Science Fiction Studies

#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997


Brian Taves

Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century

Jules Verne. Paris in the Twentieth Century. New York: Random House, 1996. Translated by Richard Howard, introduction by Eugen Weber. xxvii+223. $21.00

Jules Verne's novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, just published by Random House, is simultaneously less significant than some publicity has implied, while still a work of inestimable historical importance. Purely as a work of literature, Paris in the Twentieth Century lacks the qualities of the best novels that have insured Verne's reputation for over a century. Nonetheless, Paris in the Twentieth Century will be of interest to readers for two primary reasons, because of its prophecies, but even more because of its early position in the development of dystopian science fiction.

The saga of the discovery of the manuscript of Paris au XXe Siècle, and its publication in France in the fall of 1994, were widely chronicled all over the world. In the United States, at the time, the story was told on network news shows, National Public radio, and periodicals from the New York Times to the National Inquirer, as well as such scholarly journals as Science-Fiction Studies (Arthur B. Evans, "The 'New' Jules Verne," SFS 22:35-46, #65, March 1995). Paris au XXe Siècle was quickly translated and published in many countries in the intervening two years, although the English translation has been one of the slowest to appear. The sensation created by the novel can be noted by the fact that it has already been adapted into a stage play, in the Netherlands.

On the most basic, surface level, Paris in the Twentieth Century is an astonishing book for its depiction of the modern age. Written in 1863, the story is set in the Paris of the 1960s. Paris in the Twentieth Century concerns a 16-year-old, Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates, with a devotion to literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a futuristic world where only technological writing is favored. The officially sanctioned creativity is government sponsorship of the arts, resulting in lowbrow theater for the masses, composed along the lines of the mass-produced collaborations of the 1930s Hollywood studio system. Dufrénoy's alienation is, in fact, inspired by Verne's own situation; at the time, to support his family, he was writing in the mornings before spending his days working at the Paris Stock Market, which he loathed.

Dufrénoy determines to be an artist, working on his own, but finds that his book of poetry is impossible to sell, and soon he is starving in the winter's cold, one of the few forces of nature that science has yet to overcome. In despair, he spends his last sous to buy violets for his beloved, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment, evicted when her father lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. In a moving but excessively melodramatic climax, the heartbroken Dufrénoy, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen, mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjectivity becomes steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair, unconsciously circles an old cemetery. Dufrénoy encounters the modern tool of criminal execution--the electric chair (yet another scientific prediction, opposed to the guillotine of Verne's time)--before freezing to death.

The macabre imagery of this peroration to Paris in the Twentieth Century may be inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was one of Verne's principal models as a writer, and was also the subject of Verne's only literary essay--written at the time of Paris in the Twentieth Century. Poe may have also provided direct impetus for the characterization of Dufrénoy. Like his portrayal of Dufrénoy, Verne believed that Poe's potential creativity had clashed with the uncongenial background of an industrial, material society in America. The strange end of Poe's life, when he wandered for several days, lost, before his death, may even have provided the idea for the bizarre climax of Paris in the Twentieth Century and the death of Dufrénoy.

This climax also has a timeless impact; Verne clearly foresaw the growth of teen rebelliousness in his portrayal of Dufrénoy. Had the Verne family safe been opened thirty years ago, and Paris in the Twentieth Century published in the time of its setting, the 1960s, it would surely have become a cause célèbre among a generation of youth in revolt. The novel would have been regarded as a paean to their cause, and Dufrénoy a model of their disenchantment.

Verne's prophecies of the world to come in Paris in the Twentieth Century, both in technical and cultural terms, are breathtaking in their extent and nearly unerring accuracy. Virtually every page is crowded with evidence of Verne's ability to forecast the science and life of the future, from feminism to the rise of illegitimate births, from email to burglar alarms, from the growth of suburbs to mass-produced higher education, including the dissolution of humanities departments. The accuracy of the prophecies cannot be overstated, and I would estimate that nearly 90% have come to pass. Perhaps Verne's most amusing error was in anticipating that the government would conduct itself in such a businesslike way as to show a dividend.

However, Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, rejected Paris in the Twentieth Century as simply unbelievable. He also disapproved of the pessimistic, dystopian tone of the novel, believing that it would not attract readers and might potentially destroy Verne's promising career after the publication of his first scientific adventure and popular success, Cinq Semaines en ballon [Five Weeks in a Balloon]. As a result of the rejection, Verne not only locked away Paris in the Twentieth Century for the remainder of his life, but avoided fiction with a futuristic setting. Instead, he wrote of advanced technology in his own time, a pattern that gives his writing today the unique quality of science fiction set in the past. Even Paris in the Twentieth Century displays this same propensity: its modern marvels were set amid a Paris where 1860s readers would have recognized contemporary monuments represented as decaying a century later. Perhaps Verne himself was equally uncertain about setting a novel in the future, considering how easily he was dissuaded from the idea. Certainly at this early stage in his career, he did not want to endanger the commercial success offered by his association with Hetzel.

