HOMMAGE TO JULES VERNE
While I was working in Paris I lived in a small apartment by a blind alley, Square Adanson. Since I lived alone I had evenings, as well the weekends when I did not go home to my family in Rome, for myself. Accordingly, I walked around in the city, having a book with me, which I read when if I found an empty bench in a nice spot. Leaving my alley I ended up at Rue Monge, which leads all the way down to the Seine.
Rue Monge finishes at a park, Square René Viviani, opposite Notre Dame. I often ended up there, sitting on a bench under a tall tree, reading until dusk. That it often became Square René Viviani was due to the splendid view and plenty of bookstores nearby, as well as several passable cafés and small restaurants.
Along the east side of the park was Rue Lagrange with one of Paris's increasingly rare specialist bookstores ̶ Librairie Jules Verne. Passing by I always stopped to admire the magnificent volumes of Voyages Extraordinaires, Extraordinary Journeys. These were a series of Jules Verne's novels published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Almost all of these books were displayed in the Librairie Jules Verne´s shop window.
It was after Hetzel in 1863 had accepted thirty-five-year-old Jules Verne's manuscript, Cinq Semaines en ballon, Five Weeks in a Balloon, both writer and publisher became wealthy men. The novel was an immediate success. Verne signed a contract with Hetzel stipulating that he would deliver no less than two manuscripts a year, which Hetzel would then publish and issue as luxury volumes in his refined Voyages Extraordinaires. Between 1863 and 1905, this series came to include fifty-four tremendously appreciated novels by Jules Verne (all together he wrote 62 novels and 18 short stories). He still keeps his place as the world's most translated author, after Agatha Christie and before William Shakespeare.
Occasionally I walked into the bookshop and leafed through some of the newer editions. With a smile I experienced the special feeling Herzel's publications radiate. Through their magnificent red covers they still raise the child's wonder at the treasure-house of the world literature. Through its strangely obsolete and yet action-packed illustrations the viewer is immediately transported back to infancy and early youth and its enthusiasm for everything that was exciting, different and exotic. A sphere that at the same time was far away and very close, a parallel reality constantly present in fantasies and dreams.
Hetzel gave special attention to the illustrations, demanding a specific accuracy and style that would provide depth and vitality to the stories. It is difficult to distinguish the artists of these equally skilled renderings of Verne´s fantasies.The three most acclaimed illustrators were Éduard Riou, Léon Benett and Georg Roux, all three sharing a sensitivity to originality, drama and the exotic.
To fully enjoy Jules Verne I am in need of those illustrations. Each Jules Verne manuscript was published in the same manner. First, the novel was introduced in Hetzel´s magazine Magasin d'éducation et de récréation, Magazine for Education and Relaxation, where each instalment was provided with several illustrations. Then he published the complete sequels in a cheap publication without any illustrations, before the luxuriously bound Voyages Extraordinaires were released in time for Christmas.'
When I saw the original books I understood that they were children of their time. Verne wrote science fiction in the correct sense of the word ̶ scientific fiction, i.e. stories where scientific and technological elements break into the storytelling, making the tales even more strange, more amazing. The stories generally unfold in Verne´s time, albeit often in exotic places that generally are well researched and documented. His descriptions of Russia, India or Flemish villages are confidently rooted in Verne´s extensive reading and his own experiences. Just like the amazing stories of another of my favourite writers ̶ H.G. Wells ̶ the fantastic tales find their point of departure in everyday life.
Wells´s The First Men in the Moon begins with a businessman who plagued by financial worries seeks refuge within an isolated cottage in Kent trying to find the peace and quiet necessary for him to finish a play he is working on. However, the budding author cannot concentrate on his writing since a neighbour time and again disturbs him with weird noise and even minor explosions. The annoying neighbour turns out to be an imaginative and probably quite mad scientist, Mr. Cavor, who is in the process of inventing a substance he calls cavorite, which according to him would remove the influence of gravity on any material it is applied to. The businessman gradually and reluctantly becomes increasingly captivated by Professor Cavor's experiments, which, among other things, for a horrific moment threatens to destroy the entire world, an example of how basic research in the form of crazy experimentation, how limited it may seem, can have devastating consequences for all humanity.
