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Jules Verne and the journey of writing

4 May 2005

2005 is the centenary year of the death of Jules Verne. A new book by Professor Tim Unwin of the Department of French assesses Verne's extraordinary literary legacy.

Jules Verne has become a modern cultural icon, of interest to the most diverse communities.  The centenary of his death in 2005 has brought a major surge of interest in his work and legacy.  Yet Verne is all too often evoked without precise reference to the series of novels known as the Voyages extraordinaires.  My new study, Jules Verne: Journeys in Writing, argues that if we are to understand Verne as a phenomenon, we must first understand him as an author.

While cultural appropriations of Verne’s work in other contexts are an important and crucial subject of study in their own right, my aim is to examine his texts above all as literary products. The book places Verne back in the context of nineteenth-century realism and its preoccupations, focusing on the innovative techniques that are such an important feature of his writing, and comparing his experimental style with the writings of the canonical novelists of nineteenth-century France.

The book ranges widely over the corpus of Verne's literary output.  It covers not only the novels of the series known as the Voyages extraordinaires (with particular emphasis on the most famous titles), but also the fictional and theatrical writings of Verne's apprenticeship years, and the posthumous or rediscovered texts.

Verne addresses one of the great questions of his century: how is it possible to write something new?

Throughout the study it is stressed that, as an author, Verne is supremely self-conscious in his uses of literary forms and genres, in his references to other literary works, in his echoes and reprises of other authors (notably of Edgar Allen Poe), and in his questioning - through the inclusion of science in his works - of what constitutes 'literature' in the nineteenth century.  The study focuses in a variety of ways on Verne's intense awareness of his verbal and written medium, which is represented, dramatised, thematised and problematised throughout his work.

It is also argued that Verne reveals the interdependency of all texts, and that he tackles the anxiety of influence head-on by revealing rather than concealing his own sources.  Throughout the Voyages extraordinaires, Verne's novels also display their debt to the theatre, stressing their artificiality and conventionality as written artefacts in a world that is always textually constructed.  Through his novels, Verne thus addresses one of the great questions of his own century: how is it possible, when so much has already been written, to produce something new?  Part of his originality is to have made this very question one of the central themes of his work - a preoccupation which he shares with his contemporary, Flaubert, who also agonises extensively about what the novel is, or might be, or could become, and reflects on the place in it of modern scientific discourse.

Challenging prevailing assumptions about the relationship between science and literature, Verne also echoes the great colonialist and imperialist themes of the nineteenth century through the very style that he adopts.  Notions of expansion, conquest and scientific progress are not merely subjects and themes in his novels: they are re-enacted in the writing itself, which is by definition expansive and 'territorial' in its textual pervasiveness.  The 'writing of journeys' becomes the 'journey of writing', for in Verne's world, text is not only the metaphor of man's engagement with reality, but the very means by which travel and exploration are accomplished.  He is in every sense at the frontier of literature and its development in the nineteenth century.

Professor Tim Unwin/Department of French

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