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The Incandescent Dreams of Jules Verne : JULES VERNE: An Exploratory Biography By Herbert R. Lottman; St. Martin’s Press: 360 pp., $26.95

Eugen Weber is the Joan Palevsky professor of modern European history at UCLA and the author of numerous books, including "The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s" (Norton)

Shortly before he died, Jules Verne (1828-1905) boasted that he was working on his hundredth book. If that’s how many he wrote, and it all depends on how you count, I must have devoured at least a third of them before my 15th birthday. So had Theodore Roosevelt, Kaiser William II and millions the world over. School libraries in France and elsewhere stored scores of the writer’s books; so did the memory of adults like Andre Gide and H.G. Wells. When, in the mid-1920s, the most intelligent man in France, Paul Valery, contemplated what he called a true history of reading, a survey of books most truly read, Jules Verne headed his list. That was also when, in the United States, Verne-inspired Hugo Gernsback launched a pulp magazine called Amazing Stories, “the magazine of scientification,” that presented sci-fi as a distinct literary species. Capt. Hatteras and Capt. Nemo, the ominous Nautilus, the moon launcher Columbiad and Robur’s “The Clipper of the Clouds” inspired Adm. Richard Byrd, the polar explorer, as they did Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, and Frank Borman, the astronaut.

Son of the age that made tourism practical and geography relevant, fascinated by the machines that made exotic travel possible, Verne and his characters, like Phileas Fogg, are, as John Clute has put it, the archetypal voyagers of the literary imagination. Featuring ingenious entrepreneurs, intrepid explorers, imaginative engineers and resourceful manservants in the happy age when globe-trotters did their trotting attended by valets, his works abound in extraordinary discoveries and in lush lists of plants, minerals and beasts. Verne’s incandescent dreams scoured the world for endless possibilities. “What Walter Scott did for history,” Herbert R. Lottman, the author of “Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography,” cites one Paris critic declaring, “Jules Verne does for geography.” Not for geography alone but for the North Pole, the South Pole, the center of the Earth, ice fields, volcanoes, mystery isles and flying islets, asteroids, profound mine shafts, underwater caverns, jungles, deserts and mountain fastnesses. He added color and excitement to dry texts and maps.

Verne’s writings were didactic, but wonderment and romance brought lessons to life as heroes explored dark lands where savage tribes awaited their civilizing touch, giant ships cleft towering waves, great cannon blasted voyagers into space, steam elephants blazed trails through luxuriant jungles and stately balloons glided precariously over African wastes or helped save heroines from a fiery death.

Heroines there were, but not many. Vernian romance is designed for boys. Women play marginal roles, if any; young women are made to be saved or wed. Action is all and sentiment would slow it. The wonders of science prove more alluring than sex. More enticing, too, but no less delusive. Science and technology shade into fantasy, then into prophecy, then into anxious premonition. The father of science fiction seems to have been as nervous about the fallout of modernity as he was fascinated by its possibilities. Like other commentators, Lottman is struck by the successful author’s growing pessimism after the 1880s but does not remark that it appeared full-grown 20 years before, in the mopey romanticism of “Paris in the Twentieth Century” (1863), in which the marvels of electricity and horseless carriages, elevators and computers don’t seem to make anybody particularly happy.

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Lottman rightly insists on Verne as visionary, including a moonward blastoff near Cape Canaveral and a Jules Verne Crater now mapped on the far side of the moon. He describes the plots of almost all the novels and outlines a creator who shared the politically incorrect prejudices of his time (mid-19th century), place (provincial France) and class (the bourgeoisie). Verne disliked Jews, as well as Englishmen and Germans; patronized races other than the white; favored civilizing colonialism, except that of the brutal British; cared little about women, who do not even figure among the colonists of the moon.

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A chronically sickly wife and a chronically maddening son may help explain his interest in desert islands where Crusoe-like survivors of ship or air wrecks create an orderly private space. At any rate, for the pragmatic entrepreneur of letters, quantity counted more than quality, a regular income more than creativity, sailing ships more than his spouse, writing undisturbed more than his disruptive son.