After this rather casual introduction, the novel gradually becomes more and more fanciful. The two men travel to the moon in a craft coated with cavorite. The moon proves to contain extensive mazes of underground corridors and vast caves, where the two explorers are confronted with intelligent creatures, living witin an insect-like society. These creatures are pacific and know nothing about war and selfish resource allocation, living in complete harmony with their surroundings. The tale is gradually transformed into a devastating criticism of Wells´s own time and the direction in which human civilization seems to move, at the same time he is able to tell an utterly strange and quite exciting story.
It may happen that some of Verne´s and Wells´s stories take place in a distant future, though most of them are anchored in their own time. Wells's fantasies are generally based on radical ideas and unconcealed criticism of our Western society, an approach that tend to be less obvious in Verne´s stories, but it is there as well ̶ with their narcissistic technicians, scientists and millionaires, who nurture dreams about world domination. Like Wells, Verne is also discreetly involved in his own texts, easily recognized through a semi-detached attitude. Perhaps it is even Verne himself, in his role as an all-knowing writer, creator of his own worlds, who is reflected by his obsessed scientists. Odd characters like Professor Otto Lidenbrock, Captain Nemo, aka Prince Dakkar, and Robur the Conquerer.
By the beginning of his career Jules Verne wrote a dystopia that appeared to be inspired by the anxiety that plagued him before his first manuscript had ended up with Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Together with his Five weeks in a Balloon he gave Hetzel a manuscript he called Paris au XXe siècle, Paris in the Twentieth Century. The publisher immediately rejected it stating:
I was not expecting perfection — to repeat, I knew that you were attempting the impossible — but I was hoping for something better. In this piece, there is not a single issue concerning the real future that is properly resolved, no critique that hasn't already been made and remade before. I am surprised at you ... [it is] lacklustre and lifeless.
For certain, this harsh criticism came from a publisher with a keen sense of what the market demanded, besides Verne Hetzel also published Balzac, Hugo and Zola. Paris au XXe siècle has its apparent shortcomings, nevertheless I assume it is one of Jules Verne´s most personal books. He locked away the manuscript in a safe and it was not found until 1989, by one of his sons' grandsons.
Paris in the Twentieth Century is a dystopia taking place in late 1961. Contemporary comments have mostly focused on its technical predictions. However, almost all them reflect 19th century speculations about technological advances of the next century, something that was quite common when Verne his novel by the beginning of the 1860s. In his vision of the future vehicles are powered by concealed gas engines, which fuel is distributed through gas stations while they travel across an efficient, asphalted road network. Fast subway trains are powered by magnetism and compressed air. There are skyscrapers and electric lights, "visual telegraphs", lifts, wind power and a kind of calculators able send wireless information. As Hetzel rightly pointed out, nothing of all this was particularly fanciful, if compared with other contemporary guesswork.
However, I assume our contemporary critics to a certain degree became blinded by easily discerned aspects of the novel, like its assumptions about a future society pampered by technical comforts. Verne´s dystopia was unfavourably compared with Huxley's and Orwell's masterpieces about a future devastated by wars and suffering under repressive, totalitarian regimes. By Verne there are no spine-chilling monitoring systems. Nothing that limits the freedom of law abiding, hardworking citizens. Paris in the Twentieth Century may have the appearance of being a rather coy vision of a society that in realty suffered the terror of two world wars, repressive Nazi - and Communist regimes, gulags and extermination camps. However, Verne´s novel has its chilly undertones.
Michel Dufrénoy, Jules Verne´s sixteen-year-old main character, suffers from being forced to live in the shadow of the giant capitalist conglomerate La Société Générale du Crédit instructionnel, The Academic Credit Union. Capitalist development had created sprawling suburbs and huge shopping malls. All education aims at technology and economics, humanities is becoming an unknown concept. Surely, there are no wars, but it is because warfare is so technologically advanced that human soldiers have become obsolete. Increasingly effective “death machines” are constantly being developed by chemists and engineers. The world is in the grip of a terror balance, meaning that any bellicose movement may result in a crushing counterattack leading to an escalation that would mean a total war that eventually would destroy human civilisation.
