Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ballooning with the dummy in the top hat, or Around the World in Eighty Days

Because of movies, mostly, there are a few books that should now come with warnings, prominently displayed:  Not Like the Movie.  The back covers should feature specific “anti-spoilers.”  Frankenstein is the most obvious example, I think.  The perplexed reader waits, in a fidget, for the appearance of hunchbacked Igor and “Fire bad!” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” but instead reads about the monster reading The Sorrows of Young Werther.  That’s my favorite part of the book, at least.  Regardless, the innovations and improvements of James Whale are nowhere to be found.

Anyone read Carlos Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio?  It’s a fascinating book, not merely frightening like parts of the Walt Disney version but quite grim.  The big shocker, though, is the – no, I don’t want to say.  Leave it at this: the use of the cricket is very different.  Very, very different.

Reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) recently, I came across another one.  Phileas Fogg, a wealthy sufferer from autism, “that dummy in a top hat,” (Nabokov, The Defense, p. 34), is tangled up in an expensive bet:  can he travel around the world, point to point, in eighty days?  A number of forms of transportation will be required – certainly, different boats and steamships, and trains, and because there will inevitably be complications along the way, other more clever and surprising vehicles.  I have never seen a  film version of the novel, but I had somehow picked up the idea that there would be a balloon.  Where did I get that idea? (Poster from Wikipedia).

Here’s the balloon:

Still, some means must be found to cross the Atlantic on a boat, unless by balloon, - which would have been venturesome, besides not being capable of being put in practice. (Ch. 32)

I’m reading the 1873 George Towle translation; perhaps the infelicities of that sentence are his fault.  Separate issue.  It was amusing to carry along, while reading, a niggling feeling that a balloon was supposed  to appear.  It could have, at any moment, even at the very end.  The train to London breaks down, but, look, there’s a balloonist!  But no.

I know that Verne had written an earlier novel about ballooning (Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1863), so perhaps he was sick of the subject.  The variety would have been nice, though.  I was startled by how dull most of the obstacles and solutions were in Around the World, which is nominally an adventure novel.  Fogg mostly solves his problems by spending money.  The ship he needed already sailed?  Hire another!  The novel is not much of a demonstration of the ingenuity of Jules Verne.   He is generally more interested in steamship schedules than in exciting incidents. Even the ending is stolen directly from Edgar Allan Poe.

As if I cared whether or not there was a balloon, or a rocket ship, or a tricycle!  Just get me around the world, Jules – and that, he did.  Still, a warning to adventure seekers:  Around the World in Eighty Days is more a classic of trainspotting than of adventure, and there ain’t no balloon.


  1. I tried to read "Around the World" three summers ago in its original French but put it down due to how slowly I had to read it. I enjoyed the beginning; maybe one of these days I'll pick it up again.

  2. I'm 80% certain I read this when I was a kid. I read a bunch of Jules Verne stuff based on how much I enjoyed the movies based on his books. Remember the 1960's versions. Those were cutting edge special effects in their day.

    Now I couldn't tell you much about any of them except that my favorite was The Long Vacation which is about a bunch of school boys marooned on a desert island. Lord of the Flies basically but without the lord of the flies.

    You're spot on about Pinocchio. How could that ever have been considered a children's book. Maybe people really hated kids in the 1880's.

  3. I felt compelled to read this classic when one of my third graders, a boy from Russia, was reading it during our silent reading time. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, half wondering if he would succeed in his bet with bated breath, and half wondering myself where the balloon was. :)

  4. I could also enumerate the mild virtues of Verne's book. The main one is that it motorvates, to quote Chuck Berry - I understand Bellezza's bated breath. It's not exactly efficient, but Verne keeps up the pace.

    And then Passepartout is good, a cartoon character but a good one. The novel would be unread now if it were not for him.

    I had not read this before. It was, as they say, vacation reading, and useful for low energy, low concentration.

    Lord of the Flies without the lord of the flies could be hilarious. And I love the idea that people hated kids in the 1880s. They certainly did not mind if the imparted lessons were strong.

    Anna - it's actually an interesting book as a sort of weird novel hybrid. There's the adventure story, but it is mixed with a sort of digested geographical encyclopedia. It's the opposite of Goncharov's travelogue - Goncharov deliberately omits all of the statistical and dempgraphic - you can look that up, he says. Verne packs it in - that's the part of travel Verne likes.

  5. Oddly, I've never read Verne.

    But now I'm thinking about reading "children" classics I haven't read. I want to catch up with this and also be able to know which book I can buy to my children and when, according to their age.

  6. book around the corner - some children's classics preparatory reading - that's a great idea. It would make a good challenge or readalong, too, if it were defined narrowly enough (maybe published before 19xx).

    Verne was, of course, not trying to write children's books, but the characterization and style are so simple, that that is what they have become. It would be fun to read the book with a child and follow the trip on a world map.

  7. After that short teaser, I now find I must read Pinocchio, soon. I have a copy, even. I'm not surprised that the Disney treatment should be much different, just taking The Little Mermaid as an example. My vague (very vague) familiarity with some of the classics of children's stories/fairy tales is that not a few are much darker than the contemporary reader might expect, at least in their earliest versions.

  8. Many viewers might be surprised at how dark Walt Disney's Pinocchio is! But the Collodi novel really dives right into the Slough of Despond. It is Struwwelpeter gone existentialist.

    Now I want to read it, too. Maybe I'm the one who should organize the old-timey kiddie lit readalong challenge.

  9. An "old-timey kiddie lit readalong challenge"--now that sounds like one I could actually complete. I may even have a short list around somewhere--and I'm sure there are many more I'm not familiar with.

  10. The problem with the kiddie lit readalong would be defining the category in a feasibly narrow way. I.e., is Little Women really a children's book? Or Ivanhoe? Some books have drifted into the category.

    I am assuming, of course, that the challenge is following Scottish rules.

  11. I've been rediscovering Verne recently. I'm not sure how well he's served by his translators; in French, his style is cheery and vivacious (he started out writing stage comedies), but he's often stuffy in English.

    I don't think of his books as adventure novels, really. Many of them were written under the rubric of "Voyages Extraordinaires"; to me, they're more like travel fiction, for kids with wanderlust. Nowadays, the descriptions of traveling and foreign lands seem like padding, but I think they were the hook.

    I always saw Fogg as a Frenchman's caricature of an Englishman, a cartoon of a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon. Of course, that doesn't make him more engaging.

    "Pinocchio" is indeed wonderful, richer and more intense than those who only know the Disney version would imagine. Collodi hasn't always been well translated, either: Pinocchio is a very Italian little creature, who prays to the saints when scared, and gorges himself on Italian candies, references often omitted in versions meant for American kids.

    Anyway, I'm enjoying your blog; cheers!

  12. I just read this in French and thought it moved at a brisk pace, but, no, it's not really about adventures--more about how technology is making the world a smaller place, mixed in with a bit of nostalgia for the glory days of adventure travel (rather than tourism). The movie tries to add more "adventure" into the story, but I found it utterly boring, even with the balloon.

  13. I agree with Doug and Sylvie - whatever genre Eighty Days has slipped into now, Verne was most interested in the details of travel and the geography. Goncharov, in his actual travel book, keeps telling his correspondent that he is omitting all of the stuff you can just go look up. That's just what Verne includes!

    Then the rest of the scenes are a hodgepodge - the "adventure" at the Indian temple, the history of Mormonism. And adding more adventure, as Sylvie sees in the movies, is no help. Travel for the sake of travel - that's what the book is.

    My next run at Pinocchio will try a new translation, the NYRB Geoffrey Brock version, which ought to be complete. One hopes.

  14. I too read this in my bad French and found it fairly tiresome. It is though a masterpiece of lazing stereotyping: the Englishman is impeturbable, the Indians burn their woman alive along with their dead husbands, America is democracy gone mad, the Frenchman is a hero.

    I'm now reading 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which so far is much better. Perhaps this is because Verne has inverted the master/slave relationship: this time the master is the enthusiastic and active partner, while it is the valet who is cold and impeturbable.

  15. Oh yeah, the history of Mormonism! - I'd forgotten that bit. Why was it they diverted through Salt Lake City again? Wasn't it because to Verne, America only consists of democracy, Mormons and Red Indians, so he had to shoe-horn it in somehow?

    I think Swift's Gulliver's Travels would fit your Children's Books project rather well.

  16. And thus Verne skips the eastern half of America, after the encounter with Indians is resolved - nothing interesting there. No wind-powered snow sleds in Ohio, I guess - wonder where Verne read about those?

    It is a shallow book. Good to hear that 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is better.

    I read that myself, decades ago, in a version edited for young'uns, which is also how I first read Gulliver's Travels. The dullest stuff was certainly omitted - most of Part 3 - but I wonder how much of the amazing Part 4 could possibly have survived?

  17. Oh dear, poor Verne is raising hackles here. Well, it's true "Around the World" hasn't aged well. I do take exception to the idea that he wasn't trying to write children's books: most of his books were serialized in the "Magasin d'Education et Récréation," which was strictly for the youngsters. But he did cross over, like Lewis Carroll and countless others...

    I never had any interest in seeing the movie, but I am intrigued by the fact that Verne turned the book into a play, which ran for two years. I wonder what that was like.

  18. Not raising hackles - coming up against the highest standards. If Eighty Days was written for a children's magazine, particularly one with such a dreary title, much is explained.

    I, too, would love to read about the play.

  19. Nothing wrong with risen hackles; mine bristle at Verne's platitudes.

    And, yes, his books seem to have been meant frankly as schoolboy edutainment; in his publisher's words: "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge... in an entertaining and picturesque format." Nice enough, but, as you say, shallow.

    I surfed about a bit, and found that BearManor Fiction is publishing some previously untranslated Verne, including the play. Sounds like fun.