Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : Jules Verne's Dark Vision of Modern Life : His 'lost' manuscript speaks of an advanced but joyless society propelled by the 'devil of money.'

October 11, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Horse-drawn carriages clattered on the streets outside Jules Verne's Paris apartment, but it was quiet inside. There was no telephone, no phonograph and no radio--they had yet to be invented.

The year was 1863. Soldiers armed with muskets were fighting the Civil War across the Atlantic. Workers were digging London's first subway line. And, in Paris, the man who would become the best-selling French author of all time, taking readers on extraordinary voyages in "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and "Around the World in Eighty Days," was imagining a bleak future.

The only thing Verne could not have predicted was that a book he had written, rejected by his publisher, would wait 131 years, until 1994, to be published.

Verne was 35, with one highly acclaimed book to his credit, when he began writing "Paris in the Twentieth Century" by hand, in a small and delicate cursive. (The typewriter wouldn't be invented for another decade.) His pages were illuminated by a small gas lamp, electric lights being 15 years away.

The book's protagonist, Michel Dufrenoy, lived nearly a century in the future, in the year 1960. Technology and automation had supplanted the culture of the 1800s. Elevators whisked people up and down buildings. Trains took them back and forth from the suburbs.

Images--he called them "fac-similes"--could be sent thousands of miles away by "photographic telegraph," something we might today call a fax machine. Neon lights, unknown in 1863, illuminated Verne's avenues. Concerts were performed in 10,000-seat auditoriums by single artists using electric amplifiers.

And, "of the innumerable cars that passed on the paved roads, most moved without horses," he wrote, 25 years before the first prototype of an automobile was built. "They are propelled by an invisible force, the force of 20 or 30 horses, by means of a motor run by gas combustion."

Verne's heroes, though, "no longer stood in admiration of these marvels," he wrote. "They just quietly took advantage of them, without being any happier, because of their speeded pace and their American passion. One could feel the devil of money pushing them forward nonstop and without mercy."

When Verne's editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, one of France's most renowned book editors, read Verne's manuscript, he was not impressed.

"My dear Verne," Hetzel wrote, in the sort of soothing rebuff that authors dread, "I would give, I don't know what, to not have to write you today.

"You have undertaken an impossible task--as do all those like you who can see in the future," Hetzel wrote. "But you haven't succeeded. I wasn't waiting for something perfect, but I was awaiting something better. I would consider it a disaster for your name to be associated with this work."

Hetzel didn't stop there.

"It is 100 steps below 'Five Weeks in a Balloon,' " he said, referring to Verne's first success, which had appeared the same year. "If you wait a year, you will agree with me. It is a little story and on a subject that isn't happy."

With that rebuff, the respectful author locked the manuscript, and its dark vision of the future, in a safe.

He went on to write "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and 60 more novels, tales of imaginary, futuristic expeditions more filled with wonderment than dread.

The safe remained in Verne's family after his death in 1905 at 77. Remarkably, no one tried to find the manuscript, though it was officially listed at his death as being among his unpublished works.

But the author's great-grandson, opera singer Jean Jules Verne, 31, remembered well that safe, which the family had lugged from place to place.

"It was an obsession of my childhood," Jean Verne has said. "I spent many long afternoons trying to open it. I tried all the keys of the house and others that fell into my hand. It represented for me an unsolvable mystery."

*

Finally, in 1989, using a blowtorch, Jean Verne opened the safe. Inside were a few Russian bonds, an unfinished play and the unedited manuscript titled "Paris in the Twentieth Century."

The manuscript's authenticity was verified by experts, and the 218-page book, with illustrations by a modern-day Belgian artist, Francois Schuiten, was published a few weeks ago in France, drawing admiring reviews.

"It reads today like a prelude to all his fiction," wrote a reviewer in the Paris daily newspaper, Liberation. "Hetzel (Verne's editor) never understood that the most prestigious of his authors was in fact a writer . The book may lack some bounce, but it certainly doesn't, as insinuated by Hetzel, lack originality."

Hetzel discovered Verne in 1862 and, during their close 20-year relationship, used his skills to establish Verne's reputation. To the editor, whose other writers included Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, "Paris in the Twentieth Century" was a downer, not very marketable.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|