Herbert R. Lottman. Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. xiv+366. $26.95. Herbert R. Lottman. Jules Verne. Translated by Marianne Véron. Paris: Flammarion, 1996. 430pp. 150FF.
Several books on Jules Verne (1828-1905) have been translated from French into English, including biographies by Verne’s cousin (1928) and grandson (1976), and a study of the political themes in Verne’s novels by Jean Chesneaux (1972).1 Now, for the first time, the reverse has occurred: a book on Jules Verne originally written in English has been translated into his native language. Sadly, Herbert R. Lottman’s new biography of Verne, also published in France (in a translation by Marianne Véron), is not worthy of holding such a distinctive position in Verne studies.2
Although described by St. Martin’s Press on the dust jacket as the first “modern biography” of Verne ever written, there is a long tradition of writing about the author, not only in French, but in English as well. During his lifetime, newspapers and magazines in many languages offered numerous articles (many of them wildly inaccurate), interviews, and countless reviews of his books and plays. The first book about Verne was printed in France in 1883,3 but the two most influential French biographies were those produced by the family, both of them translated into English. The initial search for a full biographical study of Verne seemed to be satisfied in the 1928 book by a cousin, Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe. Later research revealed that she had concocted a mythical Verne, however, and many of the curtains that she had so carefully stitched were pulled back by the second familial biography. This 1973 book by the author’s grandson, Jean Jules-Verne, revealed Jules Verne to be a man with profound personal failings, most notably as a husband and father, while also discussing his writings.
In addition to translated biographies, important studies about Verne have originated in English. The first to attempt a scholarly critical analysis of Verne in the English language was Kenneth Allott, in 1940, placing the author’s work in the cultural and social context of 19th century literature.4 In 1966, Idrisyn Oliver Evans attempted to combine the biographical and critical approaches and demonstrate the depth of Verne’s cultural impact, but the work was undermined by Evans’s highly idiosyncratic perspective (just as his translations were marked by extreme subjectivity and a censorial hand).5 Peter Costello’s 1978 biography offered some useful aesthetic analysis of individual Verne works, and a few other details, as did such lesser Verne biographies as those by George H. Waltz and Lawrence Lynch.6 With Verne increasingly recognized for his literary significance as well as a genre author, several recent studies of Verne in English have closely examined his oeuvre, rather than his life. For instance, Andrew Martin has examined Verne within a number of political and literary trends of the 19th century, while Arthur B. Evans has discussed the ideological and semiotic aspects of Verne’s works.7
These books in English, together with many studies in other languages, represent the wealth of writing about Verne. Regrettably, Herbert Lottman’s book fails to utilize these potential resources fully, nor does it situate its own raison d’être in Verne studies.
Herbert R. Lottman is a prolific 70-year-old free-lance writer, journalist, and correspondent for Publisher’s Weekly. A native of New York and holding an M.A. from Columbia University, he has resided in Paris since 1949 and has traveled extensively, mostly to report on the publishing trade. Lottman has written books on Pétain, Camus, Colette, the Left Bank, and on travel for commercial publishers, and his biographies have been recognized for their attention to detail. In an interview with Contemporary Authors, he noted that he plans his work in advance, organizing by his journalistic experience. A fast notetaker, he utilizes nearly every scrap of material he has gathered. Lottman boasted that, in this way, he could write whole chapters of his biography of Camus in a single twelve-hour day, referring to his notes and checking his sources.8
Sadly, it is just these characteristics of Lottman’s approach that make his study of Verne such a disappointment. First, there is little literary analysis of Verne’s works, and that which is present is cursory and often ill-considered. Second, while the details of Verne’s life are more developed, they are frequently marred by the author’s determination to indulge in amateur Freudian analysis and to draw often highly questionable conclusions from his biographical data.
