Handle with Care

William Butcher

Science-Fiction Studies, XV (March 1988): 94-95.

Reviews of Simone Vierne. Jules Verne. Paris: Balland, 1986. 447pp. FF89.00.—As well as her Rite, roman, initiation (1973), Professor Vierne is justly well-known for her long-term pioneering work on Jules Verne: authorship studies, her 1972 thèse d'Etat entitled Jules Verne et le roman initiatique (published in 1973), prefaces to Garnier Flammarion editions of the Voyages Extraordinaires, and many other distinguished efforts. This latest volume—which appears in the Phare series, devoted so far to Freud, Machiavelli, and Malraux—is written for a very wide audience. It is occasionally repetitious; allusions are dropped which the general reader cannot necessarily understand; assertions are not followed up; and recent scholarship, especially of the non-traditional variety, is under-represented (e.g., Delabroy's thesis). All this is a shame, for there is a huge amount of value in the book, especially for those new to the subject. The style is elegantly straightforward, and the decision to complement each of the six chapters with a selection of eminently-quotable extracts both from other works by Verne and from the critical corpus is very effective.

After a chronology of Verne's life, Vierne provides a general introduction and then proceeds to individual novels. Her commentary on Cinq semaines en ballon does justice to the brilliant chapitre sur rien of the desert scene, to the English and Scottish character types, to the role of the tree-refuge, and, more generally, to the authentic poetry of much of Verne's writing, its unique combination of realistic and symbolic levels. Her discussion of Voyage au centre de la Terre pins down much of the intertextuality evident in this novel, including the mythical substratum. Vingt mille lieues and Le Tour du monde are dealt with adequately; but only a tantalizing snatch is given about a first draft of part of L'Ile mystérieuse; and Le Château des Carpathes, finally, could have been covered in more analytical fashion. One interesting detail from all this is that the extremely passionate and lyrical “quotations” put into Aouda's and La Stilla's mouths were apparently invented by Verne—although evidence for this view is not supplied.

Ultimately, the most useful aspect of this book is in its account of the reactions to Verne. His persistent reputation for scientificité and authenticity originated, it can be seen, in the contemporary critics, themselves often merely reproducing the hand-outs of his publisher, Hetzel (whereas we can recognize that the authenticity is in fact rarely more than extreme plausibility). Rimbaud's reaction in particular can be read in his very Vernian Bateau ivre; and Zola, in a first article, also quite liked Verne—but then subsequently attacked him ferociously, denying his works even the quality of “novels.”

The slips in this book include: “Forum de New York” for the Forum of New York (p. 26); “Goalh's companion de Boston” for Youth's Companion (p. 100); “Ney Land” (p. 232); “Haarper' Bazar” (p. 385); “John Clark” as the author of 2001 (p. 427); and “Gallacher” (p. 444) for Gallagher. It is also misleading to claim that Allotte de la Fuÿe was the first biographer of Verne (p. 35); that the North and East of France were “peu accessibles à l'époque” (p. 81); that “les jeux de mots des romans ... ne bravent jamais l'honnêteté” (p. 86; see Compère and Soriano); that Apocalypse Now is about the atomic bomb (p. 91); that “ce n'est que par hasard que le cataclysme n'a pas lieu” in Sans Dessus Dessous (p. 98); that Verne quotes Wagner with admiration only before 1871 (p. 100); that wheat can ever multiply in “progression arithmétique” (p. 303); that the Minard RLM bibliography is still continuing (p. 394); and that the number of articles on Verne is “au moins 2000 à mon avis” (p. 443—it already exceeded 2600 in 1982). Debatable as well, in my view, are the claims that: “L'Eternel Adam” is “extrêmement pessimiste” (p. 90); that “Saknussem” (sic) ever really reached the center of the Earth (p. 163); that my own thesis is “difficilement accessible,” probably formalist, and systematically Ricardolien (pp. 412-13); that time can ever be totally “abolished” (p. 209); or that time's mythical and metaphysical aspects are ignored by Verne (p. 426).

But I would not like to give the impression that this book is without very considerable value. It's just that, to get from Jules Verne to Jules Verne, you need to keep your wits about you. I certainly learned a lot from this informative volume.