The extraordinary resurgence of Jules Verne

How a long-dead Frenchman became one of the most important science fiction writers in current American culture

Topics: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Fiction, Books,

The extraordinary resurgence of Jules VerneJules Verne

Few people some 20 years ago, near the start of the administration of George Bush Sr. — when cyberpunk was still a fresh notion, when there existed only three “Star Wars” films, all good, and when the word “steampunk” had only just been coined — would have predicted that in the early 21st century some of the most entertaining and deftly rendered science fiction being currently published would derive from the pen of a Frenchman dead for a century, whose legacy had long been set in cement as amounting to nothing more than ham-handed adventure novels for juveniles. And yet at that distant time, the rediscovery of this Gallic genius was actually well under way, and today his stature is almost completely restored to its former glory.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThe author under discussion, as you might well guess, is none other than Jules Verne, one of the two generally acknowledged fathers of the science fiction genre, along with his co-daddy, H. G. Wells. Recent years have seen a flood of “new” Verne titles, including re-translations of familiar classics (“The Mysterious Island”), first-time English versions of lesser-known novels (“The Kip Brothers”), and even heretofore-lost manuscripts brought to light (“Paris in the Twentieth Century”). Taken as a whole, this mass of Verniana has encouraged a reassessment of the writer’s career among scholars and critics, as well as providing real pleasures for the average reader and fan.

My own reawakened interest in a figure I had long ago stuffed into his unfairly assigned pigeonhole stems from my attendance in 2004 at the Utopiales Festival held yearly in Nantes, Verne’s hometown. There a handful of guests were given a generous and highly educational tour of the official Verne archives that hold almost 100 of his extant manuscripts. This focus on Verne’s craft and accomplishments primed me to appreciate the new editions when I encountered them: a raft of reissues as entertaining as they are scholarly and lovingly translated.

Credit for kicking off the English-speaking world’s recalibration of Verne should go to Walter James Miller, a professor at NYU whose efforts along these lines began in the far-off year of 1965, with his essay “Jules Verne in America: A Translator’s Preface.” This piece famously exposed the No. 1 rotting albatross fastened to poor Verne’s neck: inexpert translations. For instance, Verne’s original straightforward geographical reference in one book to the “Badlands of Nebraska” emerged through the boneheaded efforts of such early interpreters as W.H.G. Kingston as “the disagreeable territories of Nebraska.” And in his notes to “The Begum’s Millions,” scholar Peter Schulman gives the example of how Verne’s fanciful metaphor of Paris as a competitive social arena somehow got turned around via bad anonymous translation into a depiction of the protagonist as a professional wrestler!

Aside from inexcusably moronic infelicities, Verne’s works in English were also plagued with unauthorized cuts and interpolations that had the cumulative effect of simplifying the textual complexities and controversies. No wonder publishers began to market the books solely as adventures for boys. And lastly, Verne suffered from the cack-handed ministrations of his heirs: His final bequest of posthumous titles were shamelessly recast to their detriment by his son Michel, further sullying the father’s legacy.

The latest installment in the restoration of Jules Verne is, admittedly, one of his lesser late-period works: “Le Chateau des Carpathes” from 1893, usually presented in English as “The Carpathian Castle”, but in this incarnation offered as “The Castle in Transylvania” — possibly with a somewhat commercial eye toward luring all lovers of things vampiric.

And with some justification, since this book is an illuminating rarity among Verne’s output, a Gothic-steeped romance whose scientific aspects are kept hidden till the climax. And so, yes, we have here Verne’s very own pioneering entry in what the invaluable TV Tropes website identifies as the “Scooby Doo Hoax” mode of storytelling: “The characters investigate a site with reported paranormal activity. By the end of the episode, they discover that the supposed supernatural activity is nothing but an elaborate hoax taking advantage of local lore to frighten off the curious from discovering and interfering with their main criminal activity.” Verne’s villain even manages to satisfy the “You Meddling Kids” trope well known to fans of Scooby and Shaggy’s adventures: “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Chalk up another visionary accomplishment for the Sage of Amiens! What a television scripter he would have made!