However, not all of Hetzel's judgments were so questionable. He also recognized that from the standpoint of the requirements of novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century was structurally weak, particularly in the narrative elements Hetzel believed were so necessary in speculative fiction. While characterization was seldom Verne's strength as a writer, usually the fault was obscured by the context of the story, with an adventurous, scientific, fantastic, or comedic setting. In Paris in the Twentieth Century Verne centers his narrative, for the only time, on self-consciously artistic characters--and the results are noticeably neither credible nor intriguing.

Hetzel's stroke of genius was in urging Verne to wed science fiction with the plot formula of an adventure story, a marriage that dominated the genre into modern times. For instance, Five Weeks in a Balloon told not only of a new aerial navigation device, but its use in a voyage of discovery across Africa. Instead of Paris au XXe siècle, Voyage au centre de la Terre [Journey to the Center of the Earth] became Verne's second full-length published novel. Journey to the Center of the Earth utilizes the same pattern as Five Weeks in a Balloon: the chronicle of an incredible quest for the Earth's core, a trek that is simultaneously an initiatory, first-person account of a youth's coming-of-age. The other work-in-progress which Hetzel accepted at the time, called Voyages et aventures du Capitaine Hatteras [Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras], an imaginary account of the first trip to the North Pole, also fit the generic melding that Hetzel sought.

Paris in the Twentieth Century was not the only early Verne work rejected by Hetzel because it did not fit the genre he was hoping to establish for a series of "Voyages Extraordinaires." Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Ecosse (translated in 1992 as Backwards to Britain), another recently discovered Verne text that Hetzel had turned down, indicates what the addition of adventure meant for Verne's narratives. Backwards to Britain is a dry, mundane travelogue, without the combination of an adventurous plotline that would make such later Verne works as Le Tour du monde en 80 jours [Around the World in 80 Days] into enduring classics. Although Verne internalized many of Hetzel's strictures, as late as 1870, after seven popular "Voyages Extraordinaires," Hetzel would reject l'Oncle Robinson [Uncle Robinson] (published in France in 1992 and not yet translated into English), which Verne reconceived as L'Ile mystérieuse [The Mysterious Island] and several other later castaway stories.

Paris in the Twentieth Century will most disappoint readers because its plot is thin and lacks substance. The story consists largely of loosely related episodes, in almost a drawing room style, constructed to facilitate a catalog of prophecies about life in the metropolis of the 1960s. Perhaps some of the intrinsic weakness in the plot might have been diminished had Verne proceeded with the sort of extensive final rewriting that he always gave his published works. The minimalist quality of Verne's storyline may also be regarded as another aspect of its prophetic view. In contrast to the 19th-century style that dominated most of his writing, Verne presents here a more modernist narrative, concentrating on a veritable free-flow of minimally-motivated events that befall the hero.

In rejecting Paris in the Twentieth Century, Hetzel advised Verne to try a futuristic theme again when he had reached greater maturity as a writer. However, all of the tales of this type that Verne would eventually produce were short stories and novelettes, where the length could conceal the flimsy plot in a way that the longer novel form in Paris in the Twentieth Century had highlighted, to its own detriment. "Une Ville Idéale" ["An Ideal City"], an 1875 forecast of Amiens in the year 2000, and "Au XXIXeme Siècle: Journée d'un journaliste américain en 2889" ["In the 29th Century: The Diary of an American Journalist in 2889"] (written primarily by Verne's son Michel) are, like Paris in the Twentieth Century, similarly slight in their plot, with events arranged to showcase a series of predictions of the distant future. And, unlike Paris in the Twentieth Century, both of these stories are optimistic in their tone. Only in Verne's last such futuristic work, the novelette L'Eternel Adam [The Eternal Adam] (probably authored by Michel using his father's name), set many millennia from now, did Verne offer a forecast even more bleak than Paris in the Twentieth Century. On the basis of Michel's involvement in the creation of "2889" and Eternal Adam, the belief had arisen among Verne scholars that futuristic speculation was primarily interpolated into the father's oeuvre by the son; Paris in the Twentieth Century for the first time confirms that Michel derived inspiration from Jules in this regard.

Woven into Paris in the Twentieth Century are countless allusions to individuals, works, and events of mid-19th century France. Sadly, while these might have been clear to Verne's intended contemporary readers, much of Verne's satire and irony is lost today to any reader without a specialized background. Some long portions of Paris in the Twentieth Century, such as Chapter 10, are basically extended literary commentaries by Verne on the authors of his day, expressed through the dialogue of his characters. Several pages of notes at the conclusion of the book explain only a small portion of these allusions, frustrating the scrupulous reader. In fact, the English translation contains only a fraction of the number, or depth, of the notes appearing in the French edition. As a result, for an English-language audience, some of the possible impact of Paris in the Twentieth Century is lost.

