19 January 2009

Jules Verne in Siberia: Michael Strogoff

Michael Strogoff (1876)
By Jules Vern

A new year, and it’s time to head back to Jules Verne for some old-fashioned thrills with the fellow who showed ‘em all how it was done. The book is Michael Strogoff, and no, the cover to the left isn’t the edition I read—that is a ‘50s comic book adaptation. But the edition of the book that I have has a featureless, generic front, so I dug up this cover from a comics database. And yes, the wolf-stabbing event depicted does occur in Michael Strogoff… as do a million other things.

I have written plenty about Jules Verne during 2008 and how much I’ve come to appreciate his literature in my adult life, decades after reading him in elementary school. This quote from Verne scholar William Butcher is a nice summation of my current attitude toward the famous French writer. (Butcher’s whole article is worth reading.)
At first sight, to choose to write about a popular author like Jules Verne in a learned journal may seem strange. Didn’t we all see through Verne at the age of ten or eleven? Haven’t all his predictions happened long ago?

My contention is that the answer to each of these questions is “no.” Jules Verne has always been considered a children’s writer in the English-speaking countries. My aim… is not to argue against such a view; but to argue that he is also, perhaps above all, a writer for adults. I shall also claim that by placing this writer in a category that is often looked down upon, Verne has been unjustly neglected. In my view, Verne’s public reputation hides works of considerable literary merit, which can be read with great pleasure at any age.
Cheers to that.

Now, on to the Courier of the Czar. Or, to paraphrase Baldrick from Black Adder Goes Forth, “Michael Strogoff, who used to be bizarre.”

Michael Strogoff was published in French and English the same year. In France it was a two-volume installment in Verne’s enormously popular Voyages extraordinaires series from publisher Hetzel. My edition is a print-on-demand copy from 1st World Library that lists the title on first page as Michael Strogoff, or The Courier of the Czar. It credits no translator, but my research uncovered that it is the 1877 U.S. edition from Scribner, Armstrong & Co., translated by W. H. G. Kingston—or, more likely, his wife using his name—and revised by Julius Chambers. You can read it for free at Project Gutenberg. Kingston (or his wife) did a number of early English translations of Verne, most of which creak like coffin lids today. Unfortunately, I don’t have many translation options when it comes to one of Verne’s less popular novels outside of his home country.

However, Michel Strogoff (that’s the French title) has immense popularity in France, and Verne scholars and critics hold it up as one of his finest works. Verne adapted it for the stage with Adolphe d’Ennery and it turned into a huge success. But its lack of science-fiction elements gives it a low-profile in the U.S. The novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series were travelogue adventures at the core, which sometimes used speculative science as their catalyst. Michael Strogoff is more typical of the series than better-known works like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. It’s essentially an espionage-adventure tale, the sort of populist thriller that crowds our bestseller shelves today. Except it’s done with Verne’s wit, flair for characters, and his nineteenth-century vogue for dropping enormous amounts of travelogue information into the story wherever he could leverage it. You will learn gobs about Russian geography and central Asian people, at least from a nineteenth-century French perspective, as you follow the adventures of Michael Strogoff into the war zone of Asiatic Russia.

From his palace in Moscow, the Czar learns of a crisis. A rebellion of Tartars (used in its broader older meaning of all Turkic Central Asian people) under the leadership of Fedor-Khan, Emir of Bokhara, threatens Siberia. Fedor-Khan’s chief lieutenant is a traitorous and vengeance-minded former Russian colonel, Ivan Ogareff. The Tartars have cut off the single telegraph line that runs into Siberia from Muscovy, and the Cazr desperately needs to send a message to his brother, the Grand Duke, in Irkutsk to warn him of Ogareff’s treachery and plans to seize the city. The Czar entrusts the job to a native Siberian, our hero, Michael Strogoff! “[I]f anyone could accomplish this journey from Moscow to Irkutsk, across a rebellious country, surmount obstacles, and brave peril of all sorts, Michael Strogoff was the man.”