Before delving into the story of “The Castle in Transylvania,” let us pay homage to the fine new translation by the experienced and talented Charlotte Mandell.

My battered Ace paperback of “The Carpathian Castle” from 1963 opens with this line: “This story is not fantastic; it is simply romantic and nobody would think of classifying it as legendary.” Mandell offers: “This story is not fantastic; it is only romantic.” So far, so close. But then the 1963 version begrudges us merely two more prosaic sentences prior to launching the plot. Mandell, however, gives us an almost postmodern observation: “We are living in a time when anything can happen — one can almost say, when everything has happened.” Then follows the restoration of one of Verne’s charming info-dumps, nearly a page’s worth, on the myths of Transylvania, before reaching the same jumping-off point of the story’s real-time action.

This creative upgrade in the quality of the prose and fidelity to the original text persists throughout the novel and sets high standards for the reader’s enjoyment.

Now, what of Verne’s tale itself?

We are in the small mountain village of Werst, where a castle, abandoned for 20 years, broods from on high. No one visits the decrepit yet sturdy place, for fear of spooks and in reverence toward the last owner, Baron Rudolf of Gortz, who left the region under mysterious circumstances. But then a shepherd spots smoke coming from the castle, and the village goes into a panic. Plainly, the devil has taken up habitation there! A local skeptic, handsome young Nic Deck, volunteers to investigate. He co-opts Dr. Patak as his partner. Patak, previously a bold unbeliever (at least in conversation), is now revealed in the face of the unknown to be cowardly. But pride forces him not to back down.

At the castle, supernatural manifestations occur, Nic is shocked insensible, and the investigators are forced to retreat. At this point, Verne makes an unexpected lateral move. A visitor to the village arrives by chance, one Count Franz of Telek, accompanied by his loyal manservant. We get Franz’s back story, which involves a doomed love affair with an opera singer — a woman who was literally frightened to death by none other than the creepy Baron Rudolf of Gortz and his sinister henchman, the Faustian Orfanik! Learning this, Franz of course vows to solve the mystery of the castle, or die trying. He discovers Gortz and Orfanik in hiding — really up to nothing more evil than having a good morbid pity party and trying out a few cutting-edge electrical inventions on the medieval townsfolk — before the whole place gets blown up in a suicide move by Gortz.

This simplistic plot, predictable by even the most naive reader of 2010, was probably no big surprise even to the “Castle of Otranto”-savvy Gothic fan of 1893. Nonetheless, Verne’s tale remains compulsively readable for a number of reasons.

First is the craftsmanship. After so many books, the 65-year-old author was an expert at pacing, characterization and scene-setting. His villagers are all as solid and utilitarian as firewood, yet a gentle mocking humor pervades. He ladles in just enough of his customary background detail — cultural, scientific, geological, historical — to render everything plausible and tactile. Moreover, there is a real manifestation of Verne’s love of the natural world here, in his lush descriptions of the forests surrounding Wertz.

The reader can also take pleasure in the cleverly contrasting natures of the three sets of protagonists. Nic Deck and Dr. Patak represent the unsophisticated, clownish but earnest peasants, living remnants of a fading age. Franz and his servant stand for urban sophistication, wiser but still limited. And Gortz and Orfanik are doomed scientific seekers after hidden knowledge, advancing civilization even through base and selfish motives. The interplay among these three paradigms provides plenty of complexity.

Verne’s handling of a love affair is, for him, anomalous and intriguing. A biography of the author by his niece speculates about a secret love affair occurring around this time. But whatever the real-world impetus, the story prefigures the then-unwritten “The Phantom of the Opera” in fascinating ways.

But the essential science-fictional aspect of the book lies in its clash of cultures. The theme of a superior outside power deranging the isolation of an obsolescent backward enclave is prime SF matter — see Samuel R. Delany‘s archetypal “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line.” In the end, “The Castle in Transylvania” stands as an example of Verne at his most pleasurable and educational, exploring the remarkable reality of our simultaneous technological plummet and ascent.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>