Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Book Review ~ "Paris In The Twentieth Century" by Jules Verne

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Paris In The Twentieth Century
by Jules Verne
Balantine 1997
ISBN 9780345420398

Book Review
When I saw the words 'Verne' and 'Paris' on the same book cover I thought all my birthdays had come at once. Not only did I learn a lot of the French I know through reading his delightful novels in their original versions, but did you know that I'm quite a fan of the French capital too?

But  Paris In The Twentieth Century is not quite as easy to recommend as it might seem. It's a bit of an anomaly, in fact, and the best way to describe it is probably along the lines of 'a fascinating and prophetic historical and literary document'.

Verne wrote this just before his 5 Weeks In A Balloon made him famous, and for fans and curiosity seekers alike, it's an interesting read, if not the Jules Verne we are so familiar with.

Anomaly is one way to describe Paris In The Twentieth Century but another would be an anachronism in its own time. In fact Jules Verne offers us his vision of life precisely one hundred years on from when he wrote it, which was in 1863. He imagined the city a century later, in other words,, and we are now in the interesting position of being able to look back on the decade of the Beatles from the other direction and see just how close he got.

Well he didn't predict the Beatles in any case, but in terms of the the technological advances he was prescient indeed, although most of them were hinted at by the way developments were going as he wrote back in the mid 1800s.

The book didn't actually get published, as it was considered that no-one would swallow the prophetic vision he was proposing, and it's true that we can sense him finding his feet as a weaver of tales in this book. If we take it as the aforementioned historical literary document, it's intriguing to see the master storyteller's early attempts to hold a narrative together. It reminds me of how I feel when I stumble across some of my school boy creative writing in an old exercise book somewhere, and compare it to how I lay words down as an adult; you can sense the potential, but it's not quite there yet.

Unusually, I read the English translation, whereas up until now I've been proud to read Verne's canon in the original French. That gave me to opportunity, though, to enjoy the translator, Richard Howard's touching personal note from 1995:

"The twelve double volumes of The Works of Jules Verne became my imaginative life while all hell was breaking loose around me..."

The sixteen page introduction by Eugen Weber also valuably anchors the book firmly in its time and allows us to judge it on its true merits, and not as a contemporary piece as we might be tempted to do otherwise.

Verne's projected nowadays, effectively, is a grim one. Not only have machines taken over much of what we do physically, which is accurate enough, but they have also largely renderend emotions and sensitivity redundant. As war has become an inefficient waste of time, which you would think a good thing, unfortunately society has become one big fat boring drudge. People get off more on the latest technological advances (hey, wanna see my new iPad 2, anyone..?) than on some lacrymose verse or other, and those inclined to the latter are considered shameful losers and a disgrace to their families and society as a whole.

Well he got the technology obsession right, didn't he? As he often did later on in his literary career, he uses the book to inform the reader of some of the impressive advancements of the day, although thankfully not in too much detail. He also comes down firmly on the side of the arts, and hints at dark (and looong) passages in opuses yet to appear with lists of greatly lamented French authors, composers and the like.

I remember ploughing through mind-numbing pages of names of fish in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea I think it was, just because idiot had happened to look out of a porthole, and rocks and plants in The Mysterious Island and so on. This was an ingenious way of teaching the populace about the world around them, in a time when they couldn't just Wiki it, which was actually one of Verne's aims, with the main drawback being that it just got in the way of the story.

Usually, Verne´s stories and characters were so strong that this didn´t matter. In Paris In The Twentieth Century, however, it has to be said that there isn´t much substance to be found anywhere, and the interest of the entire book pretty much rests on this de-personalised future world which is ours and, for us, how uncannily true a lot of his predictions were.

Everyone loves a happy ending of course, and in Paris In The Twentieth Century, you... don't get one. The whole thing is very strange, because you can't help wondering what he hoped to accomplish, as an unknown novelist, in attempting (unsuccessfully) to publish a down-right gloomy and depressing view of the not-so-distant future, that ends on a real downer.

I enjoyed the book a lot though, but probably because it was short, unexpected, impressively prophetic and added a nice juicy chunk to my knowledge of one of my favourite story tellers. I haven't got a new iPad 2 by the way. Yet.

© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests.

1 comment:

Claudia Carroll said...

Hi Sab; didn't know about the Verne book; my favs: Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne, 2002; Paris Was Our Mistress, Samuel Putnam 1947; The Last Time I Saw Paris Elliot Paul, 1942. The first, a history overview; the other two personal journals by two who knew "the" artists, literatti of the times. Homesick!

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