Jules Verne: mythmaker of the machine age

His literary reputation is being rehabilitated but, 100 years after his death, France is no closer to fully understanding him, writes John Lichfield

Monday 14 March 2005 01:00 GMT

In the statue erected above his grave in Amiens, in Picardy, Jules Verne resembles God, or Santa Claus. A man with a flowing white beard heaves aside the marble covering of his own tomb and reaches portentously towards the heavens. The statue was designed to commemorate a visionary, an immortal, a man who saw beyond the horizons of ordinary men.

In the statue erected above his grave in Amiens, in Picardy, Jules Verne resembles God, or Santa Claus. A man with a flowing white beard heaves aside the marble covering of his own tomb and reaches portentously towards the heavens. The statue was designed to commemorate a visionary, an immortal, a man who saw beyond the horizons of ordinary men.

Unfortunately, the grave stands under a clump of trees. On the day of my pilgrimage, the marble visionary had a large dollop of bird-shit in his eye. The effect was grotesque; Monty-Pythonesque, and strangely moving. Jules Verne's books have a gentle, mocking, French humour. (He liked especially to make fun of the British). He was a chronicler of the limitless possibilities, but also the frailties and limitations, of mankind. He would, one imagines, have found his promethean, bird-shit-splattered statue amusing.

Verne - prolific author, prophet, genius, the "father of science fiction", the first and greatest mythmaker of the machine age - was buried in the cemetery de la Madeleine in Amiens 100 years ago this month. The centenary of his death on 24 March will be marked by elaborate national and international celebrations and festivals, in Paris, in Nantes, his birthplace, and in Amiens, his adopted home.

In recent weeks, there has been a flood of new publications in France which attempt to identify the "real" Jules Verne. Was the author of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days a scientific visionary? A literary genius? A mere writer of ripping yarns for boys of all ages? A plagiarist? A small-minded, provincial hypocrite? He seems to have been all of these things.

Verne, the author, was incomparable. His 80 novels, written from 1854 till 1904, foreshadowed space travel (even identifying Florida as the launch-site for moon shots). They predicted, amongst other things, artificial satellites; large submarines; helicopters; television; video-players; and the development of plastics.

He remains one of the world's most popular writers, especially for children and teenagers. His literary abilities and status, mocked by the literary establishment of France in his lifetime, have been partly rehabilitated in the past 40 years. He was the first "global" writer, a man who wrote about, and addressed, the entire world.

He is, above all, one of those writers we all assume we have read, even if we have not, one of those writers whose works we absorb through our pores, if not through our eyes and brains.

Verne contributed for good or ill - and maybe against his real instincts - to the mood of technological optimism and future-worship which dominated the end of the 19th century and the first half, at least, of the 20th. He made science exciting and heroic. Whether he actually had any direct impact on research and technology is doubtful. Real aircraft and rockets and submarines took very different courses.

But his influence on the 20th-century artistic imagination, especially on the cinema, was immense. Verne's greatest hero, Captain Nemo, is a technological version of Ulysses or Captain Ahab. Nemo, in turn, spawned a hundred enigmatic, hermit, megalomanic, scientific geniuses, up to James Bond and Austin Powers' spoof Dr Evil. Nemo and his henchmen even wear an early form of jump-suit, made, we are told, from the material which joins shell-fish to their shells.

"Captain Nobody" and his submarine, Nautilus patrol endlessly beneath the waves on a mission - variously - to escape, chastise and redeem mankind. The real motives and character of Verne, the man rather than the author, remain equally opaque. An entertaining new book, Jules Verne, La Face cachée (The Hidden Face of Jules Verne) by Roger Maudhuy (France-Empuire, €19) clears up some of the Vernian mysteries but not all.

Verne was not, in private, the genial, humorous humanist and optimistic man of science, who addresses the reader from the pages of his books. He was a curmudgeon who led a mysterious, second life and went to great pains to cover his tracks and confuse biographers.

Why did he have two homes in Amiens? Why did he burn all his private papers? Why was he shot in the foot by his nephew, Gaston, in 1886? M. Maudhuy speculates that Verne, like Mitterrand, had a second wife and family. Nephew Gaston was locked in an asylum for 54 years after his attack on L'Oncle Jules. Was Gaston, in fact, Verne's natural son? Verne was marketed by his brilliant publisher, Pierre-Jules Hertzel, as a family man and writer of educational books for young people. He was in fact a terrible husband and a poor father.

In his writing, Verne is a poet of the machine, of the rational and tangible. His private life was a tapestry of evasions and paradoxes. Verne, the modernist, refused to use the early telephones and cars. Verne, the globalist, scarcely travelled. Verne, the cosmopolitan, was an anti-Semite. Verne, the creator of Phileas Fogg and several other immortal, British, fictional heroes, was, occasionally, vehemently anti-British. Verne, the socialist town councillor of Amiens, once wrote to a friend that he hoped the socialist revolutionaries of the 1870 Paris Commune would be "shot like dogs".

Above all, Verne, the scientific visionary, understood little about science. He had a weed-like imagination and an inexhaustible capacity to absorb facts. He created a triumphant new genre of "novels of science" by lifting ideas from a voracious daily reading of scores of books, newspapers and scientific journals. As a result, Verne got a few things right and many things absurdly wrong. His moon-rocket is a giant shell implausibly fired from a gun. The rocket is fitted out internally with plush armchairs and cupboards. It resembles the rocket in Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out.

But even Wallace and Gromit do not open the windows in outer space. Verne's 1860s astronauts do; to throw out the rubbish and admire the view.

