10 January 2008

Verne ephemera in the clouds

I decided that this year (and please don’t mistake this for a resolution; even if it was, it’s a petty one) I would read a number of Jules Verne’s lesser-known works. Of course I’ve gone through, often more than once, his classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Around the World in Eighty Days. New translations that have superseded the creaky Victorian ones that have held sway for more than a century have made it invigorating to return to some of these classics many years after I first read them late elementary school. (I believe I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues in fifth grade.) But my few encounters with Verne’s other novels have been very rewarding, and so I want to delve deeper into this obscura.

Verne published an enormous amount of “fantastic travelogues” for publisher Leon Hetzel’s Voyages Extraordinaires series, but only a select few remain widely available in English. More of these rarities are starting to break back into print, but you have to make an effort to find them. A few are even getting new ‘from-the-ground-up’ translations, but for the most part I’ll have to be satisfied with the first—and often only—English translation made back during first publication in the U.K. and the U.S.

Take, for example, the book I started reading last night, Robur the Conqueror. It was first published by Hetzel in 1886 as Robur-le-Conquérant. The initial U.K. edition renamed the book The Clipper of the Clouds, perhaps to make the central conceit of a “flying machine” more obvious. The first U.S. edition, which didn’t come out until 1900, further changed the title to A Trip around the World in a Flying Machine, which not only obsessively nails down the plot for the ignorant reader, but also does homage to the massive success of Around the World in Eighty Days. The recent English print edition that I have (seen to the right) is a cheaply produced paperback from Holland that gives the book the strange cover title of Robur the Conqueror: Master of the World, misleading readers into thinking that it might also contain the later sequel Master of the World. The interior is a facsimile of the 1887 U.K. edition, a bit splotchy to read and suffering from the standard faults of the Victorian English translations (poorly handled colloquial phrases, deletions, measurement inaccuracies). The cover isn’t anything to get excited about: a thick black-and-white illustration of an early aircraft that looks similar to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk airplane. It comes from the cover of a 192os U.S. edition of the book published by M. A. Donohue. The vehicle isn’t exactly a match for Robur’s magnificent aerial creation. Perhaps the publishers wanted to show Verne’s prophetic powers in predicting the future of air travel lay in heavier-than-air vehicles—but most likely it was an economic decision.

(If you want to read an excellent book that predicts the opposite trend in the future of aeronautics, toward the dominance of lighter-than-air vehicles, please read H. G. Wells’s 1908 work The War in the Air. He got the technology wrong, but his vision of a broad, destructive world war that starts from European colonial ambition is—unfortunately—dead on. Where Verne was the master with tech-prophecy, Wells was dishearteningly accurate about social trends.)

Despite all these deficiencies in the English edition, Verne’s magic still speaks through. When I finish reading the novel, I’ll report back about that.

When I turn to the sequel, Master of the World, I’ll use Project Gutenberg’s online version. I’ve only once before read one of these e-texts in its entirety, but Project Gutenberg’s extensive library of Jules Verne books—all available for free—is too good an opportunity to pass up. And considering the meager quality of my copy of Robur the Conqueror, printing up a vanilla text version of a Verne book and reading it that way will actually be an improvement. (Plus, Verne would have approved of this use of technology.)

Also on my Verne list: Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon and Michael Strogoff.