Saturday, April 07, 2018

Jules Verne, The Kip Brothers; Travel Scholarships

Introduction

Opening Passages: From The Kip Brothers:

At that time--1885--forty-six years after its occupation by Great Britain, which had made it part of New South Wales, and thirty-two years after its independence from the Crown, New Zealand, now self-governing, was still devoured by gold fever.... (p. 3)

From Travel Scholarships:

"First place, ex aequo, goes to Louis Clodion and Roger Hinsdale," proclaimed the director Julian Ardagh in a resounding voice. The two laureates were welcomed by loud cheers, multiple hurrahs, and a big round of applause.

Then, from atop the platform raised in the center of the Antillean School's main courtyard, the director continued to read the list before him.... (p. 3)

Summary: As I noted in the Introduction, these were the two last books in the Voyages extraordinaires to be translated into English (2007 and 2013), so they are virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, which is a pity, because they are actually quite good. The Kip Brothers takes us to the South Seas, mostly in and around New Zealand and the Bismarck Archipelago. It's gold rush days, so it's difficult to keep crews on ships in the area, because the temptation to desert and try for a fortune is so great. The need for sailors that this causes means that ships sometimes cannot be picky about the ones they sign, and this will cause problem for the brig James Cook, as a faction on board is able to put people into place to enact a plan for seizing the ship and using it for very lucrative piracy. Before the plan is enacted, however, the brig takes on two Dutch brothers, Karl and Pieter Kip, who had been stranded after shipwreck. The brig's captain is murdered, and the brothers Kip are framed for it, successfully, and sentenced to hard labor in a prison colony. The big question is how they will be saved from their predicament. In a case like this, there is always something being overlooked, and you just have to have the eyes to see it.

The introduction, by Jean-Michel Margot, which is quite good, notes that The Kip Brothers is a very vision-focused novel. The sciences that are key to the tale are photography and ophthalmology, which together provide the very limited science-fictiony aspect of it (the resolution of the tale depends on state-of-the-art photographic methods allowing unusually sharp photographs and on the theory of forensic optography). But it's not really any more science-fictiony than any number of crime dramas today, which almost always take some license with the real capabilities of forensic investigation, and we probably should classify the book in this genre. Like many crime dramas, it has much of the structure of a mystery tale, but there is no actual mystery, since we know almost everything about the crime; the suspense arises not from the question of how the crime was committed, or who did it, but from the question of how justice will manage to be served. The book is vision-focused not just in the sense that it relies on sciences of vision but also in the sense that it is concerned with the separation of how things seem from how they really are, which is partly why it has the mystery-like structure despite not being a mystery story. This mystery-like contrast between appearance and reality allows the book to explore some very serious issues, including raising questions about the nature of British penal colonies and British handling of political opposition (Verne is always sympathetic to the fight for freedom, and so is quite explicit in his admiration of Irish rebels).

The book was also published at an important turning-point in book illustration, as photography became more useful for the purpose. Thus the work was also itself a physical expression of its concern with vision, and included woodcuts, photographs, and maps; one of the excellences of the Wesleyan UP edition is that it recognizes that these, although often themselves only selected at the last minute, are not optional extras given the themes of the book, but important parts of how it is telling its story.

Travel Scholarships, a much shorter and more light-hearted work, tells the story of a group of young men from the Antillean School in London, founded specifically for the purpose of education boys from wealthy families associated with the European colonies in the Windward Antilles. A wealthy resident of Barbados, Mrs. Seymour, has offered the top students of the school a free tour of the Antilles, which will allow them to visit the places they were born and family that they have not seen in years, and in addition a substantial scholarship once they actually reach Barbados at the end of their tour. Enthusiastic, as you might imagine, the boys and their chaperone, the meticulous and well-meaning but buffoonish Horatio Patterson, board the Alert, which has been hired for their voyage. Unbeknownst to them, but known to the reader, the crew of the Alert has been massacred by escaped criminals hoping to take the ship; the criminals masquerade as the crew to effect their escape and intend to murder all their passengers once they get out to sea.

