The realms of the fantastic
Verne's journey to the centre of the self: space and time in the voyages extraordinaires
By William Butcher
Macmillan, 206pp, £35.00
published September 1990
English language discussion of the work of Verne has finally begun to grant the author something of the respect and admiration that has been current in France for several years. There, important writers such as Raymond Roussel and Raymond Queneau acknowledged their debt to Verne, and critical writing too, both within and without the Société Jules Verne, has demonstrated a level of creative insight quite absent from the limited accounts of his work in this country. Perhaps this is because we have been particularly ill-served by translations of the stories themselves. The original 19th-century translations were invariably anonymous and frequently abridged; the most widely-read from the 20th century, by the prolific I. O. Evans, seem to be entirely aimed at the schoolboy reader and are usually found in the junior section of the library. This means, for example, that substantial portions and even whole chapters disappear from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, chapters which appear to the timid translator to "hold up the narrative" by moving into factual digression or scientific analysis. Without these chapters Queneau's expression of admiration of Verne - "What a style. Nothing but nouns!" - is hardly comprehensible; certainly Verne is the only writer of fantastic fiction to avoid hyperbolic adjectives.
William Butcher's book appeared at about the same time as Andrew Martin's brilliant The Mask of the Prophet which it complements. His style is less immediately attractive than Martin's and his prose can be dense and his observations terse, but he approaches the texts in an engagingly systematic and imaginative way. It is a relief to find a work that does not talk about the "precursor of science fiction" and to find only three references to H. G. Wells in the index.
The strength of Butcher's book lies in its approach, for Space and Time are the most obvious themes in Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires (though Martin shows that there are others) and Butcher examines them from many points of view, illuminating the stories in a startling and complex way. He brings to Verne studies a thorough knowledge of the subject, a history of publication in scholarly journals, and a real love and enthusiasm for the work. On the other hand the scale of the book gives the impression that he may have been forced to compress a life-time's commitment into very few pages, and that he would have been happier with four times the number he has been given. Certainly this would have helped, since many points are made in a compressed or allusive way. For the general reader - who would without doubt learn a great deal from this book - it would have been helpful to give translations of the quotations (which are invariably beautifully apt).
Gavin Bryars is professor of music, Leicester Polytechnic. He is currently working on an opera, with libretto by Blake Morrison, based on Jules Verne's Doctor Ox's Experiment for production in 1993.