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Paris in the Twentieth Century

Jules Verne

  Paris in the Twentieth Century




  Illustrations by Anders Wenngren


  Translation copyright © 1996 by Richard Howard

  Introduction copyright © 1996 by Eugen Weber

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  This work was originally published in French as Paris au XX'Siècle by Hachette Livre in 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Hachette Livre, Département Hachette Référence, en coédition avec le cherche midi éditeur.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

  ISBN 0-679-44434-5

  Random House website address:

  http: //www. randomhouse. com/

  Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper


  First U. S. Edition

  Book design by Wynn Dan

  an ebookman scan with active table of contents and endnotes.

  O terrible influence of this race

  which serves neither god nor king,

  given over to the mundane sciences,

  to base mechanical professions!

  Pernicious breed! What will you not attempt,

  left to your own devices,

  abandoned without restraint

  to that fatal spirit of knowledge, of invention, of progress.

  paul-louis courier[1] (1772-1825)

  (from Lettres au Rédacteur du Censeur)

  Translator’s Note

  When I was eleven, my mother (twice divorced) remarried, and we moved into my stepfather's house. He was her first cousin, and their marriage was designed to be one of comfort and familiarity, yet the partners to it had neglected to acknowledge one shared flaw, which soon became a distressing factor in our family life. Both husband and wife were raring, tearing alcoholics, from whom I took a sort of aggressive refuge in a set of olive leather books I had found on a shelf over the piano. The twelve double volumes of The Works of Jules Verne became my imaginative life while all hell was breaking loose around me. I lived in them, utterly dissolved in the Splendors and Miseries of Technology, reading with an intensity probably doubled because of the chaos those big visions protected me from.

  I have translated this newly discovered first novel, which Verne wrote when he was thirty-five, as a gesture of gratitude for all those hours of rescue work, from which I am still profiting. No space machine of Verne's peculiar invention was more powerful than those books of his, no intra-terrestrial vehicle more effective in promoting total (and saving) absorption. Much of the old spell—more diagrammatic, less suavely joined—abides in Paris in the Twentieth Century, and I am delighted to be artisanally connected with this story of tragic anticipations, a dystopia which now seems as familiar to us as that old gothic romance the Return of the Repressed. It is scary to discover, reading Verne, that one's future is also one's past, but it certainly makes for an enthralling reminder that the anticipation of a world is inevitably the myth of an eternal return.

  Richard Howard

  New York, March 1995


  Translator’s Note

  Introduction by Eugen Weber

  Chapter I: The Academic Credit Union

  Chapter II: A Panorama of the Streets of Paris

  Chapter III: An Eminently Practical Family

  Chapter IV: Concerning Some Nineteenth-Century Authors, and the Difficulty of Obtaining Them

  Chapter V: Which Treats of Calculating Machines and Self-protecting Safes

  Chapter VI: In Which Quinsonnas Appears on the Ledger's Summit

  Chapter VII: Three Drones

  Chapter VIII: Which Concerns Music, Ancient and Modern, and the Practical Utilization of Certain Instruments

  Chapter IX: A Visit to Uncle Huguenin

  Chapter X Grand Review of French Authors Conducted by Uncle Huguenin, Sunday, April 15, 1961

  Chapter XI: A Stroll to the Port de Grenelle

  Chapter XII: Quinsonnas's Opinions on Women

  Chapter XIII: Concerning the Ease with Which an Artist Can Starve to Death in the Twentieth Century

  Chapter XIV: Le Grand Entrepôt Dramatique

  Chapter XV: Poverty

  Chapter XVI: The Demon of Electricity

  Chapter XVII: Et in Pulverem Reverteris

  End of Paris in the Twentieth Century

  About the Author

  About the Type


  Introduction by Eugen Weber

  "Citizens, can you imagine the future? City streets flooded with light... nations brothers... no more events. All will be happy. " That is Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, published in 1862. In 1863 a much younger man sat down to imagine the future and, though full of marvels, his version looks less happy by far. At thirty- five, Jules Verne had tried several trades and apparently mastered none—at least, not one that could ensure a stable income. Five Weeks in a Balloon, the tale that made his name, was just published, but fame still hung around the corner for the determined scribbler who dreamt of a literary career. So, the pages Jules Verne penned in 1863 to be revealed nearly 130 years later read very differently from the science fiction that we expect from him.

  Avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe, Verne had been fascinated by the American's fantasies, seared by his scorn for American society and for the idea of progress. Paris in the Twentieth Century applies Poe's views to contemporary France, where poetry wages a losing battle against material reality. The Jules Verne we know from his "Extraordinary Voyages" translates the romantic exoticism of his youth onto a scientific (and didactic) plane. The Verne that we encounter here translates Romantic pessimism into social satire. In classic Jules Verne adventures the environment is there to be mastered; in twentieth century Paris it can only be suffered, and the narrative offers less entertaining description than cultural criticism.

  The material setting is prescient and prophetic. There are electric lights in profusion; boulevards and department stores lit as brightly as the sun; gigantic hotels; great avenues filled with horseless carriages powered by internal combustion; noiseless gas cabs that turn corners and climb slopes with none of the problems of horses; public transport provided by street cars and automatic driverless trains; majestic mansions fitted with elevators and electric buttons that open doors; financial hives equipped with copiers, calculators, and fax machines. The capital city has become a great seaport, "a Liverpool in the heart of France, " crowded with liners and freighters, whilst (only yards from where the Eiffel Tower went up in 1889) an electric lighthouse five hundred feet high looms over a forest of flag-studded masts.

  Paris in the twentieth century—and, more specifically, in 1960—teems with prodigies that were hard to imagine a hundred years before; yet Jules Verne imagined them because the science and technology of his day suggested their possibility. Imagination is the capacity to rearrange available data or to extrapolate from them, and Verne was a masterful extrapolator. Work on the Suez Canal had begun in 1859: if seagoing ships could cross the desert with help from engineers, they could certainly sail up the Seine. The prototypes of internal combustion engines and of fax machines had been developed in 1859, the first Otis elevator ascended in New York in 1857, the first transatlantic cable would be laid in 1866, the first underground railway opened in London in 1862. Paris got one in 1900, but Jules Verne envisaged an elevated railway in the American style, powered by compressed air. Electrified streetcars appeared in the United State
s in the 1880s, in Europe in the 1890s. Even the electric chair that Verne's protagonist stumbles across as he roams through the Paris night would be inaugurated in New York State a quarter of a century later.

  So Jules Verne's 1960 is neither unimaginable in 1860, nor unbelievable for today's readers. And Michel Dufrénoy, his hero, fits the period well. With his long hair, his literary aspirations, his rejection of the existing order and of a paying job, and his rather mopey manner, he prefigures the dreamy dropouts of the 1960s. Jules Verne's only child, a son born in 1861, was also named Michel; so were the ships that Jules loved to sail. We may assume that, in the author's eye, Michel is a positive figure. Yet one could say of him what Adolphe Thiers, the acerbic politician, said of Napoleon III: "He confuses the verb to dream with the verb to think. " In fact, Michel is a fool, but a nice fool: a poet and a ninny, as one is entitled to be at sixteen; and sometimes at sixty. And his Paris, the one Jules Verne envisions for our century, is a ship of fools running onto the rocks of modernity.

