SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, III #8 (March 1976): 46-49.

Marc Angenot

Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism (II)

In a previous article, I pointed out that—though a few early enthusiasts saw Verne primarily as a scientific prophet and founded a Jules Verne Society in 19301—it is only in the last 20 years that such critics as Michel Butor, Marcel Moré, G. de Diesbach, Michel Serres, Michel Foucault, Pierre Macherey and Jean Chesneaux have analysed Verne’s work with acuity (see SFS 1:33-37). During the past three years, six significant studies have conclusively placed Jules Verne among those writers whose works mark a turn not only in the history of utopian and technologico-adventurous SF but also from the 19th to 20th century. These recent works as well as numerous less extensive articles place Jules Verne in the center of the methodological debate on literary criticism, since each work is representative of a particular approach which leads to differing and even contradictory conclusions.

The first of these works is a voluminous biographical study by the author’s grandson Jean-Jules Verne, Jules Verne (Paris: Hachette, 1973, 384p). It is a

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well-informed review of public and private events touching on the genesis and material creation of Verne’s work: the author’s favorite books, sources for his writing, his family joys and sorrows, his professional and personal relationships. Jean-Jules Verne’s access to family documents and correspondence sheds light on numerous little known aspects of his grandfather’s life. His study is the culmination of a series of Verne biographies from that of Mme Allotte de la Fuyë (1925) to those of I.O. Evans (in English, 1956) and G. de Diesbach (1969). It adds new material to the philological and bibliographical data recently discovered by C.-N. Martin, the author of Jules Verne et son oeuvre (Lausanne: Ed. Rencontre, 1971, 325p) as well as the editor of the complete works of Jules Verne in 50 volumes, who has clarified numerous problems of dating and attribution of authorship.

Although one must be wary when dealing with a work which—as did that of Mme de la Fuyë—stems from Verne’s somewhat pious and prudish family, it seems nevertheless that Jean-Jules Verne has objectively examined several previously undocumented aspects of his grandfather’s career and private life. In particular, it seems clear that both the story “In the 29th Century” and the final novel The City in the Sahara are largely the work of Verne’s son Michel.

Marie-Thérèse Huet’s dissertation, L’Histoire des “Voyages extraordinaires” (Paris: Minard, 1973, 204p) follows in the vein opened by Chesneaux’s Lecture politique de Jules Verne,2 though her orientation is more toward historical and political references expressly present in the stories than ideological interpretation. Mme Huet recognizes the existence of a strong link between Verne’s fiction and the political and social events of his age. Far from being a flight of pure imagination or the result of mere ideological speculation, Verne’s work is a transposition of all the major historical conflicts in the world—except in France!—which foretell the acute struggles of the 20th century (revolt of the Sepoys in India, Greek independence struggles, etc.). Science is his vehicle to recreate history by projecting not that which will be but that which Inight have been. His works are not anticipations, but rather “uchronias.” Progress, linked to technological advancement, modifies the course of real events and projects a new order at a different level. Huet’s evidence is clear and interesting, albeit interspersed from time to time by sundry extraneous digressions, for example on the subject of national types among Verne’s characters.

In terms of sheer volume (nearly 800 quarto pages), Simone Vierne’s work Jules Verne et le roman initiatique (Paris: Editions du Sirac, 1974, 780p) is the most impressive one. Her idea of the “initiatory novel” could have been a valuable one if it had been used in a restricted way, to describe the invariables that constitute a particular narrative structure. However, she went much further and conferred the value of a transhistoric archetype to the idea of initiation, thus linking Verne to various esoteric traditions. Mme Vierne examines Verne’s work through a rigorous conception of three initiatory levels: inevitably—as in any hunt for mythical structuring—initiatory elements, more or less complete and “pure,” can be found in every case. According to her, the narrative leads the hero, after undergoing trials and tribulations, to a superior state of consciousness; the story is thus a psychodrama which answers a deep-seated human need. This spiritualistic structure posits three invariable steps: the preparation of the novice, his trip into the hereafter, and his final

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rebirth. Despite his positivist mask, Jules Verne was therefore trying, more or less consciously, to reintroduce this “sense of the sacred” without which initiation is impossible; if all of this is not really to be found in the text, it is because that text is second-rate and incomplete. Thus, Vierne’s single-minded approach finally appears specious and vulnerable. It forces her to introduce various amalgamations and convolutions which leave us unconvinced as to its general value, despite some very sensitive analyses.

