Gavin Bryars, THES
The Times Higher Education Supplement, 17/8/90
The early structuralists – Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jean Ricardou – sought simplicity in Verne; The Mask of the Prophet uncovers great subtlety and richness. Andrew Martin’s Verne is Frenchness, travel, science and writing combined: a “Man Without Qualities” by his intertextuality and self-doubt. The subtext is: how can literature be taken seriously? Is anything reliable in the world of words?
Martin’s first pre-text, Napoleon, works only as a very loose metaphor for Verne’s attempt to subvert history and colonise the globe. But the other, Borges, with his intellectual humour and amazement at the hyperfictionality of the real, works perfectly.
So well are we led through the by-passes, knotted labyrinths, n-dimensional Klein bottles, totally curved lines and infinitely fragmented black holes, that we are constantly convinced that the ideas pre-existed our reading; that some critical necessity linked writer, critic and reader…
By analyzing half-a-dozen plots, Martin discovers a number of universals… While unearthing the politics, Martin does not neglect the philosophical and literary. Rather, he fishes out the poet contained in the potentate… Martin has produced a book that is informed, fluent, sardonic, original, and rigorous. Verne can never be the same again.
Patrick Parrinder, The London Review of Books
Verne’s books have recently been the subject of a whole series of influential and subtle reinterpretations. While Andrew Martin’s work marks an innovation in the English criticism of Verne, he is much indebted to such Parisian predecessors as Roland Barthes, Michel Butor and Michel Serres. Martin sets out both to suggest that Verne’s voluminous oeuvre is emblematic of all fiction and criticism, and to draw an engaging portrait of literary monstrosity. If these narratives are the product of a ‘literary brontosaurus’, they also exhibit all their secrets on the surface and so constitute the ‘Beaubourg of literary architecture’. The Knowledge of Ignorance depicted a Verne who was ‘in all things most pathologically exhaustive’, who set out to provide an undiminished, inclusive description of the physical universe and, at the same time, to exhaust all possible nouns. Such artistic voracity was only equaled by the gourmandise of his heroes, whose unrealizable objective was that of ‘eating everything, in impossible quantities, as often as possible.’
The Mask of the Prophet is only a little less baroque than the Knowledge of Ignorance… For Martin the template for everything Verne wrote can be found in a certain Oriental legend of a masked prophet in revolt against an empire, a legend which is retold in narratives by Napoleon Bonaparte and Jorge Luis Borges, although it is never made explicit in the Voyages Extraordinaires. The prophet becomes an oppressor in the course of his revolt. This means that Verne’s archetypal character must be the anarchistic Captain Nemo, master of the submarine Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Nemo’s origins and his hatred of bourgeois civilization remain unexplained until The Mysterious Island, which functions in this respect as a sequel to the more celebrated earlier novel. He was formerly Prince Dakkar, a leader of the Sepoys in the Indian Mutiny. Disappearing without trace when the Mutiny was crushed by the British, he devoted his fabulous wealth to the construction of the Nautilus on a deserted Pacific island. For the rest of his life he would prowl the ocean in his electric-powered submarine palace, spreading fear and apprehension amongst the world’s shipping. The remainder of his fortune is given in the cause of popular liberation, and perhaps to the First International. … Captain Nemo personifies the project of scientific omniscience. ‘Thanks to me, our planet will give up her last secrets’, he boasts…
The critical agility on display may be set against [the] tendency to reduce literary fantasies to something like cryptographic status…
Ruth Rendell, The Sunday Times
‘When they asked Jules Verne how much he had written on a certain day, he answered, “At least three yards”. I have been reading a new book about Verne, The Mask of the Prophet by Andrew Martin, a marvelous and entertaining work, and it struck me what a lot Verne and I have in common.’