There is total freedom of press and speech, though newspapers and investigative journalism have disappeared. A strict law guarantees each individual, or her/his legal representative, to answer any written criticism with exactly the same number of words, something that has killed off all public criticism. Diseases are virtually extinct through medical achievements. Increased security and wellbeing have made society increasingly hedonistic. The entertainment industry has answered to citizens´ increasing urge to find outlets for their unsatisfied desires Paris is ripe with indecent spectacles, spiced with nudity and public, sexual acts. Furthermore, Verne regrets that classical music has disappeared from the repertoire, being replaced by electronically induced rhythmic sounds. Through the mechanization of home - and industrial work, the labour market and society have opened up to equal participation, wages and rights for women and men. Women have successfully competed with men in areas such as technological development and science. Women's increased freedom has caused a dissolution of families and resulted in a growing number of orphans.
In all this, Michel Dufrénoy moves around as an alienated stranger. His father was a musician and he was educated in literature and history. A poet born far too late. Michel searches for books by authors like Hugo and Balzac, though all available literature deals with science and technology. Michel discovers some old novels and poems in an obscure corner of the Imperial Library, though no means to support himself. There is no need for poets, musicians, fiction writers and journalists. Almost all women and men despise a romantic loser like Michel Dufrénoy. Nobody wants to publish his collection of poems, which he calls The Hope, and the woman he desires rejects his courtship.
By the end of 1961 nature reacts to the wanton resource utilization. A Fimbulwinter annihilates all agricultural production, resulting in mass starvation. Temperature drops to 30 degrees below zero (- 22 in Fahrenheit) and all European rivers freeze to solid ice. Without friends and family, Michel walks alone in a Paris strewn with disabled technological wonders, finally the dying artist enters a graveyard, where he stumbles around in senseless circles until he falls headlong into the snow and probably freezes to death.
It is not improbable that this dystopia was born out of Verne´s despair. After he had quit his studies to become a lawyer, his father did not want to have any contact with his ungrateful son. Verne had a wife and child to support and worked as a poorly paid secretary at the Théâtre Lyrique. Ten years earlier Jules Verne had published a historical novel, Martin Paz, which was turned into a modestly successful play, but since then he had written novel after novel, all of them rejected. In a fit of despair he had thrown his manuscript for Five Weeks in a Balloon into the stove, but at the last moment it had been rescued from the flames by his wife. The manuscript finally ended up at Hetzel's desk and his and Jules Verne´s fortune was made.
In a preface to one of Jules Verne´s lesser-known novels the Scottish writer Gilbert Adair writes that according to him are stories describing a nearby future more interesting than those who take place in a distant time. The greatness of Orwell's 1984 and Stanley Kubrick´s 2001 has been revealed only after these dates have been passed. In all their diversity and details, these masterpieces still hold and even if the future they described now is gone by, they may nevertheless be considered as both accurate and utopian. Wells´s and Verne's novels share certain characteristics with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, they are creations of their authors´ time and world, albeit they exist in a parallel, eternal reality.
Back in Librairie Jules Verne I found Jules Vernes La maison à vapeur. A wave of nostalgia went through me. I had once encountered it in my grandfather´s bookcase when I was at the age when you can read almost anything, as long it is thrilling and engaging. In Swedish the novel was called Ånghuset, The Steam House, and Granpa´s edition was from 1916. I was pleased and happy when I found it. I had previously read the story as an Illustrated Classics titled Tigers and Traitors. The exotic environment and rampant action had grabbed hold of me at once. I especially remembered a horrifying picture of an Indian who had been tied to a cannon muzzle, awaiting to be shot to pieces. I searched Grandpa´s book for a similar picture, but when I could not find it I started reading the novel instead. I was spellbound and after finishing it, I read it again.
It may be appropriate to present a brief account of the action of this not so well-known Verne novel, to exemplify Jules Verne´s ability of to gather lexical data on history and geography and then unite them with an almost cinematic, intensive action and his remarkably antiquated, mechanical inventions.