Generally, Lottman’s discussion of Verne’s writing is shallow, seldom extending beyond simple plot analysis. There is little evidence that Lottman has personally studied Verne’s more than sixty novels and many additional short stories, plays, non-fiction, speeches, and poems. Instead, he largely relies on information from secondary sources. The inconsistency in his selection of the various English-language titles of Verne’s works—many unique to the highly abridged Fitzroy editions by I.O. Evans—raises serious questions about some of the texts Lottman may have examined.9
The biography begins in a promising way, opening with a prologue discussing Verne’s first novel Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon). However, for the remainder of the 330-page book, the author is largely content to describe, rather than to analyze, the bulk of Verne’s oeuvre. For instance, Lottman offers only lifeless summaries of some of Verne’s important early works, like “Maître Zacharius” (“Master Zacharius”). Only a page and a half of synopsis is devoted to Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth)—a novel which is, by any measure, one of Verne’s most enduring and mythically powerful works. His discussion of L’Ile mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island), although more substantial, ignores the important role played by the character Ayrton. Yet Ayrton is the key contrasting figure in the paean to technology and cooperation in creating civilization that forms the theme of The Mysterious Island.
When Lottman does make an observation beyond reciting the plot, he frequently does not offer carefully considered views. He claims that Robur-le-conquérant (Robur-the-Conqueror) portrays “an attack from the air, anticipating the horrors of twentieth-century warfare” (255), although the incident referred to in the novel is the use of rifle and cannon fire to liberate African slaves from imminent execution—hardly a forecast of the “horrors” of modern war. When describing the oft-mentioned similarities between Verne’s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon) and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon flight, he states: “There is no rational explanation for the coincidences between what Verne envisioned and what actually occurred a century later” (336). Lottman ignores the well-known fact that Verne had a cousin, a professor of mathematics in a Parisian lycée, who did the calculations for his fictional moon voyage. Hence, there is no “coincidence” as to why Verne’s predictions were so exact more than a hundred years before the Apollo mission. Everything which was calculable in Verne’s time indeed resembles the events that occurred in 1969.
Lottman fails to see any merit in some of Verne’s most skillful but little-known works, such as Les Pays des fourrures (The Fur Country). Many of the later Verne works are dismissed in a quirky manner, such as the treasure hunt of Mirifiques aventures de Maître Antifer (Wonderful Adventures of Master Antifer) as not holding “the reader’s attention” (289). He condemns L’Ile à hélice (Propeller Island), saying that in fact the story does not present a bleak enough view of its scientific creation. This statement overlooks the plot’s progression and the theme of the island’s inevitable self-destruction resulting from humanity’s inability to make the social changes necessary to adjust to the technical advances—a common theme in Verne’s fiction.
Approaching Verne’s books in chronological order, Lottman makes little effort to examine the links between the works or the broader themes and narrative formulae which characterize Verne’s oeuvre as a whole. And again, many errors are made. Lottman describes Verne’s experience as a playwright as responsible for “the crisp, impudent dialogue” of his best-known stories—probably the first and only time either word has been applied to the speech patterns of Verne’s characters (37). He regards the character of Robur-the-Conqueror as Verne’s first “genius of evil intent” (255). Yet this is the same Robur who had used his airship to save African slaves from execution, and in this novel he is merely an enigma, hardly a man of evil intent. Further, Lottman claims that the various “innovators” portrayed in Verne’s earlier novels prior to Robur “had been well-meaning men of science, if at times they lacked tact” (254-55). Can this refer to the fanatical Captain Hatteras or the vengeful Captain Nemo—who both appeared in novels written in the 1860s?
