Sunday, September 18, 2011

Around the World in Eighty Days

It was the last week of August and I wanted a fast-paced adventure to send summer off. Jules Verne didn't let me down. The premise is simple, but leaves plenty of room for plot twists. Phileas Fogg, a man of mechanically precise routine, wagers a large sum that he can travel around the world in eighty days. Accompanied by his loyal but occasionally bumbling servant, he embarks on a journey which allows no room for delay or missed connections. Fogg is pursued around the world by Detective Fix, who believes Fogg to be a bank robber and has vowed to arrest him as soon as the warrant arrives. Will Phileas Fogg's mathematical precision bring him back to London in time, or will natural disasters and human error result in his forfeit of £20,000?
     This novel was originally published as a serial, which is obvious by the cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter. Part of the appeal for Verne's original audience was the descriptions of exotic countries and of various steamers and railway lines. The reader could truly become an armchair traveller as s/he followed Fogg's progress in a biweekly French magazine.
     I was struck by Fogg's mathematical precision and imperturbable calm in the face of repeated delays. No matter how difficult the situation appears, Fogg remains unruffled. If he loses time in one leg of the journey, he is confident that he will make it up at a future time. In his mind, all delays and mishaps are foreseen and prepared for. This brought a smile to my face one day while I was sitting at a red light, 13 minutes away from a destination at which I was due in 7 minutes. Fogg remained placid in the face of a major financial loss; why should I chafe over a few minutes?
     Plot movement depends heavily on weather developments, local occurrences, human ingenuity and pushing the limits of mechanical performance. Throughout the novel we see industry and nature bump up against each other, sometimes with thrilling resolutions. Verne's opinion of industry and modernity remains resolutely positive throughout the book.  The railway doesn't trample nature or destroy the livelihood of peasants, it slips quickly through forest and plains, avