Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
by Jules Verne, translated by Michael Glencross
Penguin Classics, 2004 (originally published in French in 1872)
I feel kind of guilty, because a) I haven't been blogging, and b) I am cribbing a bunch of these notes from my book club notes and so am kind of not really blogging again. But at least there's some new material up here. It's not that I haven't been reading - I have - but more that I haven't been finishing much, and I have started quite a bit and either given it up for good or given it up for an indefinite period of time. It's also probably something to do with having a two-year-old who wants us to read and read and read, and who goes to bed late, and it's something to do with work changes that have been happening (good!) and spring! is! here! So we're spending lots of time outdoors and birdwatching and gardening and... not blogging.
Anyhow. So Jules Verne. This is the first thing I've ever read by him, though I recall that Journey to the Centre of the Earth was one of my favourite movies as a kid. The little bits of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea that I used to catch while it was playing on repeat on one of the three t.v. channels we got when I was a kid used to scare the complete pants off me, so I never have seen the full thing. And I have somehow escaped seeing any of the adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days at all. Verne is a bit of a gap in my reading, being as he is often considered the grand-père of science fiction. Perfect, therefore, for my genre book club.
Around the World in 80 Days was originally published in 1872 as a serial in France, and collected into a novel edition in 1873. It is considered one of Verne's best works, though it contains none of the speculative technology that Verne employed in other works, and therefore can't really be considered science fiction. That said, it is speculative, in that no one had actually accomplished the feat (the first person to do so, in 1889, was Nellie Bly), and employs the best factual information Verne could get at the time; so it skims very close to science fiction. It is considered a classic of modern adventure fiction. The main character is Phileas Fogg, a rigidly eccentric, very wealthy British gentleman who takes a bet at his club one evening that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. He drags his newly employed French valet Passepartout along for the ride (Passepartout, it could be argued, is the real hero of the story.) Along the way they rescue a maiden in distress, purchase an elephant, take a wind-powered sledge across the frozen prairies, are attacked by Sioux warriors and waylaid by an enormous herd of bison, arrested, and finally resort to piracy on the high seas to get where they are going on time.
I didn't really love it but I certainly didn't hate it either, and I'm quite glad I read it. I think the big hurdle for me (aside from some of the cringe-worthy and unhappily predictable racist bits, particularly in the section where the train across the American prairies is attacked by Sioux warriors) was Verne's pedantic style, and his habit of getting sidetracked by... uh, "interesting" technical details. He spent more time describing the shortcomings of the P&O ships than the rescue of Passepartout from the Sioux.
The characters were placeholders and occasionally totally inexplicable, and clearly there to serve the plot, though I will admit that this does leave the reader's imagination entirely free to fill in whatever gaps they would like, and mine generally did. It was interesting to read the portrayal of Phileas Fogg compared to Passepartout, knowing that certain French/British rivalries were still very much in force at the time of the book's writing: Fogg is completely unreachable; Passepartout, while more relatable, is often rather a puppy-dog-like dufus, though a very brave and agile one.
One piece of criticism I read suggested that none of the English translations available really do Verne's writing justice, which could be part of the problem, though part of me doubts that the translators can do much when he chooses to spend a bunch of time elaborating on the genius of American railway engineering instead of the inner life of his characters. If I had the patience I could see trying a different translation, and perhaps I will some day, but I thought Michael Glencross did quite a serviceable job with the material he had.
As an interesting side note: I had to see if wind-powered ice sledges actually existed, because I was pretty much thinking that was an invention straight out of Verne's very creative, very speculative, and very scientific mind. Apparently not. Right around the time Verne was writing this book they were making headlines for racing trains and beating them.
All in all, glad I read it, would recommend it to the right person (interested in historical adventure, perhaps, and in a light, quick read.) Not going to be considered one of my favourite books, but I do feel like Verne is part of the consciousness of our culture, and now I have a better background understanding of why. Would probably try Verne again, most likely Journey or 20 000 Leagues, though I'll admit Five Weeks in a Balloon rather tickles my fancy too.