The Mask of the Prophet

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THE MASK OF THE PROPHET: the extraordinary fictions of Jules Verne

Published by Oxford University Press in 1989

After the very wide-angle lens of The Knowledge of Ignorance, this book narrowed the focus and zeroed in on the work of Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century ‘father of science fiction’. Verne always seemed to me like an exemplary writer who had been seriously marginalized. So I tried to bring his writing out of the shadows by re-reading his novels in the light of two contrasting versions of the same story about a masked Islamic prophet, one by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and the other by Napoleon. I use the narrative of the subversive evangelist who comes to a bad end to weave my way through Verne and trace the mix of political thinking and literary fantasy.

This is what is says on the flap:
‘Such novels as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days
have made Jules Verne the most widely translated of all French authors. But he has typically been
categorized as the father of science fiction or the writer of harmless fantasies for children. Now, in
this brilliantly original new book, Andrew Martin relocates Verne squarely at the centre of the literary
map.

Dr Martin shows that a recurrent narrative (exemplified in short stories by Napoleon Bonaparte and
Jorge Luis Borges), relating the strange destiny of a masked prophet who revolts against an empire,
runs through Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires. This approach illuminates the paradoxical coalition in
Verne of realism and invention, repression and transgression, imperialism and anarchy.
In this book Verne emerges not just as a key to the political and literary imagination of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries but as a model for reading fiction in general.’

This book received some fine reviews. I felt a little suffocated by its constraints though. I once gave a paper based on it in Paris which was entirely dedicated to Verne’s use of the exclamation mark. ‘It’s time to put a stop to this,’ I said in conclusion. I had a feeling, at the end, that there was more to life than punctuation (important though that is). 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.