Jules Verne’s Lost Novel

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century [The Lost Novel], translated by Richard Howard, introduction by Eugen Weber. New York: Random House, 1996.

This lost novel, written in 1863, was discovered locked in a safe in 1989, and published in 1994.  I have not read Verne since childhood, and I am not acquainted with his social and political views, but after plowing through the initial intriguing chapters, I can see why it was locked up in a safe. But actually, this was not Verne’s intention; his publisher Hetzel rejected the manuscript.

The introductory chapters, introducing the futuristic technological world of 1960, are of course noteworthy as the rest of Verne’s work. His vision of the future in this novel is decidedly dystopian, from his perspective.  The future is completely ruled by technocracy and capitalist enterprise with a decidedly statist component.   Business and technology coalesce in defining the entire culture.  This would be one half of what we now call the two cultures.  The humanities in the Paris of 1960 are completely obsolete.  Humans have taken on the characteristics of machine civilization in their entire lives. Here are a few vivid passages characterizing this condition.

Finally the Director of Applied Sciences stood up—a solemn moment: this was the principal item on the program.

His furious oration was remarkably similar to the whistles, groans, jangles, squeals, the thousand unpleasant noises which escape an active steam engine; the speaker’s rapid delivery suggested a projectile hurtling at top speed; it would have been impossible to stem this high-pressure eloquence, and the grating phrases locked into one another like cogwheels.

To complete the illustration, the Director was sweating profusely, so that he was enveloped in a cloud of steam from head to foot.  [p. 11]

This man, raised in mechanics, accounted for life by gears and transmissions; he moved quite regularly, with the least possible friction, like a piston in a perfectly reamed cylinder; he transmitted his uniform movements to his wife, to his son, to his employees and his servants, all veritable tool machines, from which he, the motor force, derived the maximum possible profit. [30]

Did she love Monsieur Boutardin, and was she loved by him in return? Yes, insofar as these businesslike hearts could love; a comparison will complete the portrait of the pair; she was the locomotive and he the engineer; he kept her in good condition, oiled and polished her, and thus she had rolled forward for a good half century, with about as much sense and imagination as a Crampton Motor. [32]

Unnecessary to add that she never derailed.

Quaint as the mechanical metaphors are, they describe a tendency at work which we can recognize and appreciate now. Eugen Weber in his introduction contextualizes Verne’s work and points out what where he missed as well as where he scored technologically and socially. The most egregious mistake is Verne’s prediction of the elimination of war.  More on this later.

Michel Dufrénoy has won an honor in a field squeezed out of social existence and barely tolerated: first prize for Latin verse. A position of employment is selected for Michel as a functionary in a banking house, which he finds intolerable.

For sustenance, Michel seeks out the huge bookstore-warehouse where the literary works he loves can be obtained, but the clerks have never heard of Hugo, Balzac, Musset, or Lamartine [39]. The only 19th-century author in stock is Paul de Kock (a very popular and prolific but apparently second-rate writer) [41]. Instead, Michel is offered contemporary works such as Meditations on Oxygen and Decarbonated Odes.

Luckily at the bank, Michel finds a kindred spirit, M. Quinsonnas. They have to keep their mutual interests on the down low, so his new friend invites Michel over. At dinner, also with another young man Jacques, the dismal state of poetry in 1960, reduced to cheesy sensationalism, is discussed [78-80]. 

These days, Hugo would have to recite his Orientales straddling two circus horses, and Lamartine would perform his Harmonies upside down from a trapeze!” [78]

Luckily, Verne could not look farther into the future to see his two favorites performing “Spoken Word.”

These extrapolations so far are interesting because, while quaint, they are imaginative projections of the cultural consequences of a mechanistic civilization from a mid 19th-century standpoint. But there comes a point where the cultural values of Michel and his friends (and of Verne himself?) show themselves so conservative as to become highly irritating.

The most obnoxious manifestation of these would-be conservators of “culture” is their nostalgia for war. Michel claims “Fighting ennobles the soul.” His companions agree, with a special fondness for swordplay. There are no more duels, and no more honor, alas. [82-83]

Skipping ahead, we see Verne considering the consequences of mechanized warfare, when individual man-on-man combat is obsolete, and individual courage is dwarfed by the mediation of technology. Machines fight, not men. [134] We see that Verne could not even imagine the technological horrors that lay in store.

