of Butcher, William. Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Self : Space and Time in the 'Voyages Extraordinaires'. Foreword by Ray Bradbury. London: Macmillan, 1990. Pp.xxix, 206.
It may still come as a surprise to certain readers that Jules Verne's work should be the object of serious academic criticism, particularly in the English-speaking world where, as the author of this probing study points out, he has been so badly served by critics, translators and adapters and where the "myth" of Verne as a writer of children's stories and as a purveyor of the sub-literary still tend to prevail. In their different ways, the authors of the foreword and of the text of this book convincingly combat the myth.
The somewhat idiosyncratic and overwrought foreword to this work by a modern inventor of extraordinary journeys pays a glowing tribute to Verne's lasting influence, dubbing him "our technological St. Nicholas" (xiv), a writer "born in the future that we inhabit as our present" (xiii), without whom, he claims, "there is a strong possibility we would never have romanced ourselves to the Moon" (xiv). William Butcher, less extravagantly, pays Verne the much better tribute of serious scholarly criticism, on Verne not as a writer of futuristic tales but as a subtle and complex exponent of a broad range of themes, historical, social, metaphysical and personal. He skilfully applies both formal and thematic approaches to Verne's fiction, analyzing the interrelationship of temporal and spatial structures, the dynamic links between linear and circular structures in works in which the search for structure itself emerges as a privileged theme. The world and the work become intricately related and what Butcher calls the two poles of Verne's imagination, conter and compter, combine.
At this illuminatingly analytical level of abstraction, the reader is guided through the unchartered territories of spatio-temporal forms in Verne's works. The methodology of this study may appear overly systematic to the reader, but the book nevertheless deals with an impressive array of topics of a more familiar kind: Verne's ideology, his surprising antideterminism, his racist views, his equally surprising lack of a coherent scientific theory, and the prevalence in his works of sexual and alimentary imagery. In this study the systematic never becomes reductive. Indeed, one of its most fascinating aspects is the accomplished way in which it demonstrates the ambiguities and the indeterminacies of Verne's text in the imaginative interplay between time and space, between past and present, in such features as the backward flow of time and in the transgressions of (as well as the use of) scientific norms, and in the conflicting conceptions of history that they convey. This is not a book for the faint-hearted escapist, but for the serious literary scholar this stimulating excursion into the shifting centres and circumferences of Verne's extraordinary world is certainly worth the price of the trip.