For month past evil, recurrent rumors have alarmed the world-wide constituency of Jules Verne. He was said to have become quite blind. We knew that to him to live is to work, albeit a very, very old man, and the pity of the situation seemed great.
Let me say at once that things are not so bad with him as one feared. If one eye is completely gone, he can still see a little with the other.
“It is a cataract in my right eye,” he said to me this morning in the drawing-room of his house, 44, Boulevard de Longueville, in grey and level Amiens. “But the other eye is still fairly good. I do not want to risk an operation as long as I can see enough to do the little work, the little writing, the little reading, that I can still do, for remember, sir, that I am a very old man now, past seventy-six. Since the report of my blindness got about the sympathies of the world have been awakened. I have received numerous letters from all parts. Many people have sent me prescriptions for cataract, marvellous remedies. They tell me not to allow any operation to be performed; that these remedies of theirs will cure me without danger. It is very kind of them. I have been much touched, but, I know, of course, that an operation is the only cure.”
I have not seen Jules Verne for nearly fourteen years. The last occasion on which I was with him was when I brought Nelly Bly to his house during her famous record-breaking scamper round the world. Yet I did not find him as aged as I feared. He looked plumped and comfortable in his black alpaca suit, and his beautiful face, set in hair and beard that was white, was serene and animated in turn. His fine eyes in no way betrayed by their appearance the lurking mischief.
He is now living in a smaller house, but it is opulent and cossu, and a comfortable home life surround him. Whenever, in our conversation, he admitted some defeat by circumstance and the inevitable law of Nature, he made haste, in his native cheerfulness, to find some compensation for it.
“Although I can work very little now—terribly little as compared to former days—I am years ahead of the printing-press. My latest book of the series of Extraordinary Voyages is to be published shortly, under the title Bourse de Voyage—there are thirteen complete manuscripts of the same series ready for the press. As you know, I publish two volumes a year, which appear first as serials in the Magasin de Récréation, of which I was one of the founders. I am now working on my new story, which will not be wanted by the printers till about 1910. J’ai beaucoup d’avance, and so it does not matter that I have to work slowly, very slowly. I get up as usual at six in the morning and I am at my writing-table till 11 a.m. In the afternoon, as I always did, I go to the reading-room of the Société Industrielle and read as much as my eyes allow me to read.”
“I cannot say what is the title of the book I am writing. Je n’en sais rien. Nor I have any titles for the thirteen other stories which are waiting their turn. All I can say about the work is that it deals with Un Drame en Livonée, and that I have introduced into it... well, no, you mustn’t print that, or some other writer may take my idea.”
It was inevitable, as Jules Verne remarked, that I should speak to him about H. G. Wells.
“Je pensais bien que vous alliez me demander cela,” he said. “His books were sent to me, and I have read them. It is very curious, and, I will add, very English. But I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work an mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. There is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli,”, cried Monsieur Verne in an animated way, “but show me this metal. Let him produce it.”
It was inevitable also that I should refer to the fact that many of his inventions in fiction have become inventions in fact. Here the amiable Madame Verne concurred with me.
“People are kind enough to say so,” said Jules Verne. “It is flattering, but as a fact it is not true.”
“But come, Jules,” said Madame Verne, “and your submarines?”
“Aucun rapport,” said Verne, waving the flattery aside.
“Mais non. The Italians had invented submarine boats sixty years before I created Nemo and his boat. There is no connection between my boat and those now existing. These latter are worked by mechanical means. My hero, Nemo, being a misanthropist, and wishing to have nothing to do with the land, gets his motive force, electricity, from the sea. There is scientific basis for that, for the sea contains stores of electric force, just as the earth does. But how to get at this force has never been discovered, and so I have invented nothing.”
We touched on the subject of the importance of names in fiction.
“I do attach certain importance to them” he said, “and when I found ‘Fogg’ I was very pleased and proud. And it was very popular. It was considered a real trouvaille. And yet Fogg—Fogg—that means nothing but brouillard. But it was especially Phileas that gave such value to the creation. Yes, there is importance in names. Look at the wonderful godfatherships of Balzac.”
We had begun to talk in the opulent drawing-rooms downstairs, two salons en suite with the dining-room beyond, and outside a garden full of flowers, on which the sun was shining. Opulent rooms, with heavy velvet hanging, great clocks and mirrors, full-length portraits, Venetian glass, and rarest bric-à-brac. It was natural that in time we should ascend the two flights of stairs to the workrooms of the man of letters.
Workrooms: one for reading, where the bulk of the library is; one for writing, where the little table is and the pen and ink is.
All very simple here. No luxury. Maps on the wall, and in the writing-room a few pictures, including a watercolour of the Saint Michel, the yacht which, in the free and sunny days of restless youth, Jules Verne ranged the world’s water.
We had been talking just then of le reportage Américain, and to keep in the note, I remarked, “There must be at least three yards of them!”
He laughed heartily and made as if to measure the shelf.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I have written at least three yards. And look at all those yards of translation. English, French, Danish, Italian, all the tongues.”
Eight long shelves were filled with books with the same name on every cover.
In the inner room, where it is twilight, stands against the window a little deal table on which nearly all the books have been penned. A bomb on the window-sill serves as a paper-weight. Just behind the seat, against the wall, is a pipe-rack.
“But they won’t let me smoke now,” said Jules Verne, in the same accent with which George Meredith once said the same thing.
“In this little room are the favourite books, the books one must be able to lay the immediate hand upon.
“You will find all Dickens there,” said Jules Verne, with a glow in his voice, “As you know, I am a passionate admirer of Dickens. I find he has all things—wit like Sterne, of whom I am a great reader and admirer also; pathos and sentiment of the good alloy, and characters, characters, à ne pas savoir quoi en faire. A prodigal, a prodigal, he is like our Balzac, who created a world on which society which came afterwards modelled itself.”
One had come to pity; it was with envy rather that one passed out into the grey and lonely world. For there beyond the velvet hangings stood the table, neatly laid with two covers vis-à-vis, by the side of the iris-painted windows, which opened on the sunny gardens full of flowers. And by the sculptured hearth, on the mantelpiece of which the ruddy and resplendent samovar purred its note of intimate and familiar comfort, two armchairs stood side by side.