Sunday, December 09, 2018

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century; (with Michel Verne) The Lighthouse at the End of the World

Introduction

Opening Passages: From Paris in the Twentieth Century:

On August 13, 1960, a portion of the Parisian populace headed for the many Métro stations from which various local trains would take them to what had once been the Champ-de-Mars. It was Prize Day at the Academic Credit Union, the vast institution of public education, and over this solemn ceremony His Excellency the Minister of Improvements of the City of Paris was to preside.

The Academic Credit Union and the age's industrial aims were in perfect harmony: what the previous century called Progress had undergone enormous developments. Monopoly, that ne plus ultra of perfection, held the entire country in its talons; unions were founded, organized, the unexpected results of their proliferation would certainly have amazed our fathers. (p. 3)

From The Lighthouse at the End of the World:

The sun was setting behind the hills which bounded the view to the west. The weather was fine. On the other side, over the sea, which to the north-east and east was indistinguishable from the sky, a few tiny clouds reflected the sun's last rays, soon to be extinguished in the shades of the twilight, which lasts for a considerable time in this high latitude of the fifty-fifth degree of the southern hemisphere. (p. 1)

Summary: It is always dangerous to treat novels as reflecting their author's lives, particularly when the novelist is as imaginative as Jules Verne. However, in understanding Paris in the Twentieth Century, it is perhaps relevant to know that while Jules Verne wanted to write plays, his father pressured him heavily to become a lawyer, and while he was a law student, the woman he wanted to marry was married off by her family to a wealthy landowner because her family did not think it acceptable for a young woman to marry a young student without a significant income. When Verne began collaborating with the younger Dumas, he began to pursue a literary rather than a legal career, against his father's protests. However, when he began again to consider marriage, he recognized that he would need a steadier income, and became a stock broker. He was competent enough at it, and the job got him his marriage -- but he continued to aim for his literary career. Verne knew very well the difficulty of literary ambitions in a society obsessed with practicality and profit.

Michel Dufrénoy, sixteen years old, gets a degree in Classics, and everyone thinks him a fool for it, because what can you do with Latin composition? After his graduation, Michel's uncle tells him that he must have a practical job, and gets him a position as a clerk in a banking company, where he can work his way up. Unfortunately, Michel is hopelessly impractical and turns out to have no skills useful for any clerical tasks, until he is finally assigned to The Ledger. It is exactly what the name suggests: a huge ledger in which the company's financial statement is displayed to the world in gorgeous calligraphic style; Michel will be dictating for the calligrapher, Quinsonnas, an artist of thirty years old who, like Michel, has difficulty fitting in because of his artistic ambitions. They are both barely holding on in a society that sees no value except monetary value. Michel falls in love with a girl, Lucy, and Quinsonnas sourly tells him that there are no women anymore, just female careerists; unfortunately, Quinsonnas gets so caught up in his diatribe that he spills ink on The Ledger, and just like that, the last job that either could have is gone. Michel becomes a starving artist, writing his book of poetry, which is then rejected by every publisher in Paris. And then a winter comes that is so cold that there are food shortages everywhere, and little hope becomes no hope.

The Paris in which Michel Dufrénoy lives is a city of wonders. There are electric lights everywhere, trains that run on magnets and compressed air, synthetic food, calculating machines, flexible and comfortable clothes woven out of metal, and more. However, it is also dominated by money above all other things. People have sometimes suggested that The Ledger is a sign of Verne's prophetic prowess having failed, but I think this is not true in the sense that is usually meant. Large and wealthy companies have always wasted money in gaudy and conspicuous things done primarily to impress; you have only to look at some of the more successful tech companies today to see similar things, and in the actual 1960s they were likely more brazen. If anything, the implausibility of The Ledger today is not in some company paying an artist to decorate a book in larger-than-life public view but in being that transparent about its finances. The company at which Michel works, being a monopoly in its own right, is very confident of its ability to turn a profit each day. But that just underlines the point, and makes The Ledger a memorable symbol. You learn a lot about a society from what it will devote its artistic resources to, whatever those resources might be; and what captures the attention even of Paris in the twentieth century, enough to inspire them to art, is a record of financial victories. Everything else -- including entertainment, as Michel tries, and fails, to write plays according to formula -- is industrialized; but The Ledger is alone treated as a thing of beauty and value in its own right.

Michel is over-the-top impractical; he fails at literally everything except Latin nobody cares about and poetry that will never sell. It's not surprising that Hetzel, Verne's publisher, found him exasperating and asked why he couldn't get a job delivering packages or something. But part of Verne's point, I take it, is that in a society that was more balanced, Michel would find at least some place; it's the ruthlessness of society's practicality that chases him away, its unwillingness to tolerate any inefficiency and its refusal to allow that there is anything more important than what is profitable. The Paris in which Michel Dufrénoy lives is indeed a city of wonders. But it is not a city that fulfills all of human potential, and none of those wonders prevent Michel's story from being a tragedy.

The Lighthouse at the End of the World, revised and published posthumously by Michel Verne shortly after Jules Verne's death, is a different sort of tale entirely. A new lighthouse has been built by the Argentine navy at the far south reaches of the South American continent, thus opening up passages and bays that previously were too dangerous for regular use. Vasquez, Moriz, and Felipe have been assigned as the first lighthouse keepers. Unbeknownst to them, however, the island on which the lighthouse has been built is also sheltering shipwrecked pirates who are trying to find a way to leave that does not result in their capture by the navy. Their plan involves the seizure of the lighthouse once the lighthouse keepers no longer have their naval support. They put out the light, leading to the shipwreck of the American ship, The Century, from which only one sailor survivors, John Davis. Together Vasquez and Davis will have to play a dangerous game of keeping the pirates from leaving before the Argentine dispatch ship returns with soldiers who can bring the pirates to justice. It makes a solid no-frills adventure story that lays the scene slowly in the first half so that it can be fast-paced in the second half.

Verne tends to draw on two sources for his literary effects -- the romance of geography and the romance of scientific frontiers. While both are present in both of these works to some extent, Paris is very much more focused on the scientific frontiers kind; the geography is basically just that of Paris and its environs, although it plays a substantial role at important points in the novel. Lighthouse is more focused on the geographical kind, although it does get into state-of-the-art (for the early 1900s) lighthouse technology. Likewise, Verne tends to make use of two kinds of story-interest: satire and adventure. Paris is definitely on the satire side and Lighthouse is definitely on the adventure side. Between them, these two works just outside of the ordinary Voyages Extraordinaires -- the first having been turned down for the series and the second a draft manuscript published only after Verne's death with his son's revisions -- do a good job of capturing the range of Verne's overall work.

Favorite Passages: From Paris:

"If I were absolutely free, Uncle," the young man replied, "I'd like to put into practice that definition of happiness I once read somewhere, and which involves four conditions."

"And what, without being too inquisitive, might they be?" asked Quinsonnas.

"Life in the open air," answered Michel, "the love of a woman, detachment from all ambition, and the creation of a new form of beauty."

"Well then!" exclaimed the pianist with a laugh, Michel's already achieved half his program."

"How's that?" asked Uncle Huguenin.

""Life in the open air--he's already been thrown onto the street!" (pp. 162-163)

From Lighthouse:

Without a moment's hesitation Vasquez left the watch room and hurried down the staircase into the quarters of the ground floor.

There was not a second to lose. Already the sound of the boat sheering off from the schooner to bring some of the crew ashore could be heard.

Vasquez seized a couple of revolvers, which he slipped into his belt, crammed a few provisions into a bag, which he threw over his shoulder. He then came out of the quarters and ran rapidly down the slope of the enclosure, to disappear into the darkness undetected. (p. 95)

Recommendation: Recommended, both. Paris is very good if you like the more technological side of Verne, and Lighthouse is quite enjoyable if you like the more adventurous side.

*****

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, Howard, tr., Ballantine (New York: 1996).

Jules Verne, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, Metcalfe, tr., Fredonia Books (Amsterdam: 2001).

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