THE PROTEAN LIFE OF A VERNIAN FLIGHT
Scientist, sailor, continental trader. Playwright, poet, lawyer, dreamer. We are all familiar with the famous characters of Jules Verne and the places he took them in exploration. Not just on the land, but in our struggles upon those spaces wherein we live today. He had fought them just like you. We all do. Within his family, too.
But before we explore those personal flights with Verne, let us recall some of the fictional names and places whereupon which he landed.
Captain Nemo on the Nautilus; Professor Lidenbrock’s Journey to the Center of the Earth; Professor Aronnax, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Phileas Fogg, Around the World in Eighty Days; Michel Ardan and From the Earth to the Moon; John Strock and Robur the Conqueror; Dr. Sarrasin and Professor Schultze with Begum’s Millions.
Shall I go on? The memories are tantalizing. Satisfying. And there are so many more. Maybe eighty of the Voyages Extraordinaires, all told!
But let us now look at the man, the writer, the dreamer from Nantes. He kept 20,000 note cards of data in his old-fashioned desk drawer. And he put them to good use after he met his French publisher. But only after that man, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, rudely rejected his first novel. Here is what Hetzel said of it:
“In this piece, there is not a single issue concerning the real future that is properly resolved. No critique that hasn’t already been made and remade before. I am surprised at you … lackluster and lifeless.”
Yikes! That is a punch in the nose. Into the drawer that manuscript goes, only to be rediscovered more than 100 years later. Paris In the Twentieth Century was finally published in 1994.
Hetzel demanded⎯yes, demanded in the way that only editors can⎯something to educate and illuminate the French kind. Five Weeks in a Balloon set the form just fine. And Hetzel held Verne to that formula until the editor died. Forty years and many voyages later. Then Verne was free again.
And about those journeys, let me note what others noticed. Mostly men. Hetzel noticed too, and asked for something more. Romance? Here is what Verne said:
“You ask me to put in a word from the heart in passing! Is that all? The problem is that the word from the heart just does not come, otherwise it would have been there a long while ago.”
Things became more difficult for Verne later in life. Around age 58, still in his writing prime, he suffered a series of great traumas.
First his longtime Parisian woman friend, Mme. Duchesne, died. Then his publisher, Hetzel, died too. In that same year, an insane nephew shot him in the leg outside of his home in Amiens, France. A wound that would never properly heal. And in 1887, his mother died.
To Hetzel’s son, he wrote: “I have now entered the blackest part of my life.”
Almost ten years later, he would write to his brother: “All that remains to me are these intellectual distractions … my character is profoundly changed and I have received blows from which I will never recover.”
Indeed, after Hetzel’s death, with that “governor” removed, Verne once again returned to examine the type of social issues that he described in his first rejected dystopian novel. Oil spills, illicit ivory trade, animal extinctions, the power of religion, and the dangerous potential of technology.
Now to deal with the oft-stated conclusion that Verne was the founder of science fiction. He would say no, I think, pointing to Poe. And he disliked a comparison to H.G. Wells, almost forty years his junior.
In comparing his writing to that of Wells, Verne noted:
“Mr. Wells [writings] belong unreservatively to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present.”
Mr. Wells, in turn, had this to say about Verne’s writing:
“No literary resemblance whatever … [he-Verne-] dealt with actual possibilities of invention and discovery. [I-Wells-] hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument.”
But Verne never lost his sense of adventure. He had embarked on a flight of exploration, returning to the ground only at his death in 1905.
Later in life, Verne described his life’s goal:
“The task is to depict this earth, the whole world, in the form of a novel, with imaginative adventures special to each area, and creating particular characters suited to the places in which they live.”
Go ahead. There is more yet to do.
Spread your wings. I do!