Journey to the Centre of the Earth, By Jules Verne trs Frank Wynne

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The Independent Culture

The narrator of this classic novel has a hunger for all things geological and never tires of the company of precious stones. He has the blood of a mineralogist in his veins; his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, is a professor of mineralogy, and it is his uncle who will be the source of his adventures.

On 24 May 1863 (attention to detail fills the narrative), the narrator is summoned to his uncle's study and there gazes upon a scrap of parchment bearing a secret code. But a mere 20 characters can produce 2,432,902,008,176,640,000 combinations. It doesn't look hopeful for Lidenbrock, then, who must decipher a 132-character sentence. Yet luck shines upon our characters and there follows a journey into the centre of the earth, through layers of history and meaning.

Journeys are inherent in literature and almost every protagonist, as Jane Smiley points out in her introduction, has a task they must accomplish despite obstacles. Newly and well translated by Frank Wynne, this classic feels resonant in the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and sheds insight into what it means to make a journey at all – and why we are so gripped by reading about them.