Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Today, more literature.

Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

The author whom undoubtedly inspired me more than any other as a child was the French writer Jules Verne. I can’t claim to have read anywhere near everything he wrote, but I could always be found in the V section of the local library looking to see if anything new hand come back on loan. Verne was prolific writer, writing more than sixty novels during his lifetime, as well as a dozen or more short stories. The vast majority failed to get anywhere near our parochial little library. I found maybe three Verne novels in all that time of looking.

However, I owned copies of what are undoubtedly Jules Verne’s three most famous novels, Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Yet the versions I owned were part of the Bancroft Classics series, abridged classics for children.

As an adult I have gone back and reread the Verne triptych in their unabridged forms. You can see why, especially with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, they are abridged for children. Twenty Thousand Leagues contains the kind of scientific and oceanographic detail that makes the sections in Moby Dick that Herman Melville copied straight out scientific volumes look light by comparison. Verne’s influence on both science fiction and the scientific world in general cannot be overstated.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the last major novel that I last year read unabridged, is far and away the least scientific of the three books. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea inspired submarine designers in the twentieth century and Around the World in Eighty Days has inspired generations to explore the world, including Michael Palin’s TV recreation of the journey in the 1980s. Journey to the Centre to the Earth, with its central characters, Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, descending into the interior of the planet from the glaciers of Iceland seems today farfetched. The recent discovery of diamond formed deep inside the Earth’s mantle, hinting at water layers as deep as four to six hundred kilometres beneath the crust, has been muted in the media as giving credence to the plot of Verne’s novel, but any water that far down would be subjected to extraordinary pressures. I think we can safely assume that there are no oceans beneath the Earth. Nor could one walk from Iceland under the ocean as far as the Mediterranean, as featured in Journey to the Centre to the Earth. No dinosaurs swim in seas beneath the sea.

Yet whatever its factual liberties, Journey to the Centre to the Earth is a marvellous adventure novel. The eponymous journey takes months, yet Verne’s style, at least in translation, is fast paced and zips along. It’s Boy’s Own Adventure stuff, lots of perils for our heroes to overcome, wrongs turns and separation in the darkness and almost dying of thirst when the water runs out. There’s also more than one timely intervention, Deus ex machina, especially in their improbable escape up through the magma chamber of the volcanic island of Stromboli and into Southern Italy.

In Axel we have that rarest of adventure character, the abject coward. His uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, is determined to push on whatever the cost, but Axel continually tries to talk him into turning back to the surface without success. The relationship between the pair is much the same dynamic as to be found between Philleas Fogg and Passepartout in Around the World in Eighty Days.

Journey to the Centre to the Earth includes both a secret note written in a runic alphabet and an cave entrance that is only revealed by a shadow touching it at on a certain day of the year. This, along with the actual journey underground, have led some scholars to conclude that they influenced much of the writing of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Bilbo and the Dwarves are forced to flee into the goblin tunnels under the Misty Mountain and have to find a secret entrance into the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo confronts the dragon, Smaug. Similar parallels are said to exist between The Lord of the Rings and Verne’s novel, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Note to self: Read The Adventures of Captain Hatteras.

The other day (yesterday, in fact) I wrote about being a completist when it comes to reading certain writers. Jules Verne should be added to that list. Sixty odd novels, plus the ones that were published posthumously, is quite a set of novels to track down, even more so than Emile Zola’s Rouqon-Macquart series. Like Zola, I intend to read the majority of Verne’s novels in their original French.

Only America and Russia can compete with the French for producing quality novelists. I’d take Verne, Twain or Dostoyevsky over Charles Dickens any day. Dickens has his moments, but mostly all his novels make me want to do is self-harm out of sheer boredom. Victorian life mist have been tough for anything so tedious to become a literary triumph. I own a complete set of Dickens books that are a family heirloom, but you can guarantee that I’ve be reading all of Jules Verne in fluent French before I get through Dickens. Hell, I’ll be reading Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Solzhenitsyn in Russian before I get through all of Dickens.   

Hollow Earth theories may have been debunked, but no one believes in Martians anymore either and yet we still read H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. We should. It’s a great novel. Which author’s influence has been greater it is hard to say. H.G. Wells probably wins through in terms of science fiction and the popular imagination, but no one has yet built a time machine. They have built submarines. The oceanographer and film maker, Jacques Cousteau called Verne’s novels his ‘onboard Bible’ and several cave explorers and scientists site Journey to the Centre to the Earth as a major influence on their chosen profession. Verne’s influence on the sphere of science runs deep. All the way to the centre of the Earth (yes, I went there).

Get it done.

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