During the chaotic aftermath of the bloody Sepoy Rebellion, a mad woman wandered around in the jungles of Narmada. She carried a torch and was called The Rowing Flame. The locals who feared and respecter her gave her food, but she lived like a wild animal, far away from human abodes. Rowing Flame appeared to have some kind of connection with the rebel leader Nana Sahib (a historical figure called Dundu Panth) who tried to resume the struggle against the English and with his men moved between caves and abandoned palaces. Rowing Flame was constantly pursuing him.
At the same time, an English engineer named Banks invited a group of friends, French and English adventurers and big game hunters, to travel with him through Northern India, while testing a steam elephant he had constructed. Behemoth, as the artificial elephant was called, pulled two luxuriously equipped carriages on specially designed wheels, similar to those of a tank, making it possible to travel across rugged terrain and even over water. The first wagon house was occupied by Banks and his friends, the other one housed their servants, a motley crew from all corners of the world.
During its dramatic journey the steam elephant and its passengers were attacked by fanatic sectarians who assumed the strange monster was the chariot of their deity, by British troops, hordes of monkeys, buffaloes, tigers and elephants. The steam elephant travelled through jungles and across rivers, enduring tropical storms and other mishaps. While traveling slowly across India, his travel companions soon realized that Colonel Munro´s primary purpose for joining their group was to seek revenge for his wife's death. Munro wanted to find and kill no other than Nana Sahib.
During a hunting expedition Colonel Munro was by an Indian named Kalanga rescued from being bitten by a poisonous snake. The versatile Kalanga became the company's trusted guide through an ever more dense jungles. By the shore of Lake Puturia, an aggressive horde of wild elephants forced Behemoth into the water, the fuel ran out and the steam elephant floated helplessly in the middle of the lake.
Kalangi volunteered to swim to land and get help. When he did not return Colonel Munro and his faithful Gurkha servant Goumi swam after Kalanga, who proved to be Nana Sahib's henchman. As soon as Munro reached the shore he was captured by Kalanga and Nana Sahib´s men, while Goumi succeeded to escape.
Kalangi brought his prisoner to Nana Sahib's lair, an abandoned fortress in the middle of the jungle. There the British officer was by Nana Sahib sentenced to death for crimes the Englishmen had committed against his people. It was decided that Colonel Munro, just as the English had treated rebellious Sepoys, wold be tied to a cannon muzzle and shot to pieces at dawn. Munro spent the night tied to the cannon, though was freed by the faithful Goumi who had been hiding inside the big cannon´s barrel. As they prepared to leave, Goumi and Munro encountered the mad Rowing Flame. Colonel Munro recognized the wife he had assumed to be dead, but in her madness she did not remember her husband and in the turmoil that ensued when Colonel Munro grabbed hold of her and tried to make her realize who he really is, Rowing Flame dropped her torch, which ignited the cannon´s fuse, thus firing the heavy weapon and waking up Kalangi and his comrades, who dashed out only to find that Munro and Goumi had fled after been forced to leave Rowing Flame behind.
During their flight the two men encountered Nana Sahib, who had been visiting a neighbouring village, they knocked him down and brought him with them towards the steam elephant. In the meantime Banks and his comrades had managed to bring the Behemoth to shore, found fuel and were firing up its furnace. In the nick of time Colonel Munro, Goumi and their prisoner could board the elephant, which at full speed crashed through the jungle pursued by Kalanga and his men. However, while Behemoth´s steam engine, became overheated and close to exploding. Banks and his companions had to throw themselves out the elephant, but they could not bring with them the tied up Nana Sahib. The steam elephant exploded in an eruption that killed several of the pursuers. Its former passengers reached safety within an English fort, Kalanga had died, but Nana Sahib's body was nowhere to be found.
It is no wonder that film directors and artists have been captivated by Verne´s lively narrative style, which without being particularly sophisticated and proficiently descriptive, nevertheless possesses an imaginative force allowing his readers to perceive the course of events in an almost tangible manner. The details chosen by him tend to remain in memory. Like this with the cannon executions. Where such atrocities really carried out by British troops in India?