Like The Kip Brothers, Travel Scholarships has something of the structure of a mystery story without any mystery. We largely know what's going on at every stage. There some ways in which the story would have benefited from an actual mystery -- why are Captain Paxton and his crew, despite being competent, a little 'off' of what you'd expect? -- but I'm fairly sure that Verne was making a hard choice. Verne's works are geographical fiction; what he really wants to tell is an interesting story about touring the Antilles. But this tour needs to be more than a travelogue; it needs to be integrated into a narrative that makes it exciting -- and in this case the most obvious option is a suspense story about the boys and their chaperone being in the shadow of a danger on the Alert to which they are, in one of Verne's deliberate ironies, not alert. Suspense, of course, differs from mystery in that it depends crucially on the reader knowing things that the characters do not; this makes it more difficult to build properly. Verne does a fairly good job with this, in part because he carefully thinks through the problems that escaping the danger actually would involve, and in part because he clearly sought to keep the story simple and straightforward, with nothing like the layered complications that he uses to build the more abstract suspense of The Kip Brothers. (It's possible also that Verne was taking time constraints very seriously, and so had to choose not to keep working on the story -- Verne decided to publish it when he did because the United States was on the way to ruining the structure of his story by trying to negotiate the purchase Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas from Denmark. As it happened, it took a few more years before they became the U.S. Virgin Islands, but, of course, Verne had no way of knowing that. Incidentally, an interesting aspect of Travel Scholarships is that the United States at the time had thirty-eight stars on its flag, but Verne anticipates its having fifty -- for him, a somewhat sarcastic comment on the increasing imperialism of the U.S. in his day, but for us, one of those Vernian prophecies.)

While The Kip Brothers and Travel Scholarships are both suspense stories, The Kip Brothers is serious suspense while Travel Scholarships is mostly humorous suspense. Travel Scholarships is at times hilariously funny, and probably the most comic Verne novel I have read. That it is humorous does not prevent it from touching on serious issues, in this case the issues of colonialism and bad behavior of the European powers with regard to their colonies. Verne also recognizes that, through the European squabbling, the Windward Antilles have the character of being a kind of more promising representation of Europe than Europe itself. The comradeship of the boys, with their diverse European backgrounds that are nonetheless linked by their Antillean roots, forms a sort of United Nations of Europe, representing the rich potential of the colonies should they ever unite together. Verne represents this by a reflection on how time can change the geographical landscape, even to the degree of turning an archipelago of little islands divided from each other by sea into a single continent of untold resources.

Favorite Passages: From The Kip Brothers:

O'Brien and Macarthy never wanted to identify their accomplices. They alone took upon themselves the responsibility of this conspiracy. The court dealt with them with excessive severity. It condemned them to life imprisonment at hard labor, and they were sent to the penitentiary of Port Arthur.

These men, however, were not the only political prisoners. Port Arthur already had many under lock and key when Dumont d'Urville visited it in 1840. The French navigator, in teh name of justice, protested against this barbarous practice when he cried out: "The penalties received by thieves and counterfeiters have not been deemed severe enough for the political prisoners, who have been judged unworthy of living among them and, as rogues deemed incorrigible, have been cast among murderers."

It was there then, in 1879, that the two Irishmen O'Brien and Macarthy had been transported and had remained for eight long years. They were subjected to the penal colony's regulations in all their rigor, in the middle of that foul peat bog. (p. 316)

From Travel Scholarships, in which are given the first humorous description of the very meticulous Mr. Patterson -- a good example of something often lost in translations, namely, Verne's willingness to experiment with his craft, as witnessed by the very meticulous long sentence:

Mr. Patterson, lifting his glasses up to his forehead, answered the servant who was standing at the door, saying:

"I will go to the director's office without wasting a single moment."

And, putting his glasses back in place, Mr. Patterson picked up his pen once more to finish the leg of a "9" that he was writing at the bottom of the expenses column of a large book. Then, with his ebony ruler, he drew a line under the column with numbers whose addition he had just completed. Then, after having lightly shaken his pen over the ink well, he dipped it several times in the lead jar that kept it clean, dried it extremely carefully, placed it near his ruler on his desk, turned the inkwell's pump to put the ink back in, placed the sheet of carbon paper on the expenses page, taking special care not to alter the leg of the nine, closed the register, placed it inside its special case inside the desk, put back in their box the eraser, the pencil, and the rubber band, blew on his blotting paper to chase away some dust, stood up while pushing back his armchair with the leather seat, took off his oversleeves and hung them on a peg near the fireplace, gave a quick brush to his frock coat, his vest, and his pants, grabbed his hat, which he shone with his elbow, secured it on his head, put on his black leather gloves as if he were making an official visit to an important person at the University, looked one last time in the mirror, verified that everything was irreproachable in his appearance, took the scissors and cut a strand of his sideburns that went over the allowed line, checked that his handkerchief and his wallet were in his pocket, opened his office door, passed over the threshold and closed it carefully with one of the seventeen keys that rattled on his key chain, went down the stairs that lead to the main courtyard, crossed it diagonally with a slow and steady step to arrive at the building that housed Mr. Ardagh's office, stopped in front of the door, pressed the electric button that made a warbling ring inside, and waited. (pp. 18-19)

Recommendation: Both Highly Recommended. The Wesleyan UP editions (Early Classics of Science Fiction) are themselves nice, and add to the pleasure of the reading.

********

Jules Verne, The Kip Brothers, Evans, ed., Luce, tr. Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CO: 2007).

Jules Verne, Travel Scholarships, Evans, ed., Hernández, tr. Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CO: 2013).

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