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Purely as a work of literature, Paris in the Twentieth Century lacks the qualities of the best novels that have insured Verne's reputation for over a century. Nonetheless, Paris in the Twentieth Century will be of interest to readers for two primary reasons, because of its prophecies, but even more because of its early position in the development of dystopian science fiction. On the most basic, surface level, Paris in the Twentieth Century is an astonishing book for its depiction of the modern age. Written in 1863, the story is set in the Paris of the 1960s. Paris in the Twentieth Century concerns a 16-year-old, Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates, with a devotion to literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a futuristic world where only technological writing is favored. The officially sanctioned creativity is government sponsorship of the arts, resulting in lowbrow theater for the masses.
Dufrénoy determines to be an artist, working on his own, but finds that his book of poetry is impossible to sell, and soon he is starving in the winter's cold, one of the few forces of nature that science has yet to overcome. In despair, he spends his last sous to buy violets for his beloved, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment, evicted when her father lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. In a moving but excessively melodramatic climax, the heartbroken Dufrénoy, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen, mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjectivity becomes steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair, unconsciously circles an old cemetery. Dufrénoy encounters the modern tool of criminal execution-the electric chair (yet another scientific prediction, opposed to the guillotine of Verne's time)-before freezing to death.
The macabre imagery of this peroration to Paris in the Twentieth Century may be inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was one of Verne's principal models as a writer, and was also the subject of Verne's only literary essay-written at the time of Paris in the Twentieth Century. Poe may have also provided direct impetus for the characterization of Dufrénoy. Like his portrayal of Dufrénoy, Verne believed that Poe's potential creativity had clashed with the uncongenial background of an industrial, material society in America. The strange end of Poe's life may even have provided the idea for the bizarre climax of Paris in the Twentieth Century and the death of Dufrénoy.
Verne's prophecies of the world to come in Paris in the Twentieth Century, both in technical and cultural terms, are breathtaking in their extent and nearly unerring accuracy. Virtually every page is crowded with evidence of Verne's ability to forecast the science and life of the future, from feminism to the rise of illegitimate births, from email to burglar alarms, from the growth of suburbs to mass-produced higher education, including the dissolution of humanities departments. Perhaps Verne's most amusing error was in anticipating that the government would conduct itself in such a businesslike way as to show a dividend.
However, Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, rejected Paris in the Twentieth Century as simply unbelievable. He also disapproved of the pessimistic, dystopian tone of the novel, believing that it would not attract readers and might potentially destroy Verne's promising career after the publication of his first scientific adventure and popular success, Cinq Semaines en ballon. Not all of Hetzel's judgments were so questionable. He also recognized that from the standpoint of the requirements of novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century was structurally weak, particularly in the narrative elements Hetzel believed were so necessary in speculative fiction. While characterization was seldom Verne's strength as a writer, usually the fault was obscured by the context of the story, with an adventurous, scientific, fantastic, or comedic setting. In Paris in the Twentieth Century Verne centers his narrative, for the only time, on self-consciously artistic characters-and the results are noticeably neither credible nor intriguing.
Paris in the Twentieth Century was translated into English by Richard Howard, previously familiar to Vernians for translating into English the essays on Verne of such prominent theoreticians as Roland Barthes and Michel Butor. Howard's translation of Paris in the Twentieth Century is generally literal, faithful to the wording and syntax of Verne, to the point of preserving the flow of Verne's wording in an unwieldy manner for modern readers. However, Howard goes so far in this direction as to be unnecessarily awkward. He amplifies every nuance that surfaces from each phrase and verb conjugation in the process of translation, to the point of adding complexity that is not present in the original text (perhaps an echo of Howard's work translating many continental literary theorists). Howard thus creates more convoluted phrasing than was necessary, when a more direct and less complex style would have been more readable and still faithful to the text. Howard's most evident changes to the text are in format, such as inserting breaks in chapters where there are none. Howard also occasionally merges short paragraphs into fuller paragraphs, or consolidates brief, single-phrase sentences into longer, more properly grammatical sentences. By doing so, Howard loses some of the intended staccato effect of Verne's style and the meaning it creates; for instance, the impact of Dufrénoy expiring in the snow is lessened by combining into a single paragraph the final, closing lines of the novel.
Howard does not seem to know of the recent tradition of Verne translations over the last forty years, although his work falls squarely within the attempt to evoke a Verne closer to the original French texts than had been the case in 19th century translations. In conversation with this reviewer, Howard defended the inaccurate 19th century translations for their "wonderful tonality," and revealed that he was unaware of the serious literary studies of Verne outside of those that he had translated himself, describing Verne as analyzed only by a few "eccentrics."
13 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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This is a most singular work of science fiction indeed. Like many of the futuristic technological marvels Jules Verne described, this novel lay in obscurity, waiting for someone to come along and discover it. That someone was Verne's great-grandson, who in 1989 found the manuscript in an old safe that was thought to be empty. While I bought this book as soon as it was published, I have only now compelled myself to read it. I could not help but wonder if Verne would want this novel published now in its current form, especially given the fact it was one of his earliest writings, so I held off in respect to the founding father of science fiction. Having now read the novel, I must say it differs significantly from the other Verne novels I have read, expressing a maudlin and tragically pessimistic vision for the future of modern society. At the same time, its defense of the classics, arts and literature, and individual freedom is quite moving.
In one of the richest ironies in the history of literature, Verne's editor rejected the manuscript of Paris in the Twentieth Century because, in his own words, "No one today will believe your prophecy." As with so many of Verne's visionary ideas, however, fiction has now become fact. Among the wild ideas included in these pages are fax machines, horse-less carriages, a subway system, computers, calculators, and other modern luxuries we take for granted now. A much longer list could be produced, but I would contend that too much of the reaction to this "lost" novel has directed itself to Verne's prophecies fulfilled. Certainly, the basis of Verne's future society is built on technological accomplishment, but Paris in the Twentieth Century is a social commentary that rivals in its unnerving implications famous dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984.
Verne's vision of Paris in 1960 is a troubling one indeed; the wonders of technology have worked miracles on earth, yet humanity's savior has proceeded to become its curse. It's an action-oriented society, one run with great economy and efficiency. War has been made extinct because, once war progressed to the point that machines and not men were fighting each other, the whole thing seemed ridiculous. Life itself has become scientific, and in the process the society has given up its own humanity. There is no place for an idealistic dreamer such as Michel Dufrenoy in this world where the arts and literature have been completely forgotten; popular literature now consists of books such as The Lubrication of Driveshafts. Popular music is so un-melodic that it would make even John Cage cringe. Still, young Michel does try to become a modern man, taking a job (his first of many) in his guardian's bank. He finds friends in a long-lost uncle, one of his co-workers, his former teacher, and the lovely grand-daughter of the latter. Even still, his life of quiet desperation grows more and more disheartening and threatens to make him a martyr for the forgotten cause of the arts.
Verne's warnings over the possible dangers of the technology he is famous for espousing makes for an intriguing read. Through Michel, Verne gives the reader a crash course on the history of French literature and thought as well as a primer of sorts on musical history. Some critics say the characters of this novel are ephemeral, but I found them all quite compelling, especially the main character Michel. The only real issue I have with the book is the fact that Verne basically left matters unresolved; while this is indeed effective in terms of Michel, I yearned to know the ultimate fates of the extraordinary friends he had acquired. While there are a few comical bits in this book, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a somber, very serious book warning of the possible unintended consequences of modernization. It shows Verne as a true visionary as well as a social critic and devoted lover of literature. This book is so rooted in the French ideals of Verne's time that those who, like me, are not overly familiar with the context in which Verne was writing may not appreciate and understand all of the text's nuances, but its prophetic warnings are even more timely now than they were in 1863.