Thursday, January 18, 2007

8 February: Boreham on Jules Verne

Imagination and Science
At the age of 20, Jules Verne, whose birthday we mark today, burst upon Paris. For years he had cherished romantic dreams of tasting the bohemian life of the capital. He arrived to find the city in the throes of revolution. Blood was flowing in the streets; paving stones were being torn up to build barricades; the king was being bundled off the throne.

Bewildered and dumbfounded, Jules Verne felt as a man might feel who, having accepted an invitation to stay with a relative, reaches the house just as his host, in a fit of drunken fury, is smashing the windows and setting fire to the furniture.

Five years later, Paris having regained her sanity, one might meet, on the Champs Elysses, a young dandy of striking, open face, with curly hair falling about his massive forehead. He wears an immaculate velvet jacket and an elaborate bow tie. As a law student, he has become fond of Paris and has written a sheaf of trifles, including daring flights of fancy, modelled partly on Alexandre Dumas and partly on Edgar Allan Poe. For Jules Verne has not yet found Jules Verne.

Various Professions As Stepping Stones To Fame
Three years later, to the consternation of his father, he relinquished his legal studies and became a stockbroker. Two considerations dictated the change. Desperately anxious to marry, he needed money, and he thought that he could achieve wealth more swiftly on the Stock Exchange than in chambers. And he fancies that the new vocation will give him more time for literary enterprise.

As a matter of fact, his application to the law and his devotion to the Stock Exchange were, both of them, harmless flirtations. At heart he was neither barrister nor stockbroker. He aimed at authorship, and, the moment that he had attained that elevation, he was resolved to throw down the ladder by which he had climbed.

He had to wait six long years. After a few months as a stockbroker he had realised the first of his dreams; he married his beloved Honorine. And then he set to work to attain his second goal. He rose at five every morning, snatched something from the pantry, rushed to his desk, and wrote frantically for five hours. Then, at ten o'clock, Jules Verne the Visionary became magically transformed into Jules Verne the Stockbroker, and, a city person to the last bootlace, he set off for the office.

An Eager Prospector Strikes Gold At Last
It was in 1863, at the age of 35, that he found his metier. It was the age of the balloon. Fugitive ascents had often been made in the course of the centuries; but, at that time, Glaisher was experimenting on behalf of the British Association, reaching on one occasion an altitude of 37,000ft.

Giving rein to his fancy, Jules Verne exploited the passion of the period. He published his "Five Weeks in a Balloon" and felt in his very bones that he had pegged his claim to world-wide renown.

When his publisher congratulated him on his triumph, the young author startled him by reeling off the plots of a dozen highly imaginative novels stacked away amidst the grey matter of his fertile brain. He was as excited as a schoolboy. Whilst the mood was upon him, he called together his friends on the Bourse. "I am leaving you," he cried to the astonished stockbrokers. "I have written a novel of an entirely new kind. If it succeeds, it will be a gold mine. I shall go on writing without a break, while you continue to buy shares the day before they slump, and sell them the day before they soar! Goodbye!" That speech marked the birth of Jules Verne as the world knows him.

He travelled in order that his oceans of fancy might be studded with picturesque islands of fact. By introducing into his weird narratives actual descriptions of real places, he provided, as Pooh Bah would say, some corroborative detail, designed to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative. But the excursions of his body were mere evening strolls compared with the excursions of his brain. He liked to set his plots in places that no human eye had ever beheld; amidst such scenes he was immune from contradiction. In graphically portraying the centre of the earth, the bed of the ocean, and the surface of the moon he could let himself go; he had invaded a realm that was exclusively his own.

Keeping himself abreast of the science of his time, he allowed his vivid imagination to go just one step ahead. He regarded each sensational invention as embryonic; it foretold a still greater wonder. For this reason, there was something prophetic about him; many of his wildest imaginings were but the shadows of things to come. Nursed by his faithful Honorine, he died in the early morning of a perfect Spring day in 1905. He was then 77. Four days later, 5,000 people, including troops of school children who had devoured every line that he had written, followed him to his grave.

F W Boreham

Image: Jules Verne

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