Jules Verne: Mythmaker of the Machine Age ; His Literary Reputation Is Being Rehabilitated but, 100 Years after His Death, France Is No Closer to Fully Understanding Him, Writes John Lichfield

By Lichfield, John | The Independent (London, England), March 14, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Jules Verne: Mythmaker of the Machine Age ; His Literary Reputation Is Being Rehabilitated but, 100 Years after His Death, France Is No Closer to Fully Understanding Him, Writes John Lichfield


Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)


In the statue erected above his grave in Amiens, in Picardy, Jules Verne resembles God, or Santa Claus. A man with a flowing white beard heaves aside the marble covering of his own tomb and reaches portentously towards the heavens. The statue was designed to commemorate a visionary, an immortal, a man who saw beyond the horizons of ordinary men.

Unfortunately, the grave stands under a clump of trees. On the day of my pilgrimage, the marble visionary had a large dollop of bird-shit in his eye. The effect was grotesque; Monty-Pythonesque, and strangely moving. Jules Verne's books have a gentle, mocking, French humour. (He liked especially to make fun of the British). He was a chronicler of the limitless possibilities, but also the frailties and limitations, of mankind. He would, one imagines, have found his promethean, bird-shit-splattered statue amusing.

Verne - prolific author, prophet, genius, the "father of science fiction", the first and greatest mythmaker of the machine age - was buried in the cemetery de la Madeleine in Amiens 100 years ago this month. The centenary of his death on 24 March will be marked by elaborate national and international celebrations and festivals, in Paris, in Nantes, his birthplace, and in Amiens, his adopted home.

In recent weeks, there has been a flood of new publications in France which attempt to identify the "real" Jules Verne. Was the author of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days a scientific visionary? A literary genius? A mere writer of ripping yarns for boys of all ages? A plagiarist? A small-minded, provincial hypocrite? He seems to have been all of these things.

Verne, the author, was incomparable. His 80 novels, written from 1854 till 1904, foreshadowed space travel (even identifying Florida as the launch-site for moon shots). They predicted, amongst other things, artificial satellites; large submarines; helicopters; television; video-players; and the development of plastics.

He remains one of the world's most popular writers, especially for children and teenagers. His literary abilities and status, mocked by the literary establishment of France in his lifetime, have been partly rehabilitated in the past 40 years. He was the first "global" writer, a man who wrote about, and addressed, the entire world.

He is, above all, one of those writers we all assume we have read, even if we have not, one of those writers whose works we absorb through our pores, if not through our eyes and brains.

Verne contributed for good or ill - and maybe against his real instincts - to the mood of technological optimism and future- worship which dominated the end of the 19th century and the first half, at least, of the 20th. He made science exciting and heroic. Whether he actually had any direct impact on research and technology is doubtful. Real aircraft and rockets and submarines took very different courses.

But his influence on the 20th-century artistic imagination, especially on the cinema, was immense. Verne's greatest hero, Captain Nemo, is a technological version of Ulysses or Captain Ahab. Nemo, in turn, spawned a hundred enigmatic, hermit, megalomanic, scientific geniuses, up to James Bond and Austin Powers' spoof Dr Evil. Nemo and his henchmen even wear an early form of jump-suit, made, we are told, from the material which joins shell-fish to their shells.

"Captain Nobody" and his submarine, Nautilus patrol endlessly beneath the waves on a mission - variously - to escape, chastise and redeem mankind. The real motives and character of Verne, the man rather than the author, remain equally opaque. An entertaining new book, Jules Verne, La Face cachee (The Hidden Face of Jules Verne) by Roger Maudhuy (France-Empuire, EUR19) clears up some of the Vernian mysteries but not all.

Verne was not, in private, the genial, humorous humanist and optimistic man of science, who addresses the reader from the pages of his books.

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Jules Verne: Mythmaker of the Machine Age ; His Literary Reputation Is Being Rehabilitated but, 100 Years after His Death, France Is No Closer to Fully Understanding Him, Writes John Lichfield
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