The Masked Writer
I am the most unknown of men
Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst
JORGE LUIS BORGES
Father of science fiction, child of Second Empire positivism, prolific prophet of juvenile technological utopias, or, more recently, repressed homosexual, subterranean revolutionary, Freemason, and Rosicrucianist: Jules Verne has attracted numerous and divergent classifications. Verne is allowed to be almost anything – except, that is, a writer. Biographies and criticism alike conspire to give the impression that he managed to
pull off the marvellous trick of producing an extremely large number of books without actually being able to write. The practitioner of the art of writing has magically been conjured away. Even for those commentators innocent of this widespread act of abduction, Verne has generally been written off (in Roland Barthes’s distinction) as less an écrivain than an écrivant: only accidentally and secondarily a writer, a man for whom writing is a means rather than an end, a vehicle of extra-literary interests and objectives, never literature but only an exercise in prophecy or pedagogy.
The suppression of Verne the writer, his subordination to less prosaic identities, has been persistent and systematic. His father urged him to follow a serious career, to become a lawyer, a stockbroker, a banker, anything but a writer. His publisher, Hetzel, even while accepting and promoting his work (from 1862 onwards), advertised the Voyages extraordinaires as something quite distinct from fiction at large, extraordinaires because they transcended the norms of the genre. According to the publisher’s Foreword prefacing The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras, ‘art for art’s sake is no longer enough for these times’; the mission of Verne, Hetzel proclaimed, was to
summarize all the knowledge – geographical, physical, astronomical – amassed by modern science,
and to retrace, in the attractive and picturesque form which is his own, the history of the universe.
Jules Verne: historian of the universe, collector of esoteric facts, amasser of scientific documentation. Verne was usually the willing accomplice of his publisher in forging this image. In his public formulations, he invariably states his task in terms of an attempt to describe the whole world, diffidently ascribing himself the status of an extremely comprehensive geographer. In an interview at the end of the nineteenth century, Verne confidently declared that
It is my intention to complete, before my working days are done, a series which shall include, in story form, my whole survey of the world’s surface and heavens; there are still corners of the world left which my thoughts have not yet penetrated. As you know, I have dealt with the moon, but a great deal remains to be done, and if health and strength permit, I hope to finish the task.
The enterprise that Verne proposes, in his role of terrestrial and celestial surveyor, is a hyperbolic and impossible one, cosmic in scale and ambition, doomed to incompletion: nothing less than the totalization of truth.
I remember that Ruth Rendell, the great crime writer (and now sitting in the House of Lords) said something nice about it, when she went to receive a literary award. I think she recognized the description of a writer who gets ghettoized.