His aircraft or helicopter, the Albatros (in Robur the Conqueror, 1886), is a Heath Robinsonish contraption, which looks like a flying sailing-ship. It has scores of vertical propellers instead of sails or wings. Like the Nautilus, the aircraft is operated by giant electric "sodium" batteries. How are these recharged? Verne's heroes give a gobbledygook explanation. In other words, the author had no idea.

Externally, the Nautilus looks like a giant fish, Its dimensions, 70m by eight, eerily match those of the nuclear submarines that patrol beneath the waves today. Internally, the Nautilus opens out like Dr Who's time machine, the Tardis, to become a submersible gentlemen's club, with endless rooms, ornate furniture, oil paintings by Old Masters, tapestries, wood-panelling, a 12,000-volume library and a church organ. There is much of the hack-writer in Jules Verne (just as there is in Charles Dickens). He allowed his publisher to edit him heavily and introduce changes of direction and happy endings.

His characters are often Boy's Own Paper caricatures. There are no memorable Vernian women. Some books, such as 20,000 Leagues, are female-free zones (fuelling the probably inaccurate suggestion that Verne was a homosexual, either in or out of the closet).

Verne is often portrayed as a futurologist. With H G Wells, whom he detested, he is jointly awarded the paternity of sci-fi. In fact, almost all of his books, all his giant submarines, moon-shots and huge aircraft, are set not in the future but in own time, the 1860s to 1890s.

In attitude and in details, Verne remains endearingly, or maddeningly, Victorian. He appears to be a creature of the age before the Titanic disaster, before the Great War, when the rapid technical advances of humanity seemed to offer only a benign, healthy, prosperous, exciting future.

There is nothing more perishable than visions of the future, even if they are located in "the present". Given his many imperfections, how has Verne survived? Why is he still venerated by thousands of "Vernians" all over the world and read in dozens of languages? Jean-Paul Dekiss, director of the Centre International Jules Vernes in Amiens and the writer of several books on the author, says: "Verne was the first modern mythmaker. He was the first writer to try to tell the story of what happens after God is de-throned, what happens when Man begins to fashion his own world, what happens when Man shrinks the globe and re-creates the terms on which he had existed for thousands of years.

"Verne wrestled with all these issues and made them into extraordinary stories, wonderfully told, poetically told. That is what makes him still so fresh and actual today. The details of how he saw machinery developing are finally beside the point. Yes, of course, he got many things wrong. What remains is his examination of the relationship between man and machine, man and science. He was the first person to make poetry out of the questions which still face us today, about the relationship between technology and humanity."

Verne's novels are by no means all optimistic and technophile. He has a more complex attitude towards "progress" than first appears. His work becomes increasingly dark. Even his early optimism may have been imposed on him partly by his publisher, Hertzel. A book written by Verne in 1860, predicting the world of 1960, was suppressed by Hertzel as too bleak for young minds.

Paris in the 20th century was not published until 11 years ago. It is a Huxleyan or Bradburyesque vision of a world in which something like the internet exists but everyone is obsessed with money. Laughter is banned. "It is usual to say Verne was an optimist and in many respects that is true," M. Dekiss says. "Verne believed in progress, He believed that mankind's inventions would - or could - make life safer, more tolerable, more civilised for the majority of human beings. "But there is much in Verne that goes beyond simple optimism. He asks who is going to control the machines. He asks - long before the ecological movement - how Man will replace the natural resources that he is using. Toward the end of his career, there is a deepening sense of foreboding about the role of money. He is fearful about what the combination of machinery and money-worship might do to the world."

It stung Verne to the end that he was not taken more seriously by the literary establishment. He was denied membership of the Académie Française, a fate which also befell more "literary" writers, such as Flaubert and Zola. The structuralist movement of literary analysis from the 1950s, helped reclaim Verne as a great writer, not just a great story-teller. The structuralists believed an artist's intentions are less revealing than the products of an artist's unconscious mind. Verne was rewarding territory. You do not have to swallow the structuralist ideology whole to see that it helps to resolve the central paradox of Jules Verne.

Here was a writer, a conservative curmudgeon in private life, who set out to write ripping yarns with half-understood facts stolen from science journals. He ended up reworking, for the modern and humanist age, the legends which humanity has told about itself for centuries. Jules Verne is still excluded from the literary top table. If you look at American academic lists of the 100 greatest novels in all languages, you will not find any titles by Jules Verne. If you look at lists of the best-selling classic authors, you will find several.

Modern writers as disparate as Umberto Eco, Georges Perec, Albert Camus and the Hungarian novelist, Peter Esterhazy, have saluted Verne's influence. Esterhazy says Verne is not generally accepted as a "great writer" because he does not "divide opinion" enough. In other words, he appeals to too wide an audience to be regarded as serious.

"Verne is a true writer, as well as a great story-teller," Esterhazy says. "His work is incredibly rich, extraordinary, even if he also appeals to children, women, the young, the old, homosexuals and football players." There is a wonderful moment in 20,000 Leagues when the narrator realises that the giant sea monster which has been terrorising the shipping lanes is not of God's making but man's. He exclaims: "The discovery of the most fabulous, the most mythological, natural creature would not have dumbfounded me half as much. That the Creator creates prodigies is obvious. To discover abruptly, before one's own eyes, that, by unknown means, the impossible has been achieved by the hand of Man, was enough to scramble my wits." The tragic hero of Verne's best novels is mankind: the infinite capacity of Man, our flaws, our absurdities and our capacity for self-delusion.

On the one hand, the arm reaching to the heavens; on the other, the bird-shit in the eye... Which will triumph? Jules Verne leaves the question open.

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