And he has three thousand four hundred miles to travel to reach his destination. Verne likes to throw the impossible at his characters, doesn’t he? Michael will travel incognito on his trip, and like Phineas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, he will need to use every mode of transportation available to complete the trip.

The Czar is Alexander II, so we can assume this is meant to be a contemporary adventure; Alexander reigned from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. During the opening chapter at a celebration in the New Palace in Moscow, Verne uses the device of having two journalists narrate events to help set the scene; this was a time when “Rod & Don” conversations, where two characters tell each other information that they both know for the benefit of the reader, weren’t strictly forbidden and torn apart in writers’ workshops. Verne leaps into his lectures with the next chapter, laying out the Russian political scene in the 1870s and detailing for European and American readers the broad sweep of ethnicities in the landscape of Russia.

Verne makes the interesting point that traveling through Russia in winter is easier than doing it during warmer parts of the year. The uninterrupted sheets of ice make sledding across obstacles a snap, and the cold keeps the Tartars from mustering in large numbers. Michael Strogoff, unfortunately, isn’t making the journey during the winter, but starts out in mid-July.

Strogoff also has companions of which he isn’t at first aware. The French and English reporters, Alcide Jolviet and Harry Blount, get on the first train heading toward the rebellion region to find a story. A mysterious Livonian girl also boards Strogoff’s train—the first leg of the journey—and she plans to go all the way to Irkutsk. Michael uses his traveling permit to allow her to accompany him, and learns that she is Nadia Fedor, on her way to Irkustk to join her father in exile now that her mother has died.

The journey of Michael Strogoff, his female companion, and the two competing journalists moves up the Volga river, then via carriage over the Ural Mountains. Michael faces a storm and a bear attack during this traverse (the comic book versions of the story love the bear attack scene for their covers, the cover at the top excepted), and helps the two reporters repair their wagon so they have an excuse to tag along with the Czar’s courier until they pass into Asiatic Russia.

And there, things get really bad. An attack crossing a river separates Michael from Nadia. The Tartar forces under Ogareff have taken the town of Omsk, where Michael Strogoff’s own mother lives. Dedication to his cause leads Michael to a heartbreaking scene where he has to deny his own mother so his identity as the Czar’s courier won’t be revealed. The plot doesn’t work, and soon Ivan Ogareff identified Michael as the courier taking the letter to warn Irkutsk of its approaching danger. Meanwhile, the two reporters compete viciously to report the best story back to their homelands; Verne lumping some comedy/satire into the tale. They eventually team-up and provide some extra-Russo commentary on the action.

Michael Strogoff is essentially a “one-damn-thing-after-another” yarn; the pace never relinquishes as Verne tosses his hero from one escape or danger after another, reaching a furious climax that would satisfy any fan of sword-swinging action—although Verne pulls out an unbelievable plot twist in the conclusion that he doesn’t explain to my satisfaction. In many places, Michael Strogoff feels like something Edgar Rice Burroughs might have written, where the hero pursues a kidnapped beauty and often falls into wildly coincidental meetings to push the story along. The exotic central Asian setting with its variety of peoples and clashing armies trying to wrest away towns from each other often gives it the flavor of a heroic fantasy. Verne himself even mentions that it’s a scene fit for a romantic painter. Strogoff is a dashing and implacable hero, while Ivan Ogareff and his female gypsy spy Sangarre make a pair of wonderful melodramatic villains.
A painting of Irkutsk around the time of Michael Strogoff
Despite all these qualities, Michael Strogoff urgently needs a new, from-the-ground-up English translation, preferably in an edition with a lengthy introduction to provide context and annotations that explain Verne’s ethnic descriptions of the many peoples discussed in the novel for a modern audience. I thrilled to an exciting story, but I could often sense that the translation’s failings even without the French on hand. And in my edition every appearance of the word “resume” is mis-typed as “r,sume.” The find-replace function went awry there.