A brief forerunner to this large undertaking is Mme Vierne’s study of a single novel, L’Ile mystérieuse de Jules Verne (Paris: Hachette, Coll. “Poche Critique,” 1973, 93p) specifically designed for university undergraduates.

Michel Serres is known for his work on the history of civilization and the epistemology of science. However, his book Jouvences sur Jules Verne (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974, 292p) is quite tangential to his other research. He wants to reveal, in Verne’s imaginary voyages, a “mathematical oneiricism,” transpositions of the circle, the ellipse, the hyperbole, the eccentric circle, the loxodromic curve.... Using little known tales such as Captain Antifer and The Will of an Eccentric as a starting point, Serres discovers certain laws of mechanics and gravitation in the formal structure of Verne’s work. Perhaps as a result of Verne’s encyclopaedic ambition, his works, which are “encyclopaedic by way of myths” in form as well as content, illustrate the Hegelian idea of a “circle of circles.” Though Serres sustains an a-historical analysis, the clarity of some of his deductions draws our attention: e.g., he is the first to have been struck by the fact that Michel Strogoff is a rewrite of the Oedipus myth in which each element has been systematically reversed. For explicating Verne’s SF, Serres’ notions of encyclopaedic classification and of time running down might be particularly interesting.

Finally, the Cahiers de l’Herne have devoted their issue #25 (1974) to Jules Verne. It is a huge collection of 366 pp. in quarto, edited by P.-A. Touttain, and containing documents such as an unpublished play and some letters by Verne, bibliographies, and about 30 articles of very unequal length, orientation and value. This miscellany has unfortunately resulted in a jumbled confusion. The “great specialists”—Serres, Vierne, Chesneaux—each used the occasion to publish a fragment left over from their major works; other collaborators give sundry points of information and rectifications of biographical and bibliographical details. Thus, D. Compère deals a decisive blow to the stubborn legend that Verne was elected to the Amiens city council on a “red” list: there can be nothing more conservative than the municipal team on which he figured, Among the most interesting articles are R. Taussat’s on Verne’s late novel The Survivors of the “Jonathan” (English transl. in two books as The Masterless Man and The Unwilling Dictator), and Y.O. Martin’s on “Jules Verne and the Popular Novel” which stresses the influence on Verne of the “social adventure” novels by Sue and Dumas the Elder. In sum, the Herne issue leaves us with a few new hypotheses and many unimportant crumbs.

The rapid succession of such works on Jules Verne, each thought-provoking in its own right, is proof that, in France, a long period of misunderstanding and neglect of SF is at an end. Five new syntheses on French and international science fiction (see Fitting’s articles, SFS 1:173-81 and 1:276-79), reprinting of classics long out of print such as Rosny the Elder and Messac, as well as the recent Jules Verne Colloquium held at the University of Nantes

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in February 1975 and the announcement by the Editions Minard (Paris) of a forthcoming new collection of critical monographs to be called Série Jules Verne (the first issue will be devoted to Around the World in 80 Days), further underline this fact. Such a renewed critical interest in SF goes hand in hand with the emergence of a generation of young SF writers—such as Michel Jeury and Philippe Curval—whom the English-speaking readers should get to know as soon as possible.


  1. This theme of “scientific prophecy” is found today, paradoxically, in pseudoscientific and mystifying publications, such as R. Chotard’s De Jules Verne aux extraterrestres (From Verne to the Aliens, 1967) and his Comment Jules Verne vient de tracer le destin de l’homme (How Verne Delineated Human Destiny, 1969).—MA.
  2. Now available also as Jean Chesneaux, The Political and Social Ideas of Jules Verne (London: Thames & Hudson, 1972). Thus, with the reissue of Kenneth Allott’s Jules Verne (Port Washington, N.Y., & London: Kennikat Press, 1970), especially strong on Verne’s context and certainly the best book-length work on Verne written in English, there are by now two basic books on Verne available to the reader who knows only English. On the contrary, other book-length criticism in English (by Waltz, Evans, etc.) can now be safely skipped.—DS.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/11/14 21:05:21 $