Vasily Vereshshagin (1842-1904) was a renowned Russian artist, who, while living in Munich organized a number of well-attended single-man exhibitions, in Paris, London, Dresden, Berlin and Vienna. After serving for several years as a cadet in the Russian navy and as officer during war expeditions in Turkestan and during the Russian-Turkish War (1877-78), Vereshshagin had come to detest all forms of war and violence.
I loved the sun all my life, and wanted to paint sunshine. When I happened to see warfare and say what I thought about it, I rejoiced that I would be able to devote myself to the sun once again. But the fury of war continued to pursue me.
Vereshshagin was unable to settle down and continued to search out battlefields during the First Chinese-Japanese War, 1894 - 95 and in 1900 he followed Russian troops into Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion. He was in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War and he was in Cuba during the US occupation. He lived in Japan during the Russian-Japanese War 1904 - 1905.
In an extreme, realistic manner Vereshshagin depicted executions, suffering and various war crimes, causing his exhibitions to be closed down in St. Petersburg, with the motivation that his work "showed the Russian army in bad light". The German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke banned members of the German Armed Forces to visit Vereshshagin exhibitions and the same order was by the Austrian War Minister issued to the Austrian-Hungarian Army.
British exhibition visitors became violently upset by Vereshshagin's Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English, which depicted how strictly disciplined British soldiers tied Indians to cannon muzzles. The protests were not only voiced against the painter´s audacity to present British soldiers as cold-blooded executioners, but also against the fact that a painting depicting executions taking place in 1857 were carried out by British troops dressed in contemporary uniforms. Vereshshagin defended his venture by declaring that since the English had not apologized for their behaviour in 1857, nothing prevented them from repeating the same methods while suppressing a contemporary revolt. The painting has now disappeared and it is generally assumed that it was bought by the British government and destroyed.
However, the British army never denied that the barbaric execution method had been used relatively often to punish Indian mutineers, especially since several Muslims believed that all parts of the body had to be connected when they were being resurrected after death. Being dismembered was considered as suffering death twice.
There are several eyewitness records of such executions, including from British officers. Rudyard Kipling mentioned in his short story On the City Wall how he spotted an old man looking down from a prison wall and singing with a voice “rough as shark-skin on a sword-hilt”. He asks the Indian friend who accompanies him if he knows how the old man is and Wali Dad answers:
A consistent man, he fought you in '46, when he was a warrior-youth; refought you in '57, and he tried to fight you in '71, but you had learned the trick of blowing men from guns too well. Now he is old; but he would still fight if he could.
In December 1857, The Times published an anonymous eyewitness record under the heading An Indian Execution. An English reporter had seen how five Sepoys had been blown to pieces by cannons:
I walked straight to the scattered and smoking floors before the guns. I came first to an arm, torn off above the elbow, the fist clenched, the bone projecting several inches, bare. Then the ground was sown with red grisly fragments, then a blackhaired head and the other arm still held together … close by lay the lower half of the body of the next, torn quite in two, and long coils of entrails twined on the ground. Then a long cloth in which one had been dressed rolled open like a floor cloth and on fire. One man lay in a complete and shattered heap, all but the arms; the legs were straddled wide apart, and the smashed body on the middle of them; the spine exposed; the head lay close by, too … The troops immediately marched off, and I rode home at speed, and when I dismounted the dogs came and licked my feet.
Let us leave these horrors behind and instead devout ourselves to the inspiration Verne's novels and their illustrations have provided to a wealth of authors and movie directors. In addition to the obvious scientific side of Verne, which contained some measure of naivety and peculiarities which are quite delightful, there were also several other features that astonished and appealed to rebellious and innovative artists. For example, some of them had discovered that a solid bourgeois and apparently conservative man like Jules Verne, who furthermore was a distinguished member of the municipal council of his hometown, Amiens, nevertheless could air opinions that at the time could be perceived as quite extreme, such as an open anti-colonialism and an occasionally demonstrated affinity to anarchism. He was also appreciated for his love of word play, subtleties and a good-natured, distancing irony.
The spirit of Verne hovered above several progressive artists, especially Dadaists and Surrealists. It is for example evident in Max Ernst's remarkable collage books, such as Une semaine de bonte.
