Monday, July 23, 2018

Fortnightly Book, July 22

I'm a bit behind, of course.

With the next fortnightly book, I continue looking at works of Jules Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires. In particular:

#18 Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum, published in 1879

#29 Robur-le-Conquerant, published in 1886

#53 Maître du monde, published in 1904

Some of the Voyages are chained together by explicit statements in the text, and these are an example; #53 is about the character in #29, and #29 explicitly refers to events in #18, albeit mostly in passing. All three are concerned with the potential of technology for war and crime, albeit in different ways.

The Begum's Millions, which I will be reading in the translation by Stanford L. Luce put out in 2005 by Wesleyan University Press, is something of a peculiar work in the series. It's harsher about misuse of technology than any of the previous works, and long after Verne's death it came out that the original idea for the book was not from Verne himself. Jean François Paschal Grousset was a brilliant Corsican socialist who participated in the Paris Commune; when the Commune collapsed, he was first deported and then fled to the United States, where he taught French. After the amnesty of 1880, he returned to France, and French politics, but he often needed a little more to make ends meet and wrote fiction under the pseudonym, André Laurie. Pierre-Jules Hetzel started buying manuscripts from him, for a decent price, while he was in exile -- a necessarily clandestine transaction, since Grousset's life would be endangered by any sort of paper trail. Hetzel, in turn, could do anything he wanted with the manuscript. He thought there were serious problems with the first manuscript he bought, L'Héritage de Langévol, so to get what money he could out of the investment, he turned it over (under the Laurie pseudonym) to Verne, a popular author who also wrote sciencey things and had a major ongoing series that could draw readers to it. Verne would do three works along these lines -- Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum, L'Étoile du Sud, and L'Épave du Cynthia.

For The Begum's Millions, we do not have Paschal Grousset's manuscript, and so we do not know the exact relationship between it and Verne's reworked version, but from Verne's correspondence with Hetzel we can gather that he was not impressed at all by the manuscript. Some of the criticisms are given in the introduction to the Wesleyan UP edition: he thought it was poorly plotted, that its structure nullified the small number of genuinely interesting ideas in the work, that its depiction of life and society (and particularly Frenchmen) was implausible, that its emotional scenes were tedious, that its science was inaccurate, and that its ending was too abrupt. It probably didn't help that while they both wrote science-romances, Grousset, despite having a better scientific education than Verne, was really interested in what we would call science fantasy, and Verne was not. Hetzel, who had of course spent a fair amount money on the manuscript and so it needed to be workable, pushed back against some of Verne's criticisms, but gave Verne the right to rework it how he thought best. The result seems to have been a set of compromises. We know that Grousset's manuscript had a French and a German city in an arms race; Verne thought the French city too American, so he seems to have relocated them to America while coming up with the Begum in order to keep them French and German (which was the political aspect that Hetzel thought most promising). Hetzel and Verne both agreed that the story needed to be condensed. We know that Verne came up with the idea of the shot that never hits the ground, and that the ending and the title are Vernian. We do know exactly what theme Verne thought important for the book: force does not bring happiness.

For the other two, I'll be using older translations. Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World tell a story of heavier-than-air flight, the former seventeen years before Kitty Hawk (but two years after the dirigible flight of Krebs and Renard which inspired the book) and the latter a year after, and in some ways they are more like Verne's famous early works than other later books in the series are, although, like other such works they are very concerned with the abuse of technology. I suspect this is why Master of the World is one of the easiest of the late Voyages to find today. In any case, it's the only one of the three I've read before; I discussed some of its religious imagery in 2005. I think I've read it once since, but it will be interesting to re-read it in the context of the prior works.

There's a Vincent Price movie based on Robur and Master; since I like Vincent Price, I might see if I have time to watch it.

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