JULES VERNE: A WRITER’S INQUIRY
I have an affinity for the stories of Jules Verne. And I am a student of the great Verne scholar, Arthur Evans, who has looked so deeply within the waters of Verne’s writing. More about them both in a moment.
My mother was French, born in Paris to the son of a famous French General and a woman born on the “Jersey Isle” of Shelby County, Kentucky, famed for its rich Jersey cream. A Kentucky woman whose family, my family, has now lived on this land continuously since we came here more than 225 years ago.
The ancestral home of my great-grandfather, General Athanase Charette de la Contrie, was in the quaint village of Couffe just upstream from Nantes on the Loire River in France. Nantes, where only thirty-six years before Charette’s birth, his great uncle, the Counter-Revolutionary guerrilla leader Francois Charette de la Contrie, was shot after leading the not-long-enough-successful rebellion against the French Revolution and its then leader, Napoleon. Nantes, where Jules Verne was born in 1828.
I wonder if Jules Verne’s lawyer father knew the members of my family or represented them in their times of trouble.
There is a museum of Jules Verne’s work on a high bank looking down across the river at the old island town, “Ille de Nantes.” There, on the top of that cliff, sits a bronze figure of a young boy looking out at the ocean past another bronze figure of a tall man with a sextant. The tall figure is, of course, a statue of Captain Nemo, Verne’s famous and tragic literary creation. Nemo was Captain of the submarine Verne called the “Nautilus” in his stories, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Mysterious Island.” The seated boy is Jules Verne, looking out to the faraway places wherein would be found those spectacular stories of adventure that he would write for you.
So, I have an affinity for the stories of Jules Verne.
I sat down next to the young bronze Verne in my travels back then, and that is how I now come to you. For when I looked out onto that faraway ocean, I saw my own stories, my own worlds, floating along in my own imaginative journeys.
That is why I came to join the North American Jules Verne Society, Inc. [NAJVS], an organization that you should join too. I recently helped arrange the Society’s annual meeting at Horse Cave, Kentucky, and before whom I delivered a more expanded version of this essay.
It was a meeting where we were also entertained by the original Americana music of David Foster, interpreted by the vibrant, yet gentle, fiddle of Masaka Jeffers. A meeting where we were then taken into the innards of the giant Hidden River Cave system, the opening of which is as deep and frightening as the maw of any giant whale into which Verne [or Herman Melville!] would throw his characters. And we were led within by Cato Holler’s faithful recreation of the Ruhmkorff Lamp that Verne used for his, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
My career path shares some similarity with that taken by Jules Verne. It informs me, I think, about some of his reasoning.
Both Jules Verne and I were trained as lawyers, and I, too, as a scientist, a field in which Jules Verne famously trained himself. But another joint experience that I think is just as important, involves the theatre. An experience that focused his thinking immediately after beginning his legal studies in Paris. I experienced something different, but still similar, in my Community Theatre in Shelby County, Kentucky.
Theatres in the mid 1800s in France and England produced “Spectacles” with lively but unchanging characters like those found in the plays of the great French playwright Moliere. It was there, in the theatre, that Verne found vent for his imagination and writing ambitions. In fact, Jules Verne first wanted, I think, to be a playwright. In the 1850s, as a young man in his thirties, Verne managed the Theatre Lyric in Paris [and then became a stockbroker to make a living], writing short stories on the side, submitting them to magazines for payment.
The “Realism” that would develop in theatre [influenced by writers like Dumas, Zola, and Poe] was just beginning to evolve, and would burst forth later in the plays of Henrik Ibsen [Norway, 1879, “A Doll’s House”], August Strindberg [Sweden, 1888, “Miss Julie”], and Anton Chekhov [Russia, 1897, “Uncle Vanya”]. Verne’s plays were “Spectacles,” much as were his novels, the “Extraordinary Voyages” [at least 50 of these novels were published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel]. In many ways, his books and plays were “Spectacular Travelogues,” where Verne blended scientific knowledge within complex stories of adventure in exotic locations.