Several years ago while I visited an art gallery in Vienna I became permanently fascinated by Paul Delvaux's L'Ecole des savants, The School of Scientists, where a group of researchers appears to discuss the beauty of a young, naked girl, while Professor Otto Lidenbrock stands in a corner, intensively examining a fossil.
The same professor who descended towards the middle of the earth in company with his nephew Axel and their Icelandic guide Hans Bjelke. During their quest they were confronted with forests of enormous mushrooms and prehistoric sea monsters. I will not forget the horrors and panic Axel experienced when he had become separated from his traveling companions and came close to facing death, abandoned in the absolute darkness of narrow burrows far deep below other human beings.
While looking at Max Ernst's collages or Paul Delvaux's paintings with their misplaced details, which nevertheless seem to fit well into the strange, though quite balanced well executed aspect of the oeuvres, it is easy to understand their creators´ fascination with the work of Jules Verne. Their creations are not more bizarre than Verne´s ability to make us believe that a group of eccentric gentlemen travels through his contemporary Indian jungles behind a giant steam-driven elephant.
These odd arrangements make me realize why Pataphysicians generally hold Jules Verne in high regard. Pataphysics was introduced and explained by Alfred Jarry in his 1911 posthumously published Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. Pathaphysics is the science of the impossible. Reality examined and interpreted through poetry and imagination, thus revealing its inherent absurdity. A method to contemplate human existence while ignoring logic and preconceptions.
Jarry was a true heir of the carnivalesque attitudes of medieval times, of the unreservedly learned Rabelais and others like him, who with wit and folkish mockery poked fun at conformity. Pataphysics has against all odds become a philosophy, supported and proliferated by a Collège de Pataphysique based in Paris
The best example of a pataphysician, who furthermore seems to be completely out of control, is the extremely eccentric musician, chess player and millionaire Raymond Roussel, who wasted his father's heritage on trips around the world and sumptuous performances of his mildly speaking zany works. He writes as a Jules Verne on drugs and Verne was his house god:
My admiration for him is boundless. In certain passages Voyages to the Centre of the Earth, Five weeks in a Balloon, Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon, Trip to the Moon, Mysterious Island and Hector Servadec, he raised himself to the highest peaks that can be attained by human language. O, incomparable master, may you be blessed for the sublime hours that I have spent endlessly reading and re-reading your works throughout my life.
Initially, it was more through Roussel's senseless work than the novels of Jules Verne that several Surrealists and Dadaists discovered hidden depths and powerful inspiration for artistic activities. In his novel Locus Solus from 1914, Roussel enters into Verne´s fantasy worlds. The novel needs to be read in order to provide an idea of Roussel´s frenzied blending of extensive reading, real and invented history, weird storytelling, crazy science, long-winding digressions, sudden concoctions and a rare, fascinating framework that describes how a bizarre millionaire and scientist presents a group of visitors to his outlandish inventions.
Among other things, the eccentric Professor Canterel brings his visitors to an icehouse he had constructed in his vast gardens. There they are shown live tableauxs acted out by seemingly living people. However, the actors are in fact deceased persons brought to life by Canterel, who has injected them with resurrectin, which preserves their outer appearance and inner organs, as well as all their life functions, except independent thinking. The deceased can only be brought to life if a vial of vitalium is introduced through “a narrow hole drilled above the right ear”.
These zombies are only able to repeat, down to the slightest detail, what constitutes their strongest memory. After being activated by vitalium they act within minutely recreated spaces, where every detail is real. The same action is repeated over and over again until the vitalium vial is removed and the zombie returns to its eternal rest.
Before Professor Canterel presents his zombie acts, he describes in detail the life story of the actors; outrageous stories, which nevertheless are imbued with an odd charm, as well as a certain quirkiness that provide them with the impression of having been inspired by Roussel's contemporary silent, short films, played at an exaggerated speed.
Rousell was contemporaneous with the magician Georges Mèliés. He killed himself in Palermo in 1933, four years before the death of the great movie pioneer. Raymond Roussel and Georges Mèliés were children of the same spirit. In his Le Voyage dans la Lune Georges Mèliés succeeded, already in 1902, by combining From the Earth to the Moon and The First Men in the Moon (published only a year before) in capturing the eccentric charm of both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.'
