line 8 column 5 - Warning: improperly escaped URI reference Books in Review (July 1979)

SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, VI #18 (July 1979): 224-227.

Books in Review

Marc Angenot

New Books on Jules Verne

Peter Costello. Jules Verne, Inventor of Science Fiction. London, Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978. 239p., ill. Can. $17.95—Studies on Jules Verne are not in short supply. Without counting those works out of print, I believe that there are, just in French and English, 19 or 20 on the market. A new study, essentially centered on biography and on a thematic description of the stories, would have to be exceptionally original to be fully justified in 1978.

The work of Mr. Peter Costello has its merits: it gives some little-known facts, it demonstrates a critical spirit before certain commonplaces and cliched repetitions, it is written in an alert and agreeable style and occasionally ventures new points of view. But as a whole, it is simply a good classical monograph, integrating various recently-developed theses on the author. It might be recommendable for a larger public, but does not have much to offer the scholar (who will regret that no quotation, even the most obscure, is accompanied by a complete reference).

Costello has informative things to say (p. 61) on the Musée des Families, one of the first French youth magazines (1836-) as a documentary source for Jules Verne. Elsewhere, he presents various facts about the scientific publications, the blueprints and the “inventors” from which Jules Verne could have taken his inspiration, and speaks perceptively of the influence of Edgar Allan Poe (pp. 78-79, 82). Mr. Costello is not the first to point out that behind Phileas Fogg there is a real William Percy Fogg, American traveller and author of Around the World (1872). Unfortunately, he mixes up the printing statistics of Verne’s works and even contradicts himself (p. 145, par.2 vs p. 161, par.3-4) concerning the loss of success which Verne is supposed to have suffered after 1879. The “influence” of Eugene Dubois, discoverer of Pithecanthropus erectus, on the Village aérien (1901) seems to me useless to postulate in those times of wholesale speculation on the missing link. Page 208, Le Mystère plane by Georges Montignac should be translated: A Mystery Is Hovering, and not The Mysterious Plane. The Bibliography contains a number of mistakes and misprints.

Walter James Miller, ed. The Annotated Jules Verne. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The Only Completely Restored and Annotated Edition. New York and Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library/Meridian, 1976. U.S. $7.95 — English translations of Jules Verne are as a rule a sheer catastrophe . Even recent reprints usually rely on 19th-Century “translations” that are in fact clumsy, inaccurate and bowdlerized versions. Long passages are regularly cut out, either because they displayed some political boldness or simply because the translator did not understand technical elaborations. As far as language and style

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are concerned, same censorship and same impoverishment: subtleties are transformed into platitudes; puns and double meanings are overlooked; levels of language are mixed up. I can offer here a personal testimony: whenever writing a paper on Verne, I have tried to locate in English versions a quotation that seemed to me aesthetically, politically, or scientifically significant in French, I never manage to find it: either there was a gap, or a mistranslation. It is true that some of these flaws are simply due to the fact that the translators did not know French (or for that matter their mother tongue) too well. But there is more, as Walter J. Miller points out in his critical edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues: a deliberate censorship that infallibly eliminates everything that may be interesting. “These cuts —often subtracting 30 percent to 40 percent of Verne’s text from the English edition —naturally weaken his story line, his characterization, his humor, and the integrity of his ideas.” (Miller, p. ix) Obviously such a situation accounts for the only moderately good opinion English critics have always shown for “the Father of Science Fiction”. If they read such recent books like those of Michel Serres, J. Chesneaux, Marc Soriano—where Verne is equaled to the greatest 19th Century writers—they have reasons to believe that a form of literary jingoism is blinding the French critics’ minds. Walter J. Miller has therefore been well inspired to work out an annotated edition, restoring Verne’s original text.

Unfortunately, what seems to me a basic error of judgement weakens his whole endeavour. Walter J. Miller’s point of the departure is the standard “translation” of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) by Lewis Page Mercier, a British parson who also translated other important novels of Verne (ca. 1874). Miller’s goal is at the same time, to show the “crimes” committed against Verne’s reputation by such clumsy censors as Mercier and others but also, I believe, to try to rehabilitate Verne’s literary memory. This would require his making available at last, a faithful and complete translation of the novel. Instead, Miller publishes in large types Mercier’s version, he inserts between brackets the omitted passages but reestablishes the innumerable mistranslations only in smaller-type notes. Why the hell not change it in the very text? This means that one has to shift constantly from the text to those marginal notes to get a sense of what Verne actually wrote. Miller proves beyond any doubt that Mercier (still the main source for revised translations published in the sixties) was a shameless literary pirate—and I should add that the same can be said of all standard English translators. But poor Verne—and his readers—deserved to get for the first time an accurate and easily readable translation.

Walter Miller provides in his marginal notes a lot of data on scientific facts and concepts alluded to in the novel. He even managed to find in 19th-Century handbooks, engravings of almost all the fishes, cetacians, and molluscs that appear in this submarine epic. One would still like to get more details about Verne’s scientific and political sources and presuppositions. Despite the basic technical mistake I had to point out, Walter J. Miller’s book renders SF criticism a major service and should open up on a new era for Verne’s literary fortune in English-speaking countries. But who will undertake now the first actual translation of Verne’s eighty novels or so?

Marc Soriano. Jules Verne (Le cas Verne). Paris: Julliard, 1978, 412p.

Marc Soriano. Portrait de l’artiste jeune, suivi des quatre premiers textes publics de Jules Verne. With a “Postface” by Ray Bradbury. Paris: Gallimard, 1978. 227p.

