Herbert R. Lottman, Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996, 366 pages, $26.95, hardcover, ISBN 0-312-14636-1.
Rapidly translated from the French (Paris: Flammarion, 1996) and published to coincide with the recent appearance of the English edition of Jules Verne’s “lost” novel Paris in the Twentieth Century (New York: Random House, 1996), Herbert Lottman’s new book Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography is unquestionably an important and long-awaited addition to Vernian scholarship. But it is also a painful one.
A professional biographer who has already to his credit several in-depth studies of famous French authors like Flaubert and Camus, Lottman is both meticulous in his research and dependably authoritative in his rendering of the sometimes shadowy details of Verne’s life. Thus, in terms of its factual accuracy, Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography far surpasses the two previously-available English biographies on Jules Verne written by Marguerite Allotte de la Fuye (1954) and Jean Jules-Verne (1973). As such, it will probably become the standard biographical reference for all future scholarship on Verne.
But be forewarned. Lottman’s “exploratory” approach resembles that of the medical examiner who dissects his subject on the operating table, believing that the sum of the parts is equivalent to the whole. Following a fairly comprehensive perusal of the existing French scholarship on the topic (almost no Anglo-American studies of Verne were used) and after lengthy consultations with Dr. Olivier Dumas (medical doctor, President of the Société Jules Verne, and himself the author of a controversial Verne biography repeatedly quoted in this book), Lottman goes on to reconstruct the “real” Jules Verne from a methodical examination of all of Verne’s letters, publishing contracts, interviews, court records, eyewitness accounts, family remembrances, and other historical documents from the Verne archives and the Bibliothèque Nationale.
In so doing, Lottman succeeds in sweeping away many of the popular and persistent myths surrounding this celebrated “Father of Science Fiction.” But he also tends to dwell disproportionately upon Verne’s “dark side”: the author’s brooding obsessions, various gastro-intestinal ailments, supposed latent homosexuality, unrepentent anti-Semitism, reputed marital infidelities, less-than-admirable parenting skills, and so forth. Granted, these sometimes sordid aspects of Verne’s private life are, and should be, fair game for a conscientious biographer. But, inexplicably, Lottman chooses to downplay that most salient feature of Verne’s life: his writings. This biography never really addresses the incredibly rich content of Verne’s works, their innovative place in the history of speculative fiction, or their crucial influence on the developing genre of science fiction. Reduced to plot summaries, sales figures, and author royalites, the individual works of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires are treated as little more than periodic benchmarks in the chronology of the author’s biological existence.
Let me be quite clear about this. It is the man who is the topic of Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography, not the author. It is his character and daily habits that are scrutinized, not his imagination or literary production. Lottman’s book is a psychological and sociological analysis of Jules Verne’s personal life, not an assessment of his innovative contributions to world literature.
Lottman’s style—albeit sometimes awkward (he apparently did his own translating)—is very readable and perfectly appropriate to his chosen task: dry, matter-of-factual, devoid of eloquence. The book’s structure is rigorously chronological, dividing Verne’s life into six segments from childhood to old age. It contains a total of 39 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, voluminous endnote references, and an index of proper names and titles (no thematic entries). The epilogue, entitled “The Verne Legacy,” is especially disappointing in its lack of integrative substance. First, it cites (yet again) those familiar testimonials from 20th-century explorers and scientists who were supposedly inspired by Verne’s novels. Then, it briefly discusses the recent lawsuits in France about who legally owns the rights to Verne’s unpublished manuscripts (we learn that the Dumas biography indicated above, largely based on such documents, was ordered withdrawn from the marketplace by the French courts—which may explain his close collaboration with Lottman on this text). It then goes on to simply state that “Verne’s reputation has improved with time” (with no mention of the hundreds of studies done on Verne during the past 25 years). And, in conclusion, it points out that several of Verne’s novels have been adapted to the movie screen and television (really?).
Again, it is the man who is the topic of Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography, not the author. And once the man is dead and his burial has been duly chronicled, the biographer’s job is done...or so it would seem.