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Propeller Island, Page 2

Jules Verne

  I have an idea, the sort of idea that... ought to come to a man once a day, but which has come to me only once in my life, the sort of idea that should make a man’s fortune. I have just written a novel in a new form, one that’s entirely my own. If it succeeds, I shall have stumbled upon a gold mine. In that case, I shall go on writing and writing without pause, while you others will go on buying shares the day before they drop and selling them the day before they rise. I am leaving the Exchange. [xi]

  Jules’s confidence was not misplaced. Five Weeks in a Balloon was an instant best-seller among readers of all ages, who recognized that a new literary genre had been created - that of the scientific novel. The response was overwhelming and sensational, as befit a unique work so ideally suited to the times. As Jules’s publisher Hetzel put it;

  The novels of M. Jules Verne have come just at the right time. When an eager public can be seen flocking to attend lectures given at a thousand different places in France, and when our newspapers carry reports of the proceedings of the Academy of Sciences alongside articles dealing with the arts and theatre, it is surely time for us to realize that the idea of art for art’s sake no longer meets the needs of the time we live in, and that the day has come when science must take its rightful place in literature. To M. Jules Verne goes the merit of being the first to tread this new ground... [xii]

  All Jules’s interests - previously seemingly irreconcilable - now come together. The years he had spent developing a new and simple scientific prose style made the theoretical passages of his writing accessible to all; the enthusiasm with which he outlined his theories made them fascinating. The pace and flow that had eluded him in his plays now came easily, giving excitement to the narrative and drama to the action. The wit and humour that he had been unable to convey in his comedies now came to the fore, and the moral sense that had kept him from devising convincing characters for the stage now found expression in the lofty moral idealism of his heroes.

  He was a writer of genius who had finally found his true medium and over the next forty-two years he devoted himself to writing what he planned as ‘a long, imposing procession of works’[xiii] - ultimately sixty-four in number - in which the reader was led through different fields of human knowledge through the device of having the plots, the action and often the denouement turn on the proof or disproof of various scientific theories, on inventions that were extension of known scientific principles, or on confrontation with natural phenomena. All his early works were imbued with a belief in the virtue of progress and in the potential of science to improve the human condition by enabling man to master the forces of nature and harness them to his will for the general good of all, in the idealistic and humanitarian tradition of Saint-Simon. In the new world Jules envisaged, the exploitation of man by man would be replaced by the exploitation of nature by man; machines were designed to serve man and enhance the conditions in which he lived by offering new possibilities in travel, communication and comfort, and the true responsibility of science was not to engage in endless theoretical speculations or to serve special interest groups, but to put their theories into practice for the benefit of mankind.

  At the time he met Jules, Hetzel had been planning to start a monthly magazine for young people called the Magazin d’Education et Recreation. Many of Jules’s books were serialized in the magazine before they were published in book form, but it would be a mistake to think of Jules as a children’s author for he was read as avidly by adults as by the young, and the French writer Raymond Roussel reflects current literary opinion when he argues that Jules’s writings have so many hidden depths of meaning that

  It is just as monstrous to give them to children to read as it isto give them the Fables of La Fontaine, which are so profoundthat few adults are capable of appreciating them. [xiv]

  In 1886, when Jules’s fame and fortune were at their apex, he suffered a series of personal tragedies - the deaths of his mother and his publisher Hetzel, who had been his closest confidant since the death of Pierre Verne in 1871, and a physical attack by his deranged nephew who shot him in the leg, inflicting injuries from which he never completely recovered. Always something of a misanthrope, he now became reclusive and melancholic, a change that coincided with a growing conviction that his earlier faith in progress had been misplaced. He had once believed that science and human character were sufficient to change the destiny of mankind; he now began to believe that science would only progress as quickly as society and, on the evidence of the last twenty-five years society had, if anything, regressed. In describing his grandfather’s state of mind at this time, Jean Jules-Verne recalled

  He lost his blind faith in unlimited progress. The conquest of nature was dependent on the conquest of wisdom - and mankind had no wisdom. Men’s pride made them forget the ephemerality of their existence and the worldly possessions they were so eager to acquire. In order to gain a momentary possession of a fragile fragment of a precarious world, pride made them continue to indulge in the absurd and cruel strife from which they were the first to suffer.[xv]

  The French writer Jean Chesneaux has traced Jules’s disillusionment with science to the socioeconomic and political developments of the late nineteenth century - the development of large-scale industry had increased human misery instead of alleviating it, and the rise of industry had enabled the development of large-scale finance capitalist enterprise in Europe. Colonial rivalries increased as the great powers raced to expand their colonial empires, the armaments race reflected the growth of war technology, the possibilities of science had become increasingly subordinated to the power of money, much of Europe was in economic crisis and governments had become more repressive in character. Faced with these hard social realities, Jules’s orientation began to change, and he extended his interest beyond scientific forecasts to include the problems of social organization, social conditions and the responsibility of science towards society. [xvi] He now embarked on a series of satirical novels that pass judgement on an age whose legacy is still very much with us.