These two authors also became a great inspiration for the Czech movie director Karel Zeman (1910 -1989). He was like Mèliés an accomplished craftsman who, with a small budget, impeccable taste and subtle humour, created his "innocent inventions" in the form of several movies combining actors with illustrations and scenes inspired by 20th century book illustrations. In his tribute to Jules Verne and his world Vynález zkázy, Facing the Flag, he turns Jules Verne´s novel into a peculiar and masterly visualized move. My olderst daughter, who lives in Prague, gave it to me as a Christmas present and I have now watched it several times.
Zeman kept Verne's legacy alive and have inspired innovative movie makers like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, who also happen to be excellent draughtsmen. They have both used the skills of the great Italian set designer Dante Ferretti, who for Gilliam made the set designs for The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and in 2008 won an Oscar for his work on Burton´s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The circle was closed when Martin Scorcese gave Dante Ferretti the assignment to design his Verne-inspired sets for his cinematographic tribute to Georges Mèliés ̶ Hugo Cabret, a work that also rendered Ferretti an Oscar.
Ferretti was also the designer behind Fellini's remarkable extravaganza ̶ And the Ship Sails On, a movie that similarly may be considered as an homage to Verne. Fellini´s move has accurately bee described as “driven by the excellence of Fellini's unmistakably personal manner of directing. A brilliant spectacle about a past world. Captured at the moment it passed away." Fellini has revealed that important sources for his movie making have been the "great liar" Odysseus, the infallible Jules Verne and his own fascination with the comics he read as a child, like Dick Tracy and Little Nemo.
And the Ship Sails On begins with Gloria N., a luxurious cruise ship that in July 1914 leaves the port of Naples in order to by the island Erimo spread the ashes of opera singer Edmea Tetua, who had been born there. Tetua was considered to have been the world's greatest soprano. The ship´s passengers and crew appear as a collection of originals worthy of a novel by Verne; Ildebranda a bitter soprano, a crew-cut and stout Russian basso, Sir Reginald Dongby, a voyeuristic English aristocrat, the Grand Duke of Harzock, an obese Prussian, a sickly young man with a pensive blind sister, and several others.
After a while a nauseous odour rises up from the ship's hold. It turns out to originate from love-sick old rhinoceros that has been neglected by the ship´s crew. The huge animal is hoisted up from the cargo area, washed on deck and returned back together with fresh water and hay.
On the third day of the trip, group of shipwrecked Serbs are sighted and taken care of. However, the Gloria N. is soon threatened by the flagship of the Austrian-Hungarian Navy, which captain demands that the Serb refugees are immediately delivered to the destroyer. However, the Austrian-Hungarian admiral who is present on board the Imperial ship does after negotiations agree to the request that Edmea Tetua´s ashes are spread by the island of Erimo before the refugees can be extradited. However, a young Serb throws a bomb at the Austrian-Hungarian battle ship, which responds by bombarding Gloria N. that badly damaged begins to go under, while a grand piano slides over the deck smashing windows and doors during its rampage and butterflies are fluttering above abandoned suitcases floating in flooded corridors. The demise of Gloria N. constitutes, like in so many of Verne's novels, a catastrophic grand finale.
Finally I have now arrived at the reason to why I started to write this blog entry. I just finished reading a book, which I have forgotten where and when I purchased it. It contained not more than a hundred pages, but on a couple of occasions I had to laugh out loud. This happens very rarely when I read novels, though once in a while when I watch movies, such as John Cleese´s Fawlty Towers (including each and every one of the episodes, I do not know how many times I've seen them) and Blake Edward´s Oh, What a Party. According to what I remember the only novels that have made me laugh out aloud are the The Brave Soldier Švejk and Three Men in a Boat, and now Jules Verne´s A Fantasy of Dr Ox have joined the other two.
In this short novel, Jules Verne's describes how the phlegmatic citizens of the small and sleepy little Flemish town of Quiquendone suddenly change into passionate and aggressive fanatics. What made me laugh was his account of a pandemonium caused by a performance of the once so popular opera The Huguenots.