Important issues such as narrative structure, 19th-century ideology, and stylistic innovation in Verne’s works—discussed over the past few decades by writers and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic such as Michel Butor, Roland Barthes, Raymond Roussel, Michel Serres, Charles-Noël Martin, Arthur B. Evans, Andrew Martin, Robert Pourvoyeur, William Butcher, Daniel Compère, and Vohker Dehs among many others—seem almost totally ignored in this study (despite the fact that the author cites many of these critical works in his endnotes).10 As such, Lottman’s literary judgements are generally not reliable. For example, he regards Verne’s early polar adventure “Un Hivernage dans les glaces” (“A Winter Amid the Ice”) as the first truly Vernian story. Conventional wisdom more accurately gives this honor to Verne’s “Master Zacharius.” “A Winter Amid the Ice” is a simple Robinsonade set in the Arctic that falls squarely within the typical generic boundaries of such tales. “Master Zacharius,” by contrast, demonstrates the innovations Verne would bring to literature. While using the fantastic motifs of his predecessors, Verne began to move beyond E.T.A. Hoffman or Edgar Allan Poe by integrating elements of science into this fantasy of the devil and a watchmaker. In addition, Lottman ignores the newly-discovered short stories of Verne’s early writing career like “Le Mariage de M. Anselme des Tilleuls” (“The Marriage of Mr. Anselme des Tilleuls”), “San Carlos,” and “Le Siège de Rome” (“The Siege of Rome”) which were written in the 1850s and first published during the last few years. This questionable grasp of Verne’s early works colors Lottman’s comments on his subsequent works. For example, he writes that nothing that Verne had done before Five Weeks in a Balloon “offered the slightest sign he would now create work so compelling that it would become immortal” (ix). Only by discounting such stories as “Master Zacharius” or the apparently Poe-like (although written before Verne ever read Poe) “A Balloon Journey” could Lottman make such an unjustified assertion.11
Lottman states that, once Verne realized that science fiction was his métier, he never returned to stories of adventure (107)—yet adventure, and not science fiction, constitutes by far the largest quantity of Verne’s literary output. In fact, Verne did not set out to write science fiction; instead, he sought to counter the tradition of the imaginary voyage with the romance of science. The Voyages Extraordinaires had a dual aim—to teach science and geography through fictional travels and adventures. Only out of this purpose did what we now know as science fiction eventually emerge, with the distinction between this genre and adventure fiction taking shape only as Verne’s oeuvre grew and as his worldwide success spawned imitators.12
Lottman’s focus on the biographical over the literary elements neglects the connections between the events in Verne’s life and the elements of his stories. For instance, Lottman suggests that Verne resented the fact that older men were considered a better marriage prospect than he was (15). Yet the motif of older men as the most appropriate bridegrooms appears in several Verne novels, such as Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant (The Children of Captain Grant) or Le Testament d’un excentrique (The Will of an Eccentric). In commenting harshly upon the short novel Une Ville flottante (A Floating City) (147), Lottman fails to appreciate the autobiographical aspects of the work and to relate them to the letters Verne wrote from the Great Eastern and from Niagara Falls to his publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Finally, there is discussion of Verne’s work as a lyricist for the compositions of his fellow native of Nantes, Aristide Hignard, who wrote musical compositions for operas and operettas (36, 51, 53). However, Lottman does not link Verne’s musical interests with their fictionalization in the novel Propeller Island. The narrators of this tale are a quartet of musicians, who are abducted to perform for the wealthy families living on this mobile isle, and the compositions they play provide a revealing glimpse of Verne’s musical tastes. Only in exploring Verne’s anti-semitic streak—as revealed in unflattering Shylock-style stereotypes in two stories—are Verne’s works thoroughly connected with the man. Lottman condemns the one novel in which this theme is the most evident, Hector Servadac, but fails to appreciate the premise on which the novel itself is based, a tour of the solar system by castaways on a comet.
Lottman’s lack of examination of wider literary contexts sometimes results in unfounded generalizations. He says, for example, that “marriage and money” were all that interested Verne as a playwright (80), yet these were obviously conventional themes that have always appealed to theatergoers. He also fails to pursue the complexity of important issues such as the multiplicity of audiences for which the Voyages Extraordinaires were intended, and by whom they continue to be read today. In founding the Magasin d’éducation et de récréation in 1863, the renowned French editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel sought to establish a family journal which would be both entertaining and educational. In part because of the Catholic-controlled schools in France, there was widespread illiteracy about geography and science. Hetzel recognized that fictional adventures such as those Verne could write would serve to promote such an awareness among adults and children alike. Later, publishers in Europe and in the United States, more concerned with the fictional than the didactic content, frequently transformed Verne’s work into watered-down tales for children. Modern adaptations of Verne to comic books, movies, and television have presented him as a visionary “science fiction” icon.
