For your library, or as a gift! Eight great works by Jules Verne!
Reviewed by Donald M. Hassler
“The Rescue of Jules Verne the Writer,” Extrapolation 53.3 (Fall 2012): 379-382.
Here are four new volumes published under the auspices of and with the support of The North American Jules Verne Society. They are the most recent product of a remarkable two decades of scholarly activity in English with Verne texts that has ranged from a rather abortive start by the University of Nebraska Press with a 1998 edition through some excellent editions afterwards by Nebraska, by Oxford University and Wesleyan University Presses, and by Prometheus Books. Brian Taves describes this overall scholarly activity well in his opening essay to the first installment. The publisher for all four volumes is BearManor Media located in Albany, Georgia; the copyright is held by The North American Jules Verne Society. The series, which has more volumes projected, is named in honor of a late benefactor of the NAJVS, Edward D. Palik. The editorial team includes distinguished translators and scholars of Verne. The whole project to date has not only produced these beautiful and thorough books but also opened up again the scholarly treasure chest of puzzles about how to translate Verne and what to make of the important writings of his that are not yet in English. I think that every library and every serious student of Verne, sf, and French literature needs to get these four volumes and to sign up for what is yet to come. The work here, and the scholarly activity behind it, tells us how misunderstood this very popular writer has been. Taves presents a major literary mapping of what is important to us as we try to sort out the relation of genre sf to mainstream literature.
In another part of the scholarly apparatus to the first volume, translator Edward Baxter writes, "According to an article published in the Swiss newsweekly Hebdo in May, 1989, the three most widely translated literary works in the world are, in order, the Bible, the writings of V.l. Lenin, and the novels of Jules Verne" (83). Clearly, Verne was very popular for his massive mix of "boy story" and early sf so that to meet the demand the number of translations referred to by Baxter proliferated and, what is more, defined the writer. This current project by the NAJVS, as well as the work coming from the university presses mentioned above, has the clear intention of redefining the writer that Verne was. Every text published here is new in English translation. But even the French study of Verne and the French awareness of his literary accomplishment will be somewhat shaped again by these efforts since even some of the French manuscripts are new discoveries that had been locked away in trunks and not used during Verne's career as a writer. Taves, who is the prime editor for each of these new volumes, titles his opening essay "The Mission of the Palik Series" and writes, "[W]e have assembled scholars and translators, 'the Jules Verne rescue team,' as we have been dubbed by our dean, Walter James Miller" (1).
One set of literary effects that has been rescued in the first volume is Verne the fledgling writer before he discovered the 1856 Baudelaire translation of Edgar Allan Poe stories titled by Baudelaire Histoires extraordinaires. Poe became the model for the Verne Voyages extraordinaires that set his popular career on the road to its popular status with Lenin and the Bible. But the early short stories are not in this mode at all. The principal fiction revived in the first volume is a story titled in translation "The Marriage of Mr. Anselme des Tilleuls," which was written at some point in the 1850s. It was not published until 199 1 in Switzerland. Baxter's translation is its first appearance in English. I think Taves and his fellow scholars do a fine job trying to unravel the bibliographic mystery of the manuscript and its publication history (one scholar has said that all of Verne is a "bibliographic nightmare"). More importantly, this new NAJVS volume begins the discussion of effects in the story. It is a comic and "filial" story not only about a funny marriage but also about generational allegiance and the past. It is grounded on Latin grammar and etymology and offers a wonderful, even uncanny, premonition of how sons and fathers interact. I say premonition because the most interesting line of Verne scholarship in our time has to do with the ways in which his son, Michel, changed (and added to) his work after his death so that the Vernian library of texts extends far into the twentieth century with discoveries we have made in the twenty-first century. This early story, in any case, is deep with resonance and highly literary in its effects - and very comic. The latter point, to me especially, suggests origins for a comic response to sensawonder adventure and science that continues in Verne's well-known work.
In addition to Poe as well as Latin grammar, the young Verne paid close attention to what could be read and mined by writers from the tradition. Like many students of the eighteenth century, he valued Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (17 19) immensely; but Verne actually thought (again in a sort of filial way) that the later derivative by Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (18 12), was the more important model because it included family context. The second volume in the Taves set includes the rejected manuscript of Marooned with Uncle Robinson in addition to some prefaces hitherto unpublished in English to his Robinsonades. Here again the fate of the last of Verne's Robinsonades, The Eternal Adam, is unclear since we do not know, from the evidence thus far, how much was changed by Michel after Verne's death. That mysterious story is told in this second volume with the conclusion that, regardless of authorship, "critics are agreed that [The Eternal Adam] is a masterpiece" (17). The translator of Marooned with Uncle Robinson is Sidney Kravitz, who also recently did the translation and the fine, critical edition of the fiction that Verne reworked from "Marooned" titled The Mysterious Island. The wonderful Ray Harryhausen movie adaptation of the latter text is well-noted in the Taves volume, and just as in all four volumes, the reproduced illustrations both from printed texts and from the film are an added bonus.
Another literary mode that tends to be ignored in Verne studies when his "boy story" adventures predominate is the drama. For Georges Sand, Robert Browning, and others in nineteenth-century literature, the theater was an arena in which they wanted to excel even if their reputations were built in other writing modes. In fact, one of the early scholarly revivals of a Verne text that anticipates this Palik Series is the scholarly edition published by Prometheus Books in 2003 of Edward Baxter's translation of Journey Through the Impossible. The text for this drama was only discovered in 1978 in the archives of the Censorship Office of the Third French Republic. Now the Palik Series brings to English readers four additional new plays by Verne that range from comedies to considerations of evolutionary dynamics; again included are magnificent reproductions of nineteenth-century illustrations. The final volume of the four initial Palik Series books is an historical romance, closely researched by Verne and in the tradition of Walter Scott and Dumas père. Taves's introduction to the volume, "Verne's Forgotten Swashbuckler," is a probing essay on another mode of writing that we had not often associated with Verne. Baxter is the translator again. Several other scholars are involved in the apparatus. It is a rich pleasure to read all four of these new volumes, and I am certain they will contribute to much more scholarly and critical work on the remarkable Jules Verne.