Biographies of Jules Verne have not been lacking, from that of Madame Allotte de la Fuye in 1924 to the most recent, that of his grandson Jean Jules-Verne (1973, in English: 1976. See: SFS No. 8: 46 and No. 10: 311). This last voluminous work brought to light previously unpublished documents but, for lack of

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higher standards than common sense, sympathy and family loyalty, failed to make these documents say something lasting or to convey forcefully any synthesis between Verne’s life and his work. Despite the best intentions, Jean JulesVerne emerged as a prisoner of silences and secrets concerning his patriarchal family, which, as Marc Soriano shows, was the source of unconscious psychological conflicts which spanned the life and writings of the author.

Marc Soriano is known for his extremely subtle and original treatment of the life and work of Charles Perrault (Les Contes de Perrault. Culture savant et tradition populaire. Paris: Gallimard, 1968). His two recent works, devoted to Jules Verne, have been influenced by psychoanalytic anthropology and marked by a vast knowledge of folklore and oral tradition; they forward knowledge of Verne the man while shedding new light on his work. The biographical approach does not have a good image in contemporary French criticism. Marc Soriano chose to defy this prejudice. He reminds us that those skeletons which bourgeois families try to hide from others and to forget themselves have in reality long fled from their closets. Latent homosexuality, sublimated pederasty, misogyny in confrontation with the phallic woman, obsessions about twins, longing for the mother’s breast—these are not the elements of a unique neurosis but rather traits found in more or less every bourgeois family as a result of the repressive relationships and constraints which developed in nineteenth century society. However, one can go on from here to reintroduce in a consistent fashion the intricate network of the individual unconscious and the social imagination. The great writer gives form, power, and depth to this flux of obsessional images. This is what Verne has done, and this is what makes him according to Marc Soriano a “fundamental writer.”

One appreciates the analytical talent with which Marc Soriano tries to find reason behind several well-known traits of Jules Verne, traits generally dismissed as eccentricities or isolated problems: the importance of the cryptogram and the pun in certain novels, the ambivalent relationship between Verne and his publisher-friend Jules Hetzel, the curious collaboration at the end of his career with his son Michel Verne, the place of the sexist joke in his books. The contradictory political views of the novelist (the spirit of 1848 and colonialism, the odd blend of liberal capitalism and libertarian sympathies . . .) are shown in relation to the psychic determinants of the individual. Although Marc Soriano, contrary to most biographers, does not use the author’s life to “clarify”? his work but instead tries to establish a dialectic between the two, it is regrettable that the subtlety of psychoanalytic anthropology does not extend to a more elaborate synthesis of individual experience and the social and historical “unconscious.” Although Marc Soriano attempts to move in this direction, two critical theories — that of psychoanalytic biography (M. Moré, C.-N. Martin, Soriano) and that of a social criticism of ideology (P. Macherey, J. Chesneaux, D. Suvin)—are still growing side by side without seeming able to sustain or draw sustenance from each other.

Soriano’s other work, published in the same year, can be seen as an appendix to the biography. Portrait de l’artiste jeune (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) tries, from Verne’s example, to answer the question “How does one become a writer?” and to address an even more complex auxiliary question which transforms the existential problem into an institutional and historical one: how is this “vocation” realized and inserted into the social and communication structures which exist at a given epoch? An important question which goes beyond the specific instance without losing sight of it.

Soriano studies the four first “mediocre” texts of young Verne—Voyage in a Balloon, Californian Castles (a comedy-proverb in one act), Martin Paz, and a piece of historical reportage entitled “The First Sailors of the Mexican Navy” (1851-1852)—to deduce a paradigm for his entire opus. A constant scheme is

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extracted from the narrative structure: the wicked come to grief, but the good go unrewarded. The four texts revolve around obsessional images—gold, madness, and America—and present an antisemitic aspect related to the pessimistic structure of these narratives of failure and disaster. Without detailing Soriano’s procedure, it seems to me to succeed more here than previously to integrate sociohistorical facts with representations of individual psyches. Vernian antisemitism, regarded as a censorship or screen mechanism, is thereby subordinated to personal traumas, parental complexes, denied attraction for the homosexual couple, and substitution of the machine for the inaccessible woman.

Marc Soriano succeeds with flair in constructing a structural-genetic explanation seen as a convergence of multiple casual vectors: libidinal investments and the psychic function of writing, development of technics and science, economic determinations, ideological conflicts and institutional status of literary genres.

[Jean-Michel Margot, Compil.] Bibliographie documentaire sur Jules Verne. Catalogue par mots-clés et par auteurs. Paris: Société Jules Verne, 1977. 30+ 14+90+8 p. (being presently reprinted: Ostermundingen (Switzerland): Margot [P.O. Box 53, CH. 3072 Ostermundingen], 1979)—This is a computerized analysis (ATMS program) of 903 documents—reviews, notes, articles, books— published about Jules Verne from 1864 to 1977, in French, English, Italian, German and some other Westem languages. It provides: a) A main chronological list, each entry being followed by a number of key-words (Verne’s texts quoted, and themes such as: “Cryptogram,” “Electricity,” “Saint-Simonianism,” “Esoterism,” “Englishmen,” etc.); b) An alphabetical list of those key-words with reference to (a); c) An alphabetical list of authors; d) An alphabetical list of Verne’s own texts (199 items: articles, speeches, dramas, novels and short-stories) also cross-referring to the main catalogue. (This section contains just a list of titles, not complete bibliographical information.) In short, the volume is a useful research tool of the sort that should be made available for other major SF writers.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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