Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days


Opening Passage:

Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1816. He was one of the most noticeable members of the Reform Club, though he seemed always to avoid attracting attention; an enigmatical personage, about whom little was known except that he was a polished man of the world. People said that he resembled Byron,--at least that his head was Byronic; but he was a bearded, tranquil Byron, who might live on a thousand years without growing old.

Summary: One of the interesting techniques that Verne uses to tell the story of the tour of the world is the contrast between the phlegmatic Fogg and the excitable Passepartout, his servant. By giving the latter a significant role, Verne is able to play up the excitement and exotic flavor of the adventure; but the wonder of the journey is intensified when this is combined with Fogg's imperturbability. Phileas Fogg rushes around the world in record time just as if he were taking the train to Paddington station. While Passepartout is being astounded by foreign climes, Fogg is barely looking up, playing whist. We can compare it to flying, which Fogg would no doubt have liked. It is astounding to soar through the air at massive speeds; most of us just take out a book or tablet and barely notice -- and to an outside observer that makes it even more astounding, a feature that would be even more marked if we were sitting next to someone who did not even know flight was possible until yesterday.

The point could easily be lost on us. Verne has to explain quite carefully what mangoes and saki are; many of us can just pick them up at the supermarket. The Suez canal or rail across the continent is old hat to us; both were less than three years old when Fogg made his journey. As with technology, so with culture. As an American, one of the more charming aspects of the trip is seeing the United States as an exotic foreign country, one in which everything is done with an insane amount of energy and obstinacy, in which strange Mormon prophets and missionaries wander the landscape, in which a train can be delayed because a shoot-out erupts between Sioux Indians and the passengers. Alas, I am afraid we raise a less romantically heroic and energetic crop in these modern days. But this, too, is part of what Verne shows in his contrast between Fogg and Passepartout, on this barely possible trip at the edge of human capability: the impossible becomes possible, then easy; the difficult becomes commonplace; a man may tour the world as if it were a commute.

Verne is always excellent in part because he never gets lost in the technological Wow. These adventures are always human stories to him, and although Fogg is nearly more machine than human in the journey, he too can have only a human impetus and a human destination, or it is not an adventure at all. And thus we get the remarkable end to the book, in which the happy ending is not the completion of the tour but a marriage, in good classical fashion. Whether it is in his more pessimistic works or in this, one of his most optimistic, the wonders are for the people, not the people for the wonders, because it is the people who make them wonders at all. His own words tell it best:

What had he really gained by all this trouble? What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?

Nothing, say you? Perhaps so; nothing but a charming woman, who, strange as it may appear, made him the happiest of men!

Truly, would you not for less than that make the tour around the world?

Favorite Passage:

But Phileas Fogg, who was not travelling, but only describing a circumference, took no pains to inquire into these subjects; he was a solid body, traversing an orbit aroud the terrestrial globe, according to the laws of rational mechanics.

Recommendation: Highly recommended, of course; it's one of those books everyone should read every so often.

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