Lottman does not elucidate the cultural conditions that have played such a large role in determining Verne’s literary reputation, nor does he attempt to explain how Verne still remains a best-selling author in this context. His observations on Verne’s influence on science, culture, and literature are perfunctory. Lottman’s final comments on the overall historical significance of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires are no more insightful than those one might expect in a superficial glossy magazine article.
Lottman does occasionally raise tantalizing questions about Verne’s personal life, but despite his subtitle, An Exploratory Biography, many of these points are then never investigated. For instance, Verne wrote to his brother in 1893: “You and I both committed an enormous and irreparable blunder; you know which one, without having to be specific. Tear up this letter. But what a life we’d have had, without that blunder.” (Actually, Lottman mistranslated the passage; it should read “But what a life, without that blunder.” The quote in the French edition is correct: “Mais quelle vie, sans cette sottise.”)13 While the blunder was apparently marriage, it also reflects the wider desire for escapism and adventure which motivated so many of Verne’s fictional characters, a connection Lottman fails to make. Similarly, he quotes such lines as “if I wanted to be gruesome, I’d say that it’s life itself that doesn’t suit me very well” (61)—but does not pursue further such important signs of Verne’s nascent misanthropy, as reflected in many of his most remarkable characterizations. He cites Verne’s dislike of the military, stated at the time his lottery number exempted him from service, but does not pause to question whether it had ramifications in his writing. Despite Lottman’s dwelling on Verne’s anti-semitism, he fails to examine the impact of Jules and his son Michel’s different reactions to the Dreyfuss Affair; Lottman is typically content merely to say, “it was not the only time a family split over Dreyfuss” (307).
Instead of using such material as a key to exploring Verne’s creative psyche, Lottman chooses instead to classify him according to a preformulated psychological profile. He sprinkles the book with bits of Freudian analysis, but never fully develops this methodology so that it might lead to a full portrait of Verne the man or writer. Lottman labels Verne an “anal” personality, which is used as a catch-all justification to explain such diverse matters as Verne’s worries about income and the spendthrift proclivities of his son Michel. “Anality” is even invoked in discussing Verne’s periodic anti-semitism and his frustration at his inability to earn the recognition of the French literary establishment (189).
Lottman is suspicious of all Verne’s illnesses, going to such excess with his discussion of Verne’s stomach problems as to border on obsession. Yet he does not link these problems to themes in Verne’s stories, as previously outlined by Andrew Martin.14 Lottman’s interest in Verne’s intestinal difficulties no doubt derives from a recent book on Verne by Olivier Dumas, a physician by training, which in turn was based on ideas from an earlier book by Marc Soriano.15 The fact that these medical complaints were related to the development of the diabetes which eventually caused Verne’s death seems of little relevance to these analysts. By contrast, Lottman fails to offer much information on a far more unusual disorder from which Verne also suffered, facial paralysis.
Verne’s life and work are elucidated by a psychoanalytic reading, as many critics have noted; Lottman merely chose the wrong method. By contrast, the two introductions by Walter James Miller in his “Annotated Jules Verne” series proved the potential richness that a scholarly handling of the psychobiographical approach can achieve.16 Miller noted Verne’s personality, his own frustrations, and linked them to the rebellions that marked his heroes.
With this book, Lottman lives up to his reputation for meticulous attention to detail, although at times he seems to dwell on minutiae. For a nonacademic, commercial writer, Lottman has done an impressive quantity of research, taking advantage of the Verne libraries in Amiens and Nantes. He has thoroughly perused the well-indexed Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne, a quarterly which, since the 1960s, has published scholarly articles and primary texts about Verne. Extensive endnotes cover twenty-three pages in the English edition, and thirty pages in the French edition. Yet Lottman fails to provide a bibliography or a bibliographic essay giving an overview of Vernian scholarship—an addition which would have been very useful to the non-specialist and which, one assumes, would have been relatively easy given his research. More perplexing by its absence is even the most rudimentary listing of Verne’s works, a necessity in any book dealing with such a prolific author.
