Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Around the World in One Attic
Verne is everywhere, even Breteuil
In the upstairs study of the Maison Jules Verne in Amiens, we find the author’s Google; his version of the Elizabethan “commonplace” book.
Verne’s library is over 12,000 books strong, and there are maps, atlases, the works. “Long before I was a novelist I have always taken notes as I read newspapers, magazines and scientific journals,” he tell us. “These notes were and still are filed away, arranged by subject. I need not tell you how priceless such documents is.”
This doesn’t explain the wild imagination though; nothing really can. Jules Verne did go to Scotland before his novels made him famous (he’d written comic stage plays earlier); and later as success hit he visited America. But this story is not about a physical explorer, like Tom. The incredible journeys, the “Voyage Extraordinaire” are the product of the mind.
Maison Jules Verne would have been on the outskirts of Amiens in the nineteenth century, it is only very recently opened for tourists. The dark rooms on four floors – there is a tower/turret on the roof – echo to a discrete soundtrack: laughter and voices in the parlour; a pen scratching across paper in the study, and in a replica of the office of his famous editor, Hertzel – the man who made Verne.
There are few of us not touched by Jules Verne, whatever our disposition to science fiction. I seem to remember even Alan Partridge, or was it Steve Coogan, essaying a poor Phineas Fogg recently. Verne isn’t a geat writer, not Suzanne’s favourite, nor mine, but his best books do have a vital visionary quality. I particularly like the nineteenth century obsessiveness of “Around the World in 80 days”. There is a man doing much the same as we speak, armed with Conde Nast expenses and a gold card. Verne lives on.
Upstairs again and there is a certificate for Verne from the Alliance Française, for his work in popularizing the French language overseas. He is the most translated Frenchman, publishing even more than De Sade or Voltaire abroad. Literature not just as Proustian prose, but Age of Empire geo-politics as well.
He worked hard, Verne, up at five each morning. In this house alone he wrote 44 books. There are over seventy in all; before the plays, films and PC games added to the pantheon. By the 1870s Verne was all the marketing rage: plates, snakes and ladders, lotto cards, even wallpaper attested to his appeal And Méliès made his ground-breaking “moon” film of 1902, based on Verne’s writings.
There is a framed letter from the Boy’s Empire League of Ludgate Hill in London, praising Verne for his “wonderful imagination for the delight of boys all over the world.” The League sent a gold-capped walking stick in thanks.
Verne takes us to the centre of the Earth, the Moon, 20,000 leagues under the sea; to the “Lighthouse at the End of the World.” Takes us to places that even now are denied to Google Earth.
But what I like most about Verne is his social commitment; it is not really visible in his fictions, but in the world about him in Amiens he gave something back. Benjamin Barber or Victor Hugo, friend of Verne’s publisher, Hertzel, would be proud. Verne was a local councillor for the last 17 years of his life. He concentrated on cultural matters in Amiens, including the building projects. His masterpiece? The Cirque: Verne loved the circus.
In the attic of the house the exhibition is full of movie posters from every country, and in numerous languages, James Mason and Kirk Douglas stand out. Verne was not Hugo, nor Proust, but his stories are transforming experiences, and almost always for the good. He is a writer of the surface, not a stylist or one for psychological depth. But his vision is the up side of technological progress; besides, he didn’t have to see much of the twentieth century, dying in 1905.
The French historian, Etienne Gibson writes that Renaissance humanism was the Middle Ages, “not plus humanity, but minus God.” If this is the case, then Verne’s amazing positive view of technology’s possibility is “the nineteenth century plus imagination and disengaged love.”
At the station in Breteuil I tell Peter about Verne. “He never went anywhere, Verne,” he says. “Except in his mind. What a journey that must have been.”