Paris in the Twentieth Century was translated into English by Richard Howard, previously familiar to Vernians for translating into English the essays of Roland Barthes on Verne. Like these earlier essays, Howard's work is to be lauded. Howard's translation of Paris in the Twentieth Century is literal, faithful to the wording and syntax of Verne, to the point of preserving Verne's sometimes convoluted style, which makes Paris in the Twentieth Century often flow in an unwieldy manner for modern readers. There are some occasional questionable translations, such as "Société Générale de Crédit instructionnel" into "Academic Credit Union," or the occasional odd choice of words, such as having Verne observe that many ancient languages, including French, had become obsolete, when Verne actually seems to say they were sacrificed (page 7). Most evident are a number of format changes, such as inserting breaks in chapters where there are none. Howard also occasionally merges short paragraphs into fuller paragraphs, or consolidates brief, single-phrase sentences into longer, more properly grammatical sentences. However, by doing so, Howard loses some of the intended staccato effect of Verne's style and the meaning it creates; for instance, the impact of Dufrénoy expiring in the snow is lessened by combining into a single paragraph the final, closing lines of the novel.

Unfortunately, Howard offers a translator's note that treats the assignment lightly, choosing to tell the reader how he first discovered Verne while a child of alcoholic parents, but relating nothing about how the translation was done or the challenges it posed. In an interview published by Random House, Howard said that since the novel was such an early Verne book, he did not try to make the style consistent with other Verne translations--a fortunate decision, although it does not seem that Howard investigated what such a step would have meant. Previously, many if not most translators had been unable to avoid the temptation to alter Verne's literary style to make it more easily digestible by the widest possible audience, frequently resulting in outright distortions or abbreviated versions of the original text. In this respect, Paris in the Twentieth Century follows the precedent of the 1993 Oxford University Press publication of another recent translation (by Evelyn Copeland) of a Verne book never previously published in English, Verne's only fairy tale, Aventures de la Famille Raton [Adventures of the Rat Family], with its highly faithful translation. A number of other notable translations have appeared in recent years as well, correcting and re-translating classic Verne works that had been victimized by dismal 19th century renderings into English, most notably Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and his Vingt mille lieues sous les Mers [Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea].

Sadly, in other ways the American edition of Paris in the Twentieth Century shows signs of hasty construction, despite Random House having spent two years on the effort. The half-dozen minimalist line drawings serving as illustrations are, in a word, pathetic. Five Weeks in a Balloon is twice misdated as having been published in 1853, not 1863.

Paris in the Twentieth Century is billed on the cover as "the lost novel;" in fact it is only the latest "lost" Verne work to surface in the last decade. In addition to Backwards to Britain and Uncle Robinson, a third novel has been published in France, Un PrÍtre en 1839 [A Priest in 1839], written before Verne was twenty. A number of short stories and novelettes have also been discovered and published for the first time. Many of the novels issued after Verne's death turned out to have been rewritten and in some cases created by his son Michel, and the original texts by the senior Verne have also been recently published. Paris in the Twentieth Century has earned more publicity than these others simply because it is the only book never before published in any form to be science fiction, associating the author with the genre with which he is best known.

Most regrettably, the scholarly preface to the original French edition by Piero Gondolo della Riva was not utilized for the English translation. Gondolo della Riva is a noted Verne authority who owns the Hetzel letter refusing to publish Paris in the Twentieth Century, a document which helped to authenticate the novel. Gondolo della Riva's preface discussed the origin of Paris in the Twentieth Century, why it was lost for over a century, and how the aborted effort impacted other Verne stories. Instead, Random House commissioned an introduction by Eugen Weber, an expert in French history.

Weber's meandering, unfocused piece contains a number of factual errors, and contributes little context or understanding of the novel. For instance, Weber fails to understand that the giant ledger at which Dufrénoy works is not a prophecy, but a symbol of the oppressive dominance of commercialism. He seems unaware that the "Voyages Extraordinaires" are full of social satire, with the most relevant counterpoint to Paris in the Twentieth Century being L'Ile à hélice [Propeller Island], another story of an apparent municipal utopia gone awry. There are also such minor errors as giving the date of Verne's death as 1904 instead of 1905, and describing Georges Méliès's version of Verne's lunar novels Le Voyage dans la Lune [A Trip to the Moon] (1902) as "one of the first French films made," when in fact France was already a world leader in filmmaking throughout the 1890s.

Weber says that Verne has been translated on 224 occasions in 23 countries. Considering that there are more than that number of translations of Verne into English alone, and (as Weber himself later notes) that 30 translations have recently been made of Paris in the Twentieth Century, Weber's estimate is clearly inadequate. Verne's works have, in fact, been translated into some 150 different languages in over a century, making him the most enduringly popular author of fiction in the world, according to UNESCO surveys.

All in all, Paris in the Twentieth Century is an important book for historical reasons, but probably readers should be pleased that Verne followed Hetzel's advice and concentrated on adventurous science fiction. Previously, readers have been able to see Verne's pre-Hetzel work in short stories and novelettes of adventure and fantasy, but not in science fiction. As Verne's first science fiction story written on his own, Paris in the Twentieth Century demonstrates that even in the genre that ultimately made his reputation, his success was due in no small measure to Hetzel's influence. Without it, the other great classics that have secured Verne's immortality in the literary pantheon, such as De la Terre à la Lune [From the Earth to the Moon] or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, might never have been written. Rejected and unpublished, this early seed of futuristic and dystopian science fiction that Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century represents in the evolution of the genre would be cultivated and brought to fruition only by Verne's successors.


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