Lottman frequently handles his sources in an awkward manner. In arguing against the old family legend that Verne tried to run away to sea as a boy, he inaccurately describes his evidence, Verne’s brief, highly impressionistic reminiscence, “Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse” (“Memories of Childhood and Youth”). He seems unaware that this memoir was written for a children’s magazine, not one for adults, and that it was originally published in Verne’s lifetime in the United States, and published only posthumously in France.17 In utilizing quotes from Verne that originally appeared in interviews with newspaper correspondents, Lottman situates them out of context, particularly in the first part of the book.18 Later, he clusters the remainder together at the end, apparently in the effort to give a picture of Verne’s last years. However, instead of combining and distilling the insights from these sources, Lottman only provides summaries of individual interviews. This is characteristic of the organization of the book, which tends to be centered around the sources utilized at the moment, rather than the subject at hand. As a result, there is a tendency to repeat topics only a few pages apart; for instance, Lottman’s mention of Poe on pages 44 and 84 seems to clash. He investigates the centrality of the Robinson Crusoe myth in Verne’s writing in conjunction with the discussion of one of his non-Robinson novels, Voyages et aventures du Capitaine Hatteras (Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras) (97-98), yet later finds Verne’s devotion to the Robinson genre inexplicable (167).
Despite giving the impression of a tome laden with authoritative citations, Lottman often indulges in sheer speculation—some of it (seemingly) for purposes of pure sensationalism. As a result of his “anality” theory, he labels Verne a hypochondriac and treats this contention as verified fact. With no evidence other than the possibility that Verne fleetingly knew Aristide Briand as a teenager, Lottman investigates whether Verne may have been a homosexual and a pedophile. This legend of Verne meeting Briand was based on a misreading of a handwritten letter by Verne to Hetzel on a Saturday in 1877.19 The fact that Lottman devotes more space to such a lurid rumor than to a discussion of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is typical of the overall failings of this biography.
To Lottman’s credit, he does follow in the footsteps of many French Verne scholars to correct a number of factual errors that have appeared in earlier Verne biographies, and incorporates much of what has been discovered in the two decades since Jean Jules-Verne’s biography. Lottman is much interested in the business details of Verne’s life, as might be expected from one also who makes his living by his pen, and these financial matters receive a full airing. He provides the first thorough account in any English-language biography of Verne’s collaborations with Adolphe d’Ennery on turning his novels into plays. On the other hand, Lottman offers little discussion of Verne’s occasional collaboration on novels with Paschal Grousset (André Laurie), or of the role played by Verne’s son Michel in the composition of the posthumous Voyages Extraordinaires. In the last decade, the original manuscripts have appeared in print, revealing that the first versions published in the decade after Verne’s death were extensively rewritten by, and in some cases originated with, Michel. Only the most perfunctory survey is provided of these later works and Michel’s previously unknown role in shaping his father’s reputation.
Lottman’s prose is generally highly readable and engaging. He has labored to produce what he clearly intends to be the definitive biography of Verne. And it is probably the most accurate book about Verne available in English, although that is less a tribute than an indication of the weakness of the other biographies. Considering the many studies in various languages, especially in French, Lottman’s effort is considerably less impressive. He has accumulated a wide array of data, but has been unable to synthesize this mass of information in a meaningful way.
Lottman’s book is especially disappointing because the time is so ripe for an account that would fuse the new biographical discoveries about Verne with the many insights of recent Vernian literary criticism. Lottman has resisted the analysis of the Vernian oeuvre necessary for a balanced study. Even accepting his selectivity, the insistence on explaining Verne by a focus on his intestinal troubles renders the biographical interpretation unconvincing. Viewed apart from his writings, Jules Verne is a rather unexceptional individual, and such a narrow focus makes for a rather pedestrian and mundane book. By analyzing the strictly material side of Verne’s life, Lottman has neglected the creative talents and the well-springs of imagination that produced the fiction for which Verne is remembered. Those readers seeking to understand the reasons why Verne is one of the most widely translated and enduringly popular authors of all time will find little explanation in this biography.