, perhaps more
significantly, those by Brian Taves and Steve Michaluk113 and Herbert R. Lottman,114 whose encyclopedia and biography (respectively)
of Verne are important watersheds in English-language Vernian
scholarship. Finally, for both Francophone and Anglophone aficionados of
Verne of the 1990s, the Internet and cyberspace115 has rapidly become an important public site for
all things Vernian—a particularly appropriate tribute to an author whose
romans scientifiques sought to popularize through fiction both the
wonders and the dangers of modern technology.
La distance et le temps sont vaincus. La scienceAlfred de Vigny, “La Maison du Berger.” In Poèmes antiques et modernes (Paris, Ernest Flammarion, n.d.), p. 273.
Trace autour de la terre un chemin triste et droit.
Le Monde est rétréci par notre expérience
Et l’équateur n’est plus qu’un anneau trop étroit.
Plus de hasard. Chacun glissera sur sa ligne,
Immobile au seul rang que le départ assigne,
Plongé dans un calcul silencieux et froid.