At this point, we can see that the conception of culture being contrasted with a dehumanized technocratic culture is conservative and in the end downright philistine.

The next target is modern music, beginning with a jeremiad against Wagner [87]. Hearing has been distorted and dissonance is the order of the day. Music has succumbed to the machine aesthetic, and by overweening ambition to produce novelties. The great masters are contrasted with contemporary poseurs. [93-96] We might be tempted to see analogies in our time, but Verne’s perspective on musical outrage can only strike us as quaint.

Time passes for the trio of aesthetes, and it’s time to pay a visit to Michel’s Uncle Huguenin and bring him up to date. Uncle gets a whole chapter to discourse on the historical array of French authors. The date is April 15, 1961. The glories of the French language, which even foreigners adopted, now lost!

M. Richelot, Michel’s old teacher, joins the party. The humanities are not faring well. Literature professorships are going to be eliminated in 1962. Richelot has but three students, and bad ones at that. Meanwhile Michel is becoming enamored with a young lady in the company called Lucy. They all stroll to the Port de Grenelle. A detailed description of the 20th century innovations in transport follows. It is a wondrous site, also serving to stimulate the affections of Michel and Lucy.

Quinsonnas occupies the next chapter expounding his views on women. He’s whining that there are no real women left. The Parisienne was once the epitome of charm, but no more. [141-142] The contours of the body, the movements, the demeanor, are now angular, mechanical, and over-serious. The Frenchwoman has become Americanized. Marriage and family are obsolescent. Family is no longer close and warm; everyone pursues his or her own interests; the number and proportion of legitimate children are shrinking.  Marriage is for the rich. [145-147] For a poor artist, the prospect is dismal. In the course of discussion, which takes place at the bank, Quinsonnas accidentally causes some damage, and both friends lose their jobs.

The two friends ponder the situation with Uncle Huguenin. Quinsonnas extols the virtues of land ownership. Michel wants to be an artist in a society in which the arts have dried up. What about journalism? Journalism has its day, but it too is dead. [166-168] As with criticism, which got drowned in the escalation of contentiousness.  The only recourse left is theater.

Theater too has been centralized, and so there is Le Grand Entrepôt Dramatique. The plays have diverse sources and objectives; censorship had been relaxed, and all is bureaucratically administered. The fare is lightweight and classics rarely performed. Actors do very well, but original authors are no longer needed or wanted and are frozen out. There is no place for Bohemian creativity, and the rare rebel remains isolated and unnoticed. Michel is hired, to take up a place in the collective, impersonal construction of middle-of-the-road theatrical fare.  All he has to do is take an examination, which involves a simple technical construction of some aspect of theater, whether it be some clever lines or a song. He does a terrible job, but he is hired. The five divisions of theatrical production are (1) high and genre comedy; (2) historical and modern drama; (3) vaudeville; (4) opera and operetta; (5) reviews, pantomimes, and official occasions. Tragedy has been eliminated. [178-179] This is, literally speaking, a culture industry.  All aspects of composition are specialized: some employees worke on entrances and exits, others on verse, and so on. On a higher administrative level the plays of previous eras are rewritten. This is Michel’s department. He is unable to rewrite plays to the satisfaction of the Director, so he is reassigned to the Division of Comedy, then the Division of Drama. Historical plays distort history at will. Modern drama is also produced in the samew specialized manner. Michel is assigned the reworking of an old drama; there he fails as well. He is then assigned to Vaudeville, to work on the comedy Button Up Your Trousers!. This is the last straw, and Michel flees from the scene.

Michel is madly in love with Lucy, and has taken up writing poetry. Quinsonnas is leaving France for the greener pastures of Germany, and gives Michel his apartment. Michel completes his book of poems, entitled Hopes. He cannot get it published; he sinks into poverty, and must endure an exceptionally harsh winter as well. He is mired in the depths of misery.

In the penultimate chapter, “The Demon of Electricity”, Michel seeks out Richelot and Lucy, but they have been evicted. He walks through the frozen waste of the city. Wherever he finds electricity, he is aghast. He comes to an arena where an electric concert is being performed. He walks by a prison, where a scaffold is being built for an execution. Capital punishment is now administered by electrocution.

In the final chapter Michel continues his nighttime wanderings, now in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, past the graves of the eminent. The night does not end well.

Such is this vision of the future.

George Cary Eggleston on Science Fiction & Jules Verne (1874)

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Uploaded 19 February 2014

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