  For Jules, the greatest disappointment of the previous quarter century had been America, which had held a special place in his affections. America had once seemed to him to be a near-perfect embodiment of the new world he envisaged, and he set twenty-three of his books there. The demographic, economic and technological development of America was unparalleled; industrial enterprise was carried out on a grand scale, innovation and initiative were actively encouraged, new inventions were seized upon with alacrity and the population of America enjoyed the highest modern standard of living in the world. It was a country where it seemed that all things were possible - as Jules put it in From the Earth to the Moon, ‘Nothing can astonish an American ... In America everything is simple, everything is easy, and as for mechanical difficulties, they are resolved before they arise.’ The passage of time had shown Jules another face of America, and he became alarmed as the expansionist trends of the “big stick” policy took shape... as the power of the dollar grew stronger and as a materialist technology increased its hold over mankind’. [xvii] For Jules, America had been a symbol and a model for the future - now America seemed to constitute a threat which he countered by writing The Floating Island - a satire on the American way of life.

  Set in an indefinite future, it envisages a time when the flag of the United States has sixty-seven stars, America having annexed Canada, Mexico and the countries of Central America down to the Panama Canal. The floating island itself is the ultimate achievement of materialist technology - every comfort has been provided, effort has been eliminated, and the millionaire residents have nothing more demanding to do than to enjoy an endless luxury cruise as the island voyages about the Pacific in search of splendid climes and picturesque atolls. As always, Jules constructed his innovative vehicle on sound mechanical grounds - to the extent of working out the draught, displacement and horsepower of his propeller-driven island. But the alleviation of all material cares and the technological refinement of the island can
not make up for the flaws in human nature, and the rivalries of the inhabitants ultimately tear the island apart in what Chesneaux has called a parable of capitalist society destroying itself. Of all his works. The Floating Island is considered to be the one that best expresses Jules’s mature social credo. A great classic of science fiction and a sophisticated social satire, it was never intended by its author to be taken as a fantasy. As he wrote to his brother Paul when he was preparing the work, ‘It will be related to existing customs and facts, but I am a novelist first and foremost, and my books will always have the appearance of being fiction.’ [xviii]Stripped of its obvious period references, the text of The Floating Island and the implicit warning it contains are as timely now as when it was written.

  Jules Verne died in Amiens, France on 24 March, 1905. He had fulfilled his dream of becoming a world-famous author, he had created a new literary genre and the Extraordinary Voyages had amply achieved his objective of portraying the earth in all its aspects yet he died a disappointed man, still disillusioned at the betrayal of science by society. The uncanny predictive quality of his work is unquestioned, and scores of the inventions scattered across his pages arc now a part of everyday life. Inexorably, the doubts he raises in his later satirical works are now becoming apparent. As Jean Chesneaux puts it

  If Jules Verne and his Voyages Extraordinaires are still alive for us it is because they - and with them the whole of that fascinating nineteenth century - were already posing the problems which the twentieth century has not been, and will not be, able to avoid. [xix]

  Kaori O’Connor


  Part 1


  WHEN a journey begins badly it rarely ends well. At least that ought to have been the opinion of the four instrumentalists whose instruments lay on the ground, the carriage in which they were riding having suddenly upset against a mound by the side of the road.

  “Anybody hurt?” asked the first, actively springing to his feet.

  “I have got off with a scratch,” replied the second, wiping his cheek, striped by a piece of glass.

  “And I with a graze,” replied the third, whose calf was bleeding.

  There was nothing serious as yet.

  “And my violoncello?” said the fourth. “It is to be hoped nothing has happened to my violoncello.”

  Fortunately the cases were untouched.

  Neither the violoncello, nor the two violins, nor the alto had suffered from the shock, and it was hardly necessary to put them in tune. They were high-class instruments, of course.

  “Confound that railway which left us in distress when we had only gone half-way,” said one.

  “Confound that carriage which has thrown us out in the open country,” retorted another.

  “Just at the moment night was beginning,” added a third.

  “Fortunately our concert is announced for the day after to-morrow,” observed the fourth.

  Then a few ridiculous repartees were exchanged between the artistes who took their adventure so gaily. One of them, according to his inveterate habit, gave his nonsense a musical twist.

  “There is our carriage with the mi on the do.” “Pinchinat!” exclaimed one of his companions. “And my opinion is,” continued Pinchinat, “that there are rather too many accidents in this key.” “Will you be quiet?”

  “And that we shall have to transpose our pieces in another carriage!” added Pinchinat.

  Yes! rather too many accidents, as the reader will not be slow to learn.

  The driver had suffered most, having been pitched off his seat as the front axle broke. The damage was restricted to a few contusions more painful than serious; but he could not walk on account of a sprain. Hence the necessity of finding some means of transport to the nearest village.

