Sunday, October 11, 2015

Paris in the Twentieth Century: Review

Did she love Monsieur Boutardin and was she loved by him in return? Yes, insofar as these businesslike hearts could love; a comparison will complete the portrait of the pair: she was the locomotive and he the engineer; he kept her in good condition, oiled and polished her, and thus she had rolled forward for a good half a century, with about as much sense and imagination as a Crampton Motor.

Unnecessary to add that she had never derailed. (p. 32)

Paris in the Twentieth Century is the "lost" novel by Jules Verne. It was written in 1863, rejected by his publisher as portraying a far too unrealistic view of the future, and languished in a family safe for over 100 years. Inside the safe, opened by Verne's great-grandson, was a sheaf of handwritten pages detailing a dystopian France of the 1960s. Verne's mid-Twentieth Century is a bleak place where culture, literature, and the arts have been shoved aside in favor of commerce and technology. A place where efficiency and monetary gain rule supreme in a bustling, overcrowded metropolis where the homeless starve and shiver on the well-lit streets teeming with horseless carriages. Sound familiar?

The [Academic Credit] Union statues followed, carefully expressed in financial terms. As is apparent, no scholar's or professor's name appeared on the Board of Directors, a matter of some reassurance with regard to the commercial prospects of the enterprise. (p. 6)

In Verne's world, we follow the fortunes of Michel Dufrénoy who wins prizes in Latin verse from the Academic Credit Union (which has replaced the standard universities and colleges), but soon learns that his gifts have no place in a world of finance and industry. He has inherited his artistic abilities from his father--who was (as his prosperous uncle reminds him) a good-for-nothing musician. 

...for form's sake, some classes in literature were still taught, though those were sparsely attended and inappreciable--indeed anything but appreciated. (p. 7)

Upon his graduation from the Union, his uncle tells him that he must give up his unfortunate artistic pursuits and find himself a practical job. He tells him, "You are without fortune, which is a blunder...I have decided that you must enter the Casmodage and Co. banking house...Work to become a practical man!" But Michel cannot apply himself to practical work and winds up moving from job to job trying to find one that he can manage well enough to support himself so he can write the poetry he loves in the evening. However, even work that was once grounded in the arts--such as theatre--has been turned into a mere mechanical industry and Michel has difficulty finding anything that he can do even adequately. He finds others like him and a girl to love, but will he ever become practical enough to be able to marry and support her?

The notes tell us that the reason Verne's publisher turned this down was because of his far-fetched vision of the future, but there are more "practical" reasons why this might not have done well. While I was impressed by how many of Verne's predictions turned out to be correct--the advent and spread of electricity in all walks of life, the rampant use of "gas-cab" horseless carriages, elaborate subway systems, and a form of fax machines, computers, calculators, I was less impressed by the plot. With Verne stories, I am used to grand adventures. Voyaging round the world in 80 days. Diving under the ocean in the Nautilus . Or making a journey to the center of the earth. There are usually dangers to overcome and a strong story arc. This is far less apparent in this novel.

Paris in the Twentieth Century is far more a book of ideas and commentary than readers of Verne are used to. He examines everything from man's growing reliance on mechanical and electronic gadgets to wealth in the hands of commercial and industrial giants to the lack of human contact created by a world that values language, literature, and the arts less and less. Men and women have few real emotions (see opening quote) and are referred to throughout the book in mechanical and commercial terms. Verne's vision of the future is a bleak, emotional wasteland. 

Working in a university, I have to say that passages referring to the Academic Credit Union strike a chord. The sciences and business-oriented programs on campus receive the lion's share of the recognition and financial support. More and more, the arts and humanities find themselves scrambling to prove themselves relevant to the modern world. Verne definitely got more than a few things right in his prediction of the future.

This is an important work--perhaps not his best story, but an excellent commentary on a proposed future that has all too much in common with our present. ★★


fredamans said...

It's the similarities to what could be today that fascinate me. Great review!

Monica's Bookish Life said...

I'm not familiar with this Jules Verne book. This looks really fascinating!