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Back to the Future : PARIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, By Jules Verne; translated by Richard Howard (Random House: 223 pp, $21)

December 15, 1996|HERBERT LOTTMAN | Herbert Lottman is the author of "Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography," published by St. Martin's Press. His earlier biography, "Albert Camus," will be reprinted next month by Gingko Press

Jules Verne had been knocking on the wrong doors for a dozen years when at last he found the optimal direction for his talents. A reluctant student of the law up from maritime Brittany, an overanxious author of instantly forgettable musical playlets for the Parisian boulevard theater, he invented his genre with a single novel, "Five Weeks in a Balloon." Published in January 1863, it combined exploration over a still very dark continent with a few simple innovations in lighter-than-air navigation--and became the first of nearly a hundred such sagas ("Around the World in Eighty Days" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" among them), each a blending of hard fact and fantasy that pushed science and exploration around the next corner.

Yet Verne didn't achieve this alone, and there's the rub. Just about the time he discovered his happy combination of anticipatory science and exploratory adventure, an innovative editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, became convinced that Verne was the writer he needed for a new family magazine and publishing venture and that he'd soon be packaging and repackaging Verne in a variety of formats--including the famous illustrated editions that collectors still cherish. A lifetime association--unique in literary history--was born.

But if Verne thought that he could write just anything, well, he still didn't know what a hands-on editor was. "Paris in the Twentieth Century," which he submitted to Hetzel in the first year of their partnership, clearly took a dim view of science. "I'd consider publication of this book a disaster for your name," Hetzel warned. If he brought out this novel, explained the publisher, readers would think that his uplifting balloon story had been a fluke.

Hetzel already had a new Verne saga on his reading table--the adventures of Captain Hatteras en route to the North Pole--so he didn't have to be told that "Paris in the Twentieth Century" was an anomaly; "the public won't know that," he warned. Publication of the new work would be the ruin of Verne (and of Hetzel's dream, although he didn't choose to say so). "Wait 20 years to write this book," Hetzel pleaded. The obedient author--he'd obey Hetzel as long as Hetzel lived and then usually heed the publisher's son and heir--tossed the manuscript onto a shelf.

Luckily for those who can't get enough of Verne, the manuscript wasn't tossed any farther than that. In successive moves (to grim provincial Amiens, where he'd spend the rest of his life, and then from house to house in that town), "Paris in the Twentieth Century" followed. Verne's son inventoried it soon after his father's death; it was seen on a shelf as late as the 1930s.

Then, in 1989, Verne's great-grandson Jean, preparing to sell his own father's house in Toulon, called in a locksmith to open a rusted safe and came upon the lost novel, with publisher Hetzel's imperious scribbling in the margins. The book made the French front pages when finally published in Paris in September 1994, climbing quickly up French bestseller lists and being seized upon for translation in every major reading nation, including ours.

Hetzel had been right in a way: This book doesn't reflect our Jules Verne. For "Paris" is a downer, a dyspeptic view of the future that seems to be the author's comment on the way the present was heading.

Verne sets his story in 1960 and makes his hero a young poet named Michel Dufrenoy in a world where the humanities have been displaced by technology. The opening scene is a huge Paris park (site of the present-day Eiffel Tower), where 250,000 students are graduating en masse. The principal orator derides the Paris, Verne's Paris, of a century ago by stressing all that has changed--notably thanks to urban rapid transit via elevated trains and households run by electricity. At the end of the ceremony, Michel, winner of the Latin poetry prize, is jeered by the assembly.

And so we get a tour of modern Paris: horseless carriages run on gas combustion; the whole city is lit by electricity (wires crisscross the Seine river, lights illuminate the lettering on billboards).

Yet these Parisians, while taking advantage of modern marvels, aren't any happier for it as they race forward "American-style." Paris is no longer surrounded by countryside; within the city one finds no art, music or literature. A statue in the courtyard of the old Louvre Museum glorifies the muse of industry. Michel fully expects to spend his working life at his uncle's firm, which distributes compressed air to run machinery in homes and offices, Uncle Stanislas is as rigid as his machinery (Michel's father, a talented musician, died young of overwork).

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