Thursday, October 11, 2007

William Butcher, Jules Verne. The Definitive Biography

William Butcher, Jules Verne. The Definitive Biography. Thunder’s mouth press, NY 2006
ISBN-10: 1-56025-854-3

The author calls it “a definitive biography.” There is nothing definitive in it, except for meticulous reconstruction of Verne’s home addresses throughout his life, financial affairs—containing unfounded allegations of Hetzel of cheating the author—, and lugubrious allegations of Verne’s homosexuality. The analysis of his books is substituted by brief retelling of the plots, the inquest into science and technology in his stories is perfunctory. There is precious little in this biography concerning Verne’s political beliefs and social attitudes apart from conventional platitudes describing a run-of-the-mill upper middle class Victorian gentleman, which indeed he was.

Most interesting part of the book deals with his childhood and youth. The author put a significant effort to reconstruct Jules Verne’s own travels. But these are entirely mundane given his station as a modestly wealthy Victorian. The author rejects the “prophetic” quality of his work. Forget his 1960s world divided between US and Russia, Americanized Western Europe ruled by unprincipled media magnates, in which people travel in gas-powered vehicles, US lunar module fished out of the Pacific by the Navy ship and one of the last, non-fiction, novels dealing with ethnic tensions in Latvia! Forget raising a question of moral responsibility of the scientist for the fate of his invention, etc. etc.

The author raises a well-researched issue of the literary quality of his writing. Good, but that’s was not what his novels were famous for, in his lifetime and thereafter, especially in bad English translations. Call, charitably, modern world outlook “realism,” but also “universal cynicism.” Jules Verne personified, for the later generations, the mid-to-late XIX century world view with its unbounded optimism in technical and moral improvement of humanity, which our times are sorely lacking. His books were stories of vision and perseverance and still are.

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