The performances of this serious opera generally lasts for more than five hours, although in the quirky Quiquendone, its laid-back and good-natured citizens usually prefer a version that lasts much longer. However, under the influence the strange affliction that has affected the town the performers, choir and orchestra start to behave at an insane pace, rushing in and out, stumbling over each other in an ever-increased speed. In their attempts to keep up the pace, members of the orchestra are crashing their instruments, while the excited audience screams and roars. Meyerbeer's masterpiece is finished off in twenty minutes, something that reminds me of Spike Jones's fast version of Carmen, which lasts twelve minutes.
Verne´s short novel begins with a portrayal of the bucolic Quiquendone (probably a name inspired by the English expression quick and done) that despite its laziness houses a college, a medieval castle and factories manufacturing whipped cream, sweet corn and confectionery. In the house of the town´s mayor, bourgmestre van Tricasse, a select group of reliable and phlegmatic citizens are once again discussing whether the crumbling city gate has to be restored and if they may relieve themselves from the costs for the underemployed police commissioner Passauf. As usual, decisions are postponed to the next meeting.
But suddenly everything changes. A distressed Police Commissioner Passauf (Watch-out) shows up announcing that in a fit of choleric madness two of the city's most respected citizens, the lawyer André Schut and the physician Dominique Custos have most unexpectedly and extremely agitated began to discuss politics! They ended up challenging each other on a duel. Everything becomes increasingly insane while the frenzied behaviour of the small city´s inhabitants increases unabated. A social event, a recurring dance for all citizens willing and able to attend, degenerates into a frantic orgy where, amongst others, the aging and timid Tante Némance turns into a passionate bacchantine, eagerly courted by the otherwise so discrete police commissioner Passauf.
The frenzy turns into uncontrolled aggressiveness, which to be prevented from destroying Quiquendone´s century-old, harmonious socializing has to be directed towards outer enemies. Accordingly, the common rage is turned against the neighbouring town of Le Quesnoy (Why not?). Each and every one of Quiquendon's infuriated citizens tries to lay their hands on a deadly weapon to once and for all settle a dispute originating from the fact that a cow sometime during the Middle Ages had disappeared from Quiquendon, supposedly stolen by a Quesnoy resident.
In a state of mutual anger, Mayor Tricasse and the chairman of the City Council, Monsieur Niklausse climb up the stairs of Quiquendone's tall medieval tower in order to from its summit inspect the surrounding terrain. This as a preparation for a planned battle manoeuvre. While they are taking in the view of the fertile and prosperous Flemish landscape, breathing in the fresh air and enjoy the sunshine, the mood of the two gentlemen changes.
They regard each other with endless goodwill, cheerfully assuring their eternal friendship. However, as soon as they are walking down the staircase, their impatient irritation returns and by the time they have reached the tower´s entrance they are involved in a violent fight.
What is affecting Quiquendone´s otherwise sane and healthy citizens? The reader understands that there is a connection with Dr. Ox´s and his assistant Ygène´s (ox-ygen) sudden appearance and generous offer to install municipal gas lighting for the entire city of Quiquendone and its private homes. In fact, Dr. Ox is one of Verne's diabolically crazy scientists who exposes the prospering Quiquendone to a reckless experiment.
This hilarious trifle from Jules Verne is like so many of his stories a combination of petty bourgeois, everyday life and absurd technology/science. If critically scrutinized, the charming little story reveals depths and political insights that originally can be somewhat hard to discern. The story actually describes how a benevolent, prosperous, albeit a little far too phlegmatic idyll, becomes poisoned by a narcissistic manipulator's discreet dissemination of a venom that causes division within an otherwise well-organized and stable, small community. The citizens´ solution to the problem is, instead of searching for the actual roots of the evil, to direct their rage and frustration towards the citizens of Le Quesnoy, who have nothing at all to do with the malaise affecting Quiquendone. A fable well worth considering, especially now when Sweden, and other countries as well, are affected by a mindless populism/nationalism and soon, through important elections, has to choose what its future will be.
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