  Under Napoleon III, the great emperor's nephew who ruled France between 1848 and 1870, the country's industrial production doubled, and its communications network tripled. Business and government enterprise, notably, transformed Paris: wide straight streets, green parks and squares, new apartment buildings, monumental railway stations, and workers' housing on the outskirts for people displaced from the center of town. Verne noted the ferocious materialism of his time and anticipated the fallout of progress with anxious fascination: overpopulation, pollution, lodgings hard to find in a city center where offices and public buildings crowded out private dwellings, and everywhere "machines advantageously replacing human hands. "

  So many aspects of Jules Verne's imaginary twentieth century apply to the real one in which we live! The French language is in dire straits: specialists create their own jargon, scientists adopt English, Franglais is about to pounce. As with speech, so with social institutions: the family tends to self-destruction, marriage looks like heroic futility, the number of legitimate children diminishes, illegitimacy soars, bastards "form an impressive majority. " Books still exist; indeed, since the invention of paper made of wood pulp (1851), there are more of them. More books but fewer readers: literature has been marginalized, and "knowledge is imparted by mechanical means. " Mechanics have also invaded the arts. Music knows no more melody, painting no form, poetry sings Electric Harmonies and Decarbonated Odes, truly popular literature deals with practical matters like Stress Theory or The Lubrication of Driveshafts. Even Jules Verne failed to imagine that ideal warehouse for modern art, the Beaubourg museum, let alone the beau-bourgeoisie that worships at art's altars; nor had anyone yet coined words like "technocracy" and "technocrats. " But the government of the Second Empire was heavily involved in intellectual and cultural life, patronage and administrative manipulation subsidized and suggested, "joining the useful to the disagreeable" even more perhaps than they do today.

  The Great Dramatic Warehouse (Chapter XIV), where Michel finds a job, houses teams of scribblers writing to order, or rewriting past successes as in Hollywood, to amuse "docile audiences by harmless works. " "Abandon originality all ye who enter here!" could easily be engraved above its gate. What had begun as private enterprise had passed under control of the State and of its bureaucrats. Théâtre managers (Verne had been one in his youth) became civil servants, authors state employees, and the stern censorship of nineteenth century administrations waned because self-censorship left no need for it.

  Jules Verne's irony is sometimes heavy-handed. It can also be hard to discern for readers unaware of issues that concerned his times. Thus, unlike Britain, Belgium, or Prussia, the France of the first half of the nineteenth century had no national banking system; and this created problems in raising capital, obtaining credit, or even paying bills over a distance. In 1852, France joined the modern age when two visionary believers in industrial development and technocratic planning, the brothers Pereire, founded a national bank, the Crédit Mobilier, soon imitated by other joint stock clearing banks founded over the next ten years or so: Crédit Industriel, Crédit Foncier, Crédit Lyonnais.... The Academic Credit Union that appears in Chapter I transposes this financial revolution to the educational field: centralization, investment, profit, on a new mass scale. Verne's story begins on the Union's prize-giving day, a ceremony as familiar to the French of the 1860s as to their present-day descendants, and as commencement is to us. An educational system founded as the economy was, on competition, stimulated ambition by official recognition: prizes, medals, certificates of excellence, without which children were not expected to exert themselves. The struggle to win school prizes prepared for more serious struggles after graduation, hence for success in life. So the annual prize-giving day was a great occasion, and the speeches that marked it reflected values that society sought to inculcate: in this case, respect for foreign languages and for applied science.

  In the 1860s, educated Frenchmen (few women had access to secondary education till later in the century) learnt to write good French by imitating models found in Latin and in the great authors of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature. That was the basis of rhetoric, whose models drawn from Greek and Roman antiquity taught good taste, elegant discourse, nobility of thought and of expression. Democratic opponents of rhetoric rejected it as pedantic, pompous, boring, and elitist. Victor Hugo, much admired by Michel as by Michel's creator, had recently denounced

  Merchants of Greek! Merchants of Latin! pedants! dogs!

  Philistines! magisters! I hate you pedagogs.

  But Hugo was in exile for opposition to the Empire, and the respectable classes respected the classical curriculum that he criticized.

  More dangerous for rhetoric's fortunes, its teachings were out of tune with the times. "Fine words do not produce beet sugar, Alexandrine verse does not help extract sodium from sea salt, " the physicist François Arago contended, attacking scholastic insistence on the classics and other useless knowledge. Michel Dufrénoy's prize for Latin verse brands him as an anachronism condemned to the same uselessness and rejection as his beloved teacher of rhetoric; and Verne's opening chapter joins in a debate that would not be resolved until 1902, when rhetoric was dropped from the curriculum.

