Imagine visiting Paris in August, 1960 (the year and month I was born!!). Where is the first place you would go? Musée du Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo? Then promenade directly across the Seine to the Rodin Museum to see sculptures of Hugo, Balzac, the Gates of Hell, and The Kiss? There is your first day. Now let’s start our second day with : the Grand and Petit Palais, Cluny Museum-National Museum of the Middle Ages, the Carnavalet Museum and the Musée de Montmartre. So many treasures!
It is hard to imagine visiting Paris before the openings of: the d’Orsay (1986), the l’Orangerie, May 17, 2006 (I happened upon this reopening while in Paris and was not aware of the treasure I stumbled upon!!), Centre Pompidou (1977), and Musée National Picasso (1985), to name a few.
Of course, no visit to Paris is complete without visits to the Bibliothèques– Richelieu, de la Sorbonne, and the BNF. The Librairies: Gibert Jeune, Shakespeare & Company and bookshops on most corners in the Latin Quarter. Now on our stroll down the Seine back to our hotel, we must frequent the Bouquinistes which were established nearly 100 years before.
Now, imagine visiting Paris today and most forms of art, literature and music have either disappeared entirely or have been redirected toward practicality. These former monuments are now housing government offices. The great literature of Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, Sartre, VERNE—gone. No more bibliotheques, there is no need; Gibert Jeune is now a six etage office building (as I have not been able to visit Paris since 2019 and, based upon recent news, I fear this might have already become a reality).
Jules Verne imagined something like this. In his novel Paris au XXe Siecle, “Paris circa 1960 has evolved into a smooth-running, high-tech commercial megalopolis where gasoline-powered cars crowd the wide streets and urban commuters are whisked along in pneumatic tube-trains suspended from above. Computer-like adding machines and fax-like communication devices link the city’s financial markets with the world’s many multinational corporations (who hold the real political power). In this era, tactical military weapons have become so perfected that the very idea of war itself is no longer thinkable. And the Earth’s skies and oceans have long ago been thoroughly explored, analyzed, and inventoried for their profit potential”(Evans, The “New” Jules Verne, 35).
In addition, the citizens of Paris themselves have become unfeeling cogs in a highly efficient but very repressive social wheel. Even the once-stylish and coquettish Parisian women are now cynical, hardened, career-minded, and distinctly masculine in their dress and manner.
For my readers of all things Jules Verne, is this story familiar to you? This was a complete surprise to me! A wonderful surprise, bien sûr. According to Arthur B. Evans in his article “The ‘New’ Jules Verne” (1995), this is a “lost” novel with many previous titles. The original version was titled “In the Year 2889) and was published in English in 1910 in a New York periodical called The Forum. The next year it was translated to French and published by Verne in Memoires de l’Academie d’Amiens and the published posthumously in a short-story collection Hier et demain with the title Au XXIXe siècle. I.O. Evans, a Jules Verne scholar, translated it into English in 1965 and gave this short story the title “In the Twenty-ninth Century: The Day of an American Journalist in 2889”.
“It is a rare and noteworthy event when a legendary author often cited as the ‘Father of Science Fiction’ suddenly reappears among us, some 100 years later, and describes for us how he visualized our world of today”. This futuristic novel, one of Verne’s earliest, could prove of “revolutionary significance for literary scholars” as well as his reading public (Evans, 36). For the purposes of this post, I am reading the French edition of Paris au XXe Siecle from Roman Hachette, 1994.
In thinking about this subject, Verne wrote Paris almost 100 years before the success of another science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury. His futuristic novel, Farenheit 451, is also about an oppressive society where books are outlawed in an attempt to eliminate all sources of uncomplicated happiness for its citizens. When a civilization is devoid of art, literature and music, there is no space for its citizens to think for themselves or access their own emotions. Bradbury’s society is disconnected and empty.
Unfortunately, Verne did not have the opportunity to publish his ideas of the future. His publisher refused this manuscript in 1863 shortly after the publication and immediate success of Verne’s first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. In hindsight, perhaps Hetzel was right in doing this. He explained in a letter to Verne:
My dear Verne, I would give almost anything not to have to write you today. You have undertaken an impossible task and, like your predecessors in such matters, you have not been able to pull it off well. It is much below the level of your Five Weeks in a Balloon. If you were to reread it one year from now, you would surely agree with me. It is tabloidish, and the topic is ill-chosen. 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] lackluster and lifeless. I am truly sorry to have to tell you this, but I believe that publishing this would be a disaster for your reputation. … You are not yet ready to write a book like this. Wait twenty years, and then try it again….
Hetzel did not find the hypothesis interesting at all. He suggested that this topic would be better served by Dumas, “My dear Verne, even if you were a prophet, no one today would believe this prophecy they simply would not be interested in it (37).”
What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel that Verne could have had the great success of 20,000 Leagues, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Around the World in 80 days if Paris au XXe Siecle had been published first? Could Verne’s readers have separated the fantastical from the morose? Was this a good decision by Hetzel?
Evans does believe so. He believes that “this novel’s basic story-line contradicts the general public’s popular image of what a work by the legendary Jules Verne should be: i.e., an exciting Industrial-Age epic which glorifies scientific exploration and technological innovation”. Evans believes that Verne’s readers were looking for the occasional flashes of wit and humor instead of the dark and troubling tales of the future in Paris. “Instead of epic adventure, the reader encounters pathos and social satire. Instead of intrepid heroes going ‘where no one has gone before,’ the reader shares the life of a lonely and angst-ridden poet. Instead of an action-packed yarn about Man’s conquest of Nature, the reader witnesses Nature’s conquest of a man” (37).
As of today, October 27, 2021, Paris continues to provide the world with masterpieces in art, literature, music, ballet, and theatre. It is still my favorite city to visit and live. I will take this dark journey with Verne in Paris au XXe Siecle through a different Paris in order to appreciate his imagination and genius of writing fiction. This is why I read!
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
The “New” Jules Verne Author(s): Arthur B. Evans Source: Science Fiction Studies , Mar., 1995, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 35-46 Published by: SF-TH Inc Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4240396
Jules Verne. Paris au XXe Siecle, 1994. Paris: Hachette Livre