jules verne was never that interested in science — 8/10/15

Today’s selection — from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne, 1870, translated by William Butcher. Jules Verne has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979, ranking between writers Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare. Although Verne is considered a founding father of science fiction, he was “never specifically interested in science”:

“Jules Verne was born and brought up in Nantes, studied and worked in Paris, and then spent the rest of his life in Amiens.

“According to the author’s grandson, Jean Jules-Verne, Verne’s original idea was simply to write a ‘poem’ to the glory of the sea. Maurice Verne is reported to have said that, ‘at bottom, my uncle Jules only had three passions: freedom, music, and the sea’. We also know that in 1865 the novelist George Sand suggested to Verne that the sea was the one area of the globe where his ‘scientific knowledge and imagination’ had not yet been put to use.

“Much of the inspiration for Twenty Thousand Leagues came in fact from Verne’s own experience. He was born on an island in a major whaling port; and while preparing the book he spoke to mariners in Nantes and Amiens, including his brother Paul, a retired naval officer. In 1865 he bought a fishing-boat of 8 or 10 tonnes and used it as a study while sailing along the Brittany and Normandy coasts. In 1868 it was refitted and baptized the Saint-Michel; in September he sailed to Gravesend on it, where he wrote: ‘I’m just finishing· the first volume ofTwenty Thousand Leagues … How beautiful [the scenery] is and what fuel for the imagination!’ His wife is meant to have sardonically commented: ‘How can Jules write all those things [about the sea’s marvels], when he turns his backside to them all the time?’

“Many commentaries have concentrated on the originality of the Nautilus, but it should be emphasized that Verne’s technology was not at all innovative. … Submarine craft had … been around for a long time. Underwater vessels were used in the American War of Independence and Civil War; Verne’s own mathematics teacher had built a working submarine; and even craft namedNautilus were commonplace, including a vessel that the author saw during his visit to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867. Again, a piece in the Musée des familles of 1857 ascribed to Verne, ‘Submarine Locomotives’, humorously foresees that man might domesticate whales and harness them to his underwater vessels. More than three books with titles like The Depths of the Sea,Submarine Adventures, and The Submarine World were published in France in 1867-9 alone. So crowded, indeed, were the submarine deeps that Verne was afraid of being accused of plagiarism.

“Verne himself was categorical: ‘I am not in any way the inventor of submarine navigation.’ He even claimed he was ‘never specifically interested in science’, only in using it to create dramatic stories in exotic parts; and indeed his reputation as a founding-father of science-fiction has led to a major obfuscation of his literary merits.

“Amongst the many tales of submarines, only Verne’s has survived — undoubtedly because of the living nature of his text, because he integrates both his own experience and his literary and scientific reading. His originality does not lie in creating a vessel or the idea of underwater exploration, but in his unbridled literary imagination.

Author: Jules Verne translated by William Butcher
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright Wiliam Butcher 1998

Pages: ix, xii, xiv

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Delanceyplace.com is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

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