  Science, too, stood at the center of educational debates under a Second Empire which sought to encourage studies that would orient the young towards careers in useful industry. A degree in letters was more prestigious; but scientific training, the Emperor's Minister of Education asserted, would provide the non-commissioned officers of the industrial army. "Honor the concrete!" Let modern languages replace dead ones, let geography and modern history prepare young minds for contemporary living. Imperial lycées introduced "industrial classes" that did not call for Latin, offered commercial courses, installed laboratories and "electromagnetic apparatus. " By the beginning of the twentieth century more students preferred "modern humanities" to the classics; by 1962 twice as much time was spent on the sciences, three times as much on modern languages, as in the century past. For a long time, however, the numbers involved remained pitifully small. In 1860 the national secondary system taught 35, 000 students; in 1930, 67, 000. Nevertheless, in the end Jules Verne proved right. By 1960 their number had risen to 343, 000—more than double the Academic Credit Union's awesome 157, 000; and only a few years later they passed the half million mark.

  Extrapolating from the present can lead to error or to oversight. Fictional Parisians of the 1960s use copiers, calculators, and fax machines, but know no typewriters or even steel-nibbed pens. The bankers Michel hates write with quills, and keep accounts in a

  Great Ledger inscribed in a fine hand by a calligrapher. Even Jules Verne's imagination needed a starting point; and typewriters, invented in 1867, patented in 1868—in the United States, of course—were simply not envisaged when he wrote. In the same vein, our author conceives garments of spun metal, but not the polyesters that chemical industry developed later; a bookstore like a warehouse,
but no access to merchandise, stacks, or shelves; a multipurpose piano that can be used as bed, dresser, and commode, but not a world where servants do not serve at table.

  All nations would be brothers, Hugo had predicted, and Verne agreed because the world had become one market and the links of commerce drew nations ever closer (Chapter VII). "No more events, " meant no more sensational or discomforting happenings; no more wars, revolutions, crises; no more of what Verne called infernal politics. "All will be happy, " Hugo had concluded. One has to doubt whether Verne agreed. Still, some of his forecasts brought grist to Hugo's mill. In Jules Verne's 1960s politics have withered and, since gazettes were about politics, not news, nobody bothers to read the press: "journalism has had its day. " So have medicine which ran out of diseases, and lawyers who, now, would rather settle than go to court. Worst of the book's errors, war has vanished, armies are no more, armies of businessmen have replaced them. "When soldiers become mechanics, wars become ridiculous. " Would it were so. Jules Verne could not know that, by the time he died, the budget of industry and commerce accounted for 1. 7 percent of national expenses, the Army for 23. 4 percent. He could not know but, surely, might have guessed.

  When Jules Verne died in 1904, at seventy-seven, his world fame was a little worn, his name on a title page no longer sold books like hot cakes. But for two or three decades after his first triumph in 1863 with Five Weeks in a Balloon, few French novelists, if any, enjoyed comparable world success. A bestseller in his lifetime, with 1. 6 million copies of his French editions sold by 1904 and still more after his death, he remains the most translated of French authors: 224 translations in twenty-three countries.

  Son of a comfortable provincial family, the lad grew up in Nantes, the great port on the Loire, studied law as his lawyer father wanted, but soon followed his literary inclinations into the théâtre, writing comedies and operettas (one with music by Offenbach), then helping to manage the théâtre founded by his friend and patron, Alexandre Dumas. Married in 1857, he bought into a financial agency, worked as a broker on the Stock Exchange, but continued to write poems, stories, lyrics, and plays until Dumas introduced him to his own publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, editor of Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, and George Sand, who was to serialize and edit the sixty-four-volume series of Verne's "Extraordinary Voyages" over some forty years.