Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #44: Le Sphinx des glaces

No doubt the following narrative will be received with entire incredulity, but I think it well that the public should be put in possession of the facts narrated in “An Antarctic Mystery.” The public is free to believe them or not, at its good pleasure.

No more appropriate scene for the wonderful and terrible adventures which I am about to relate could be imagined than the Desolation Islands, so called, in 1779, by Captain Cook. I lived there for several weeks, and I can affirm, on the evidence of my own eyes and my own experience, that the famous English explorer and navigator was happily inspired when he gave the islands that significant name.

A number of the Voyages Extraordinaires are sequels to other works in the series, but two are distinctive in that they are sequels to books by other authors, in each case to a book that was an extraordinarily important influence on Verne himself: Le Sphinx des glaces is a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Seconde Patrie is a sequel to Johann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson. Each of those works was a travelogue of sorts, and thus anticipated Verne's own approach to storytelling, although in both cases the author tended more to the fantastic than Verne himself preferred. This gives an interesting flavor to Verne's sequels, since the prior works allow a very Vernean narrative for a sequel but also put Verne in a context where, having to respect what has been established by another, he has to stretch himself a bit.

Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, his only novel, is famous for being simultaneously exquisitely crafted and border-line incoherent. Poe seems to have originally intended for it to be a realistic sea-tale, but as the story went on, the fantastic elements seem to have accumulated until the narrative makes it difficult to distinguish what is supposed to be real and what is supposed to be hallucination. The story, which details a trip to Antarctica, is filled with things like ships filled with corpses, and survival-cannibalism, and strange mists, and ends, abruptly, with the survivors seeing a strange figure entirely in white and beyond that no closure about what exactly happened to Arthur Gordon Pym. The novel did not do all that well at the time, but it became a significant influence on quite a few other authors: Melville, Baudelaire, Lovecraft, and, of course, Verne himself, who must have loved the Antarctic voyage aspect when he read the work in Baudelaire's translation.

An Antarctic Mystery, as it is sometimes titled in English, tells the story of an American, named Jeorling, who is wealthy and is using his wealth to study natural history around the world. He is also an enthusiastic fan of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. When the story opens he has spent some time in the Kerguelen Islands and is looking for passage back home, by way of Tristan da Cunha. He finds a ship, with some difficulty, and then discovers to his astonishment that the captain of the ship is firmly convinced that the events in Poe's novel were real. Jeorling originally discounts this as a strange sort of madness, but as the voyage progresses, the evidence that the captain is right begins to mount up until Jeorling, too, is convinced of it, and decides to help the captain to find out what happened to Arthur Gordon Pym. They set out to trace Pym's voyage; their own journey will be nearly as difficult as the one whose secret they are trying to cover. But they will find out what happened to Pym; the mystery is linked to a great rock, shaped like a sphinx, with a mysterious power to destroy ships.

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