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The Enduring Appeal of Jules Verne

If all Verne had done was predict the future, he would excite my admiration, not my love. How perspicacious the man was! Really ahead of his time! And that’s where it would end.

Reading Verne, though, something different happens. Verne writes, well in advance of history, about moon travel, submarines, the swift aerial circumnavigation of the globe—yet his visionary foresight is rarely where I focus. I tend not to cross-check his guesses against history too closely. Captain Nemo’s submarine runs on a kind of electrical generator; the earliest U-boats had huge batteries that had to be recharged after surfacing with the use of diesel engines; long-duration dives like Captain Nemo’s became possible much later, with nuclear-powered submarines. So what? Knowing how close Verne’s visions came to actuality (and conversely, knowing the ways in which he missed the mark) do not alter my love of his books. My love of Verne is not predicated on this aspect of his work. Nor is it the high adventure of his plotting (though that does endear him to me). Five Weeks in a Balloon has some wonderful scenes, but 20,000 Leagues is mostly an account of underwater marvels and explorations—Atlantis, lost treasures, the “Arabian Tunnel” beneath the under-construction Suez Canal. After the first chapters, there are long stretches of “wow-look-at-that” which don’t have much drama, in the sense of chase scenes, escape scenes, or fight scenes.

So what is it about this writer?

Verne appeals to the modern reader, I think, for the same reason he appealed to his contemporaries: A giddy sense of anticipation and wonder. Verne regresses us to a state of excitement about the future that predates the present. Through Verne, we are transported to late nineteenth century Europe in a way even Tolstoy and Flaubert fail to transport us; instead of the human truths these “greater” novelists write of, which are universal but in their essence outside time, Verne writes a dream-world that is all the more universal for being time-stamped. Reading Verne, I share, for a time, the limitations and hopes of Verne and his contemporaries. He adumbrates things to come; I see the present-day as if in a vivid, approximated dream, and I experience anew the marvel of a moon landing or undersea travel. I experience this marvel not as the marvel at a fact—the image of Neil Armstrong hopping on the moon is at once stupendous and, alas, stale. Rather I, along with Verne and his characters, marvel at the possibility of these things, even though they have already happened (in the case of submarine travel, a century ago; in the case of moon travel, half a century ago). This is surely one of the greatest literary feats I have ever witnessed. The writing of Jules Verne excites a sense of anticipation about the past. Great novelist? Great magician.—Pull that off, Flaubert.