Lottman is impressed by Verne but does not really like him. There may not have been much to like. Verne was born at Nantes, on the lower Loire, and Bretons are reputed to be private and stubborn. Reticent, remote, at least after his 20s, Verne sounds like a prototypal Breton, as close with conversation as he was with cash, of which he needed a lot to pay the debts of his spendthrift son. The picture we get is of a taciturn workaholic, ever scribbling and revising, more thrifty than sociable, fascinated more by his own ills than by those of the world around him, more ready to invent philanthropic ecologists than to imitate them.

Personally brave, he could also be ruthless, at least from afar. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he correctly expected civil war to follow. “I sincerely hope,” he wrote before a peace was signed, “that the conscripts will be kept on in Paris for a while, and that they will shoot the socialists like dogs.”

He cared less for technological novelties in real life than he did in print, denouncing bicycles and avoiding telephones. Most of the novels that display the wonders of modern science and technology suggest their dangers too. His utopias easily veer into anti-utopia, where greedy materialism, depersonalization and overconfidence condemn hubristic heroes and societies. The best way to cope with what awaits us, Verne seems to think, is to laugh about it. He did that in a talk delivered in 1875 to the Academy of Amiens, where he made his home, in which he sketched the city as it would be in 2000. Lottman cites the talk without going into much detail, but it is the details that reveal some aspirations and apprehensions, both of the speaker and of his public.

The trains that serve the new age community of Verne’s imagining belch smoke and make a dreadful din, but they have corridors enabling passengers to change compartments or use the lavatories. The streets have been paved, are lit up at night and served by public transport. Doctors are paid only when their patients are well, so hardly anyone falls ill. A tax on bachelors has wrought a boom in marriages, and babies are so numerous that a 500-nurse-power baby-feeding machine has had to be installed. Thousands of students attend the Scientific, Commercial and Technical High School where Latin (and much else) is no longer taught. Concerts broadcast by telegraph allow “a Polish pianist in the employ of the Emperor of the Sandwich Islands to be heard simultaneously in London, Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg and Peking,” not to mention Amiens. And a regimental band plays “the music of the future,” a “Reverie in A Minor on the Square of the Hypotenuse,” which, we are told, sounds like an orchestra tuning up: no lilt, no melody, no rhythm.

Having perceived these and other marvels, Verne returns to the Amiens of his day to find public officials still droning through boring speeches, the station clock still slow, the streets muddy as ever and a burst water main spouting a mini-geyser in the city square. The wonders of 2000 are a long way off, but Verne’s imagination often hits the mark.

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Lottman makes clear that the armchair explorer of time and space was also a hypochondriac, issuing regular bulletins on the state of his bowels and other unsatisfactory functions. From pathology to scatology there’s but one step, yet Lottman does not quote Verne’s youthful “Lamentation of a Hair on a Woman’s Behind"--though to do so would bring grist to the mill of his rather simplistic interpretations of Verne’s “anal character.” Lottman dwells on this despite his subject’s complaint, which he quotes, that, suffering from prolapsus, “my behind doesn’t shut very well.” The fact is that, faced with an unexpansive and idiosyncratic personality that is hard to encompass, his biographer sometimes reaches toward far-fetched speculations. Was Verne homosexual? Latent at most, he answers, which means nothing. Was he bisexual? Marc Soriano, an imaginative French scholar, once raised that hare and never ran it to ground. Lottman quotes such conjectures largely to dismiss them, but he could have dispensed with them altogether.

He does make clear how, after 1886, the hypochondriac’s fuss turned to torment when a favorite nephew went mad, shot Verne in the leg and left him with a permanent limp. And he competently compiles the quiddities of a complicated personality: moderate except in his dreams, modest except in his ambitions, impressed by authority though not by his own, disillusioned but phlegmatic, a bit difficult, a bit flat, a bit disappointing for those who think that extraordinary works must be produced by extraordinary folk.

As Lottman makes clear, Verne was an ordinary and conventional man. He was extraordinary only in his capacity to extrapolate from contemporary experience and in the fidelity with which he reproduced, not exactly the aspirations and anxieties of his own decades, but rather the forest murmurs that were to titillate and fret his contemporaries and many a generation to come.


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