Verne often went back to the theatre to stage his spectacular “Voyages Extraordinaires,” as his wildly popular novels were called.
In 1882, he again returned to the theatre as a playwright, where he wrote a fantasy [with Adolphe d’Ennery]mixing in characters from his popular books. The play was entitled, “Journey Through the Impossible.” The story of its rediscovery is exciting, as it had been lost for almost 100 years. Translated and published by NAJVS, it was recently staged for the first time in North America by the Montezuma-Cortez High School Drama Department in Cortez, Colorado. I saw the performance. It was wonderful and enlightening.
Verne, among other literary talents, could tell a good story. His publisher [Hetzel] described Verne’s writing as, “… all the flavor of a spicy dish while providing the substance of a nourishing meal.”
Well then, how did he do it?
Oftentimes Verne would just tell you, spreading in science like peanut butter on a sandwich. Like listing a great number of squirming fish species or the taxonomy of enticing plant specimens. He wasn’t singing with a tempo in the way that Shakespeare figured into his poetry. Yet, part of Verne’s brilliance was the smoothness of his exposition. Forward friendly, and easy on the stomach. Suddenly you realize that you learned something in the reading, by ingesting a slice of something like a scientific pizza!
Verne could also teach you by using parentheticals and footnotes [there are at least 700 of them!]. He would use maps [I do too], and included about 4,500 illustrations, averaging about 70 a book [I have about 800 full-page sketches by noted Louisville Illustrator, Steven P. Eilers, in my books].
But what I like most about Verne’s writing style is how he inserted himself within as a narrator [and maybe even a participant!] in his stories. And he often talked to you [the reader], or even to the characters themselves! He seemed to be able to switch seamlessly between different points of view. He might be an invisible narrator describing scientific data, and suddenly become an omniscient third-party ruler, or drop into the role of a first-person participant. And then suddenly, he would again draw you, the reader, into some kind of conspiratorial review of a character’s action, sometimes switching points of view in the same paragraph or discussion!
Verne was writing about what he found interesting, regardless of the literary strictures of the story. I think he was just having fun. And that is the message of my soliloquy. I think he was writing emotionally. Letting his feelings dictate how he would interact with the characters and adding verisimilitude to his stories by drawing in his readers to participate intimately with what he was thinking.
Remember that he said he once was “amused” when studying in the “Bibliotheque” [often the library in Amiens, France]. He was having fun in the learning and learning even more in the telling. He wasn’t just writing. He was engaging in a lively, emotional banter with you, the reader.
Arthur B. Evans [a longtime member of the Board of Directors of NAJVS] examined Verne’s complex narrative structure in his seminal work, “Jules Verne Rediscovered, Didacticism and the Scientific Novels” [1988 Greenwood Press, and including such illuminating concepts as “didactic,” “pedagogical,” “verisimilitude,” “semiotic,” and “mimetic”]. Evans provides several lively quotes that well reflect on Jules Verne’s unique writing style.
“Narrative voices emerge from nowhere, silencing those that
proceeded them, offering, for a moment, their own discourse,
then suddenly disappear, to be replaced by another one of
these nameless faces, these grey silhouettes … voices that are
intertwined, obscure, and contesting one another.” [From Michel
Foucault, “L’Arriere-Fable,” ‘L’Arc 29 (1966) in Arthur B. Evans’
“Jules Verne Rediscovered,” Greenwood Press, 1988.]
It makes for much fun in the reading, don’t you think? Here’s another one from Art Evans, himself.
“Verne’s brand of meta-narrator is his lack of fixity. Constantly
oscillating between objective omniscience and feigned ignorance,
between non-involvement and direct intrusion into the fiction
itself, and between a narrative position of … illusion [and]
deception … and … authorial ‘winks,’ [and] collusion.” [Arthur B. Evans,
“Jules Verne Rediscovered.”]
I think that many writers write as they think and think as they feel. That’s what I do, and I think Jules Verne did, too!