  It was a miracle, indeed, that somebody had not been killed. The road winds across a mountainous country, skirting high precipices, bordered in many places with deep tumultuous torrents and crossed by fords only passable with difficulty. If the axle had broken a moment sooner the vehicle would have rolled deep down the rocks, and no one could have survived the catastrophe. Anyhow, the carriage was useless. One of the two horses, whose head had struck against a sharp stone, was gasping on the ground. The other was severely wounded on the quarter; so that there were no horses and no carriage.

  In short, ill-fortune had not spared these four artistes, in these regions of Lower California. At this period San Francisco, the capital of the State, was in direct railway communication with San Diego, situated almost on the frontier of the old Californian province. The four travellers were on their way to this important town, where on the next day but one they were to give a concert much advertised and long expected. The night before they had left San Francisco, but when they were within fifty miles of San Francisco the first contretemps had occurred. Yes, contretemps, as the most jovial of the troupe remarked, and the expression might be tolerated on the part of an old master of solfeggio.

  The train was stopped at Paschal owing to the line having been swept away by a flood for three or four miles. The accident had occurred but a few hours before, and the communication with the other end had not been organized. The passengers must either wait until the road was repaired, or obtain in the nearest village a vehicle of some sort for San Diego.

  And this it was that the quartette decided to do. In a neighbouring village they discovered an old landau, rickety, noisy, and moth-eaten, but not uncomfortable. They hired it from the owner, promised the driver a handsome present, and started with their instruments, but without their luggage, about two o’clock in the afternoon; and up to seven o’clock in the evening the journey was accomplished without much difficulty or fatigue. But here a second contretemps occurred, the upsetting of the carriage, and that with such damage that it was impossible for the said carriage to continue the journey.

  And the quartette were a good twenty miles from San Diego.

  But why had four musicians, French by nationality, and Parisians by birth, ventured across these out-of-the-way regions of Lower California?

  Why? We will tell you in twenty lines, with a few explanatory notes regarding the four virtuosos which chance, that fantastic distributor of parts, was about to introduce among the personages of this extraordinary story.

  At this same time a feeling for art had developed among the Americans; and if their productions were of limited number in the domain of the beautiful—if their national genius was still somewhat refractory in painting, sculpture, and music—the taste for good work was, at least, widely spread among them. By purchasing, for their weight in gold, the pictures of old and modern masters for public or private galleries; by engaging, at enormous prices, lyrical and dramatic artistes of renown, instrumentalists of the highest talent, they had infused among themselves that sense of beautiful and noble things which they had been in want of so long.

  As regards music, it was by listening to Meyerbeer, Halévy, Gounod, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Masse, Saint-Saëns, Reyer, Massenet, Delibes, the famous composers of the second half of the nineteenth century, that the dilettanti of the New Continent first awoke to enthusiasm. Then gradually they advanced to the comprehension of the profounder work of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven; mounting back to the sources of the sublime art which expanded to full flood in the course of the eighteenth century. After the operas, the lyric dramas; after the lyric dramas, the symphonies, sonatas, and orchestral pieces. And, just at the moment we speak of, the sonata was the rage among the different States of the Union. The people would willingly have paid so much a note— twenty dollars a minim, ten dollars a crotchet, five dollars a quaver.

  When this infatuation was at its height, four instrumentalists of ability conceived the idea of tempting success and fortune in the United States of America. Four excellent fellows, old pupils of the Conservatoire, well known in Paris, much appreciated by the audiences of what is known as “chamber music,” which was then little known in North America. With what rare
perfection, what marvellous time, what profound feeling, they interpreted the works of Mozart, of Beethoven, of Mendelssohn, of Haydn, of Chopin, written for four-stringed instruments, a first and second violin, alto, and violoncello. Nothing noisy, nothing showy, but what consummate execution, what incomparable virtuosity! The success of the quartette was all the more intelligible, as at the time people were beginning to tire of formidable harmonic and symphonic orchestras. That music is only an artistic combination of sonorous waves may be true, but there is no reason why these waves should be let loose in deafening tempests.

  In short, our four instrumentalists had decided to introduce the Americans to the gentle and ineffable delights of chamber music. They set out together for the New World, and for two years the dilettanti Yankees had spared them neither cheers nor dollars. Their matinees and soirees were well attended. The Quartette Party, as they called themselves, were hardly able to accept their invitations from the wealthy. Without them there was no festival, no meeting, no rout, no five o’clock teas, no garden parties worth talking about. This infatuation had put a good deal of money in the pockets of the fortunate four, and if they had placed it in the Bank of New York it must have constituted a fairly large capital. But why should we not confess it? They had spent their money freely, had these Americanized Parisians! They never thought of saving, did these princes of the bow, these kings of the four strings! They enjoyed to the full this life of adventure, sure of meeting everywhere and always with a good welcome and a profitable engagement. They had travelled from New York to San Francisco, from Quebec to New Orleans, from Nova Scotia to Texas, living rather a Bohemian life—that Bohemia of the young which is the most ancient, the most charming, the most enviable, the most loved province of our old France! We are much mistaken if the moment has not come to introduce them individually to those of our readers who never had, and never will have, the pleasure of listening to them.