Saturday, June 02, 2018

Jules Verne, The Self-Propelled Island; A Castle in Transylvania


Opening Passages: From The Self-Propelled Island:

When a trip begins badly, it rarely ends well. At least this is an opinion that the four musicians, whose instruments were lying on the ground, would surely have a right to maintain. Indeed, the carriage they had taken at the final station of the railroad had just tipped over onto the shoulder of the road. (p. 3)

From The Castle in Transylvania:

This story is not fantastic; it is only romantic. Should we conclude that it isn't true, given its implausibility? That would be a mistake. We are living in a time when anything can happen--one can almost say, when everything has happened. If our tale is not very likely today, it can be so tomorrow, thanks to the scientific resources that are the lot of the future, so no one should take it into his head to rank it among legends. Moreover, legends have stopped being created in the decline of this practical and positive nineteenth century, even in Brittany, the country of the fierce Breton goblins, or in Scotland, the land of brownies and gnomes, or in Norway, the homeland of aesir, elves, sylphs and Valkyries, or even in Transylvania, where the setting of the Carpathians lends itself so readily to all psychogogic evocations. It should be noted, however, that Transylvania as a country is still quite attached to the superstitions of long ago. (p. 5)

Summary: In L'Île à hélice, Propeller Island, or, as it is in this translation, The Self-Propelled Island, a string quartet finds themselves on an artificial island, Standard Island, slowly traveling the Pacific; on the artificial island, there is an entire city, Milliard City, so-called because it is filled with billionaires and millionaires. They discover that the city is largely divided between Starboard and Larboard. On one side, the Tankerdon family, a Yankee family that became one of the wealthiest families in Chicago, predominates, with their industrious Calvinist mores; on the other side, the Coverleys, a Southern family scarcely less rich, are the foremost social influences, with their humanistic Catholic tastes. But Larboard or Starboard, both sides share two things: love of music, and extraordinary wealth of a thoroughly American kind. The problem, of course, with billionaires is that they ar enot practiced in deferring to other people, and a society requires a willingness to bend one's own will, and not merely the will of others. And the problem with Milliard City, of course, is that it is a purely artificial society. There are some things that unite it: the geographical proximity of being on the same island, the good management of the corporation that owns and runs Standard Island, the residue of a shared, and very American, culture. But the cracks will begin to show as the island has all the problems of an independent nation, and all the problems of an island, and all the problems of a ship at sea, and all the problems of a divided society, until it all cracks apart.

This contrasts with the quartet themselves. They are each radically different -- indeed, they are almost abstract types of completely different people, and this is explicitly emphasized by Verne himself: "So that we will not forget, let us mention once again that Zorn was irascible, Yvernés phlegmatic, Frascolin calm, and Pinchinat overflowing with joviality" (p. 9). But they are close and inseparable friends. Their little quartet is not an artificial society, but a natural one, built out of common bonds from a common love and for a common project, a true friendship. And, really, the only two things that cam make a society natural and genuinely united as one are friendship and marriage. A bunch of billionaires in the ultimate gated community have barely a society at all, despite having every technological advance known to man and every sort of prosperity any society could want.

In Le Château des Carpathes, The Castle of the Carpathians, or, as it is in this translation, The Castle in Transylvania, the backwards little village of Werst in Transylvania sits below a great ruin of a castle that it is said to be haunted by the Chort, the devil, and other malevolent spirits. The local village freethinker, Dr. Patak scoffs at their superstitions, but one day the local shepherd discovers through a telescope that there is smoke coming from the castle. What is more, as some people are discussing the matter in the local inn, a disembodied voice tells them not to investigate the castle. The brave Nic Deck and the rather less brave Dr. Patak ignore the voice and go up to the castle, and there find strange happenings that terrify them and the whole countryside. In the meantime, another, even more modern-minded man of the world, Count Franz of Telek, who is passing through, sets out to show that there is nothing to the superstitions, particularly when he learns that the castle is owned by Baron Rudolph of Gortz, whom he had met years before when they both were admirers of a great opera singer, La Stilla.

The opposition and similarities of the two freethinkers is interesting. They both overestimate themselves, but in different ways. Dr. Patak talks a big game, boldly scoffing at the superstitions of the ignorant peasants when nothing whatsoever is at stake; but we see quite clearly that he is not really willing to act as boldly when put to the test. The Count, on the other hand, has all the boldness required, and is in every way a superior man to Dr. Patak, but he overestimates both his rationality and his strength of mind. Neither of them really understand human nature as much as they think they do; and thinking themselves men of reason, they both show themselves to be heavily motivated by unthinking, unreasoning passions. And neither of them understand the world as much as they think they do, either; the world itself allows for phenomena, discoverable by the scientist, of which they had never conceived.

Music plays an important role in both works, chamber music in The Self-Propelled Island and opera in The Castle in Transylvania. Chamber music serves as an example of a genuine society; opera, I think, serves to capture the depth of human feeling. And both give us a picture -- a somewhat different picture in each case -- of humanity itself.

Favorite Passages: From The Self-Propelled Island:

Inside this casino, where music lovers could listen to the distant sounds that the quartet would soon add to, were also stored the art collections of Milliard City. To art lovers, the museum, rich in ancient and modern paintings, offered numerous masterpieces acquired at exorbitant prices: canvases of the Italian, Dutch, German, and French schools, which the collections of Paris, London, Munich, Rome, and Florence would envy. It contained works by Raphael, da Vinci, Giorgione, Correggio, Domenichino, Ribeira, Murillo, Ruysdael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Cuyp, Frans Hal, Hobbema, Van Dyck, Holbein, etc. It also housed many modern paintings by Fragonard, Ingres, Delacroix, Scheffer, Cabat, Delaroche, Régnant, Couture, Meissonier, Millet, Rousseau, Jules Dupré, Brascassat, Mackart, Turner, Troyon, Corot, Daubigny, Baudry, Bonnat, Carolus Duran, Jules Lefebvre, Vollon, Breton, Binet, Yon, Cabanel, etc. In order to ensure that these pictures would last forever, they were placed inside glass cases in which a vacuum had been created. It should be noted that the impressionists and the futurists had not yet cluttered this museum; but this omission would probably not last and Standard Island would not escape the invasion of this decadent plague. (pp. 72-73)

From The Castle in Transylvania:

Vast, vaulted rooms; deep cellars; multiple passageways; courtyards whose stone paving vanished beneath tall thickets of grass; underground hideaways where daylight never penetrated; stairways hidden in the thick walls; blockhouses illumined by the narrow loopholes of the outer wall; the central keep with three floors, its chambers still adequately livable, crowned by a crenelated platform, between the various constructions of the enceinte; interminable hallways capriciously intertwining, rising up to the terreplein of the bastions, and descending into the bowels of the structure; here and there a few water tanks where rainwater was collected, the overflow from which gave access to the road to the Vulkan Pass; such was the ensemble of the Castle of the Carpathians, whose geometrical layout offered a system that was as complicated as those of the labyrinths of Porsenna, Lemnos, or Crete. (pp. 173-174)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Jules Verne, The Self-Propelled Island, Noiset, tr., University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE: 2015).

Jules Verne, The Castle in Transylvania, Mandell, tr., Melville House Publishing (Brooklyn, NY: 2010).

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