Thursday, August 16, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon, with sandwiches - "Hurray for Edgar Poe!"

A culture, a literary tradition, emphasizes its own writers more than anyone else does.  It’s normal and natural.  Exceptions are of the highest interest, yes.  And I am thinking of French readers, who like more of everything.

So Jules Verne is read more in France than in the United States, is where I am going today.  Looking at Amazon, judging the number of editions and the numbers of reviews, it looks like four Verne novels are still widely read in the United States.  In France it is at least eight novels, maybe as many as a dozen, and recently there was a beeyootiful reissue of everything, in cheap paperbacks with attractive embossed red covers and vintage illustrations, so that bookstores had plenty of random “now what is this” titles.  The School of the Robinsons?  The Sphinx of the Ice?  Maybe someday I will find out what they are.

This is not to say that the French take Verne particularly seriously.  A junior high-level collection of travel writing that I read called him a “popularizer of genius,” which gets the attitude.  He really is popular, still popular, with Verne-derived images all over, most charmingly on carousels.  And he is taken more seriously – more critically – than he was when he was alive.

I just finished De la Terre à la Lune, trajet direct en 97 heures 20 minutes (From the Earth to the Moon, on a Direct Path in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes, 1865), which I tried for a couple of reasons: it is fairly short, fairly easy, and inspired much of the imagery of a much greater work of art, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.  I occasionally had to force myself to really read the French text, since it was easier to just substitute an image from the film.  Close enough!  Sometimes quite close.

The title pretty well summarizes the novel.  The means of transportation is a big bullet shot out of a giant cannon.  To the extent that the book has characters, they are a couple of American artillery-makers who, lacking purpose with the end of the Civil War, come up with this crazy scheme.

To the extent that the novel has a plot – eh, it barely has a plot.  Based on this book alone, I would doubt the ability of Verne to plot.  From the Earth to the Moon is mostly engineering – a great moment of tension is the pouring of molten metal into a Florida pit to found the huge cannon (which is entirely underground) – but the parts that are not are satire.  This novel is packed with jokes.

The bomb-makers who belong to the Gun-Club have all been blown to bits, and now have wooden legs and rubber jaws and so on.  “[T]here was not quite one arm per four persons, and only two legs per six” (Ch. I).

I took this as a bit of a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and his story “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839).  The Gun-Club is in Baltimore, maybe another nod.  The President of the Club gives an inspirational speech in which he covers a pretty thorough history of fictional journeys to the moon, so Poe is there again:

“Hurray for Edgar Poe!” cried the assembly, electrified by the words of its president. (Ch. II)

That’s the spirit.

Several chapters are nothing but meetings.  The meetings feature sandwiches.  Easily my favorite sentence in the novel:

“We are ready,” replied the members of the Committee while each absorbing a half-dozen sandwiches.

– Nous sommes prêts, répondirent les membres du Comité en absorbant chacun une demi-douzaine de sandwiches.  (Ch. VII, “The Hymn of the Bullet”)

Three chapters straight of meetings.  Not satire, really, but gritty realism.

Gags, statistics, nonsense, engineering, and at the end, kaboom!  A strange novel.

All translations mine, so don’t trust them.


  1. You have made me want to reopen the two Jules Verne novels I own with this post; did you have a chance to dine in the restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower named for him? I loved my meal there" except for the American man in a Budweiser ball cap.

  2. The animation of the shot transport to the moon was recreated in the movie adaptation Hugo, directed by Scorsese. Georges Méliès was played by Ben Kingsley. A great movie.

    imagery of the transport to the moon

  3. I have never been on the Eiffel Tower itself. I have been kind of near it. Lyon has, as one of its landmarks, a copy of the top third of the Eiffel Tower (no restaurant), which I looked at every day, from a distance.

    I loved the Méliès parts of Hugo. I had the feeling that that was the movie Scorsese really wanted to make. Enrapturing.

  4. Verne was really a hack YA writer, but a fun and imaginative one. When I read Verne, I'm always surprised at how lively he is. Note to writers: keep it lively!

  5. Belatedly but thanks to Doug's suggestion at least a couple years back, I read Le Château des Carpathes this year (and in that same lovely paperback format). Verne certainly was a lot more fun to read in French, enough fun to make me want to read more - something I had little inclination to do after reading two more mediocre Verne novels in English.

    I wonder if Tarkovsky might have been inspired by the scene you describe of pouring molten metal in a Florida pit to conceive of the church bell creation scene in Andrei Rublev? Verne was supposedly immensely popular in Russia, and while Tarkovsky was no real fan of science fiction he certainly seems to have read a lot of it.

  6. I highly, highly rec 20,000 Leagues, which is a bit darker than typical Verne but almost without meaning to be, a lot deeper (heh). There's a lot of travelogue but the plot, once it finally hits, is genuinely emotional.

  7. I read a lot of Rimbaud recently, and was surprised to learn that "The Drunken Boat" was apparently inspired by the illustrations in "20,000 Leagues." Huh!

  8. I doubt but love the Tarkovsky idea. Verne's pit is 900 feet deep. A lot of attention is given to this pit.

    A puppet-heavy version of "20,000 Leagues" was the first French play I saw in Lyon. The fish were all puppets, not the people. Inventive.

    The Rimbaud thing is a surprise.

  9. Verne can be absolutely hilarious sometimes... I am re-reading Walters's translation of 20,000 Leagues, and there are some really funny scenes.

    From the Earth to the Moon is one I haven't read yet...maybe I'll save it for French!

    My all-time Verne favorite (so far) is Magellania, translated by Benjamin Ivry. It is so different from his other work, almost epic.

  10. Magelliana, interesting.

    I do not want to say that I found any of the comedy in this particular novel especially funny, but there was nothing as dreadful as the Mormon scene in Around the World in 80 Days, so I'll take it.

  11. I should have looked up Magellania first; then I might have spelled it right. Also published as Les naufragés du "Jonathan" in French.

  12. I wonder if Tarkovsky might have been inspired by the scene you describe of pouring molten metal in a Florida pit to conceive of the church bell creation scene in Andrei Rublev? Verne was supposedly immensely popular in Russia, and while Tarkovsky was no real fan of science fiction he certainly seems to have read a lot of it.

    The locus classicus is Benvenuto Cellini's casting of his statue of Perseus, about which Berlioz wrote a magnificent opera. I have no idea whether Tarkovsky is more likely to have been inspired by Cellini's memoirs, Berlioz, or Verne (or some other casting drama of which I am unaware).

  13. We need a literary history of foundries.

  14. Yes, accompanied by Mosolov!

  15. A complete cultural history of foundries.