Sunday, September 09, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #14: Michel Strogoff

"Sire, a fresh dispatch."

"Whence?"

"From Tomsk?"

"Is the wire cut beyond that city?"

"Yes, sire, since yesterday."

"Telegraph hourly to Tomsk, General, and keep me informed of all that occurs."

"Sire, it shall be done," answered General Kissoff.

The Russian Empire is in deadly peril as a massive rebellion led by the treacherous Ivan Orgeff has begun to cut the realm in two. The Czar in Moscow must get an important message to his brother Grand Duke, all the way across the Empire in Irkutsk, before it is too late, and he has entrusted to his most competent courier, the Siberian-born Michael Strogoff. Strogoff has to make the difficult journey, through storms in the Ural Mountains, across rivers and battlefields and through enemy lines to get the message to the Grand Duke. Along the way he will fall in with a brave young woman, Nadia Fedor, who is trying to reach her father in Irkutsk, and together they will have to save their families and the Russian Empire, against extraordinary odds.

Michael Strogoff was in many ways the height of Verne's career. We always remember him for his novels, but it is easy to forget that they were not his primary source of income. The Voyages extraordinaires guaranteed him a steady income, as long as he turned in his two novels a year, but his major income derived not from books but from the theater. He wrote and co-produced plays, which brought in the income that made his yacht vacations possible -- and also made it possible to survive his son's expensive economic misjudgments. The novels gave him security, name recognition, and marketing that he needed to make his plays successful; the plays brought in the big money. Michel Strogoff, an exciting and fast-paced adventure story, sold quite well, so with the help of the playwright Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery, he turned it into a play, also called Michel Strogoff, which for a while was one of the most widely attended plays in the world -- and just as today, when a book will spark interest in a movie which will itself increase book sales, the dual success of the novel and the play was perhaps the greatest literary and financial triumph in Verne's lifetime. There is also more than one critic who has argued that it is Verne's best-written novel. It's interesting, then, that it has not had the staying power of some of Verne's other successes, although in the movie age it did for a while have a solid if not stunning cinematic record. Perhaps, though, its revival is just waiting for someone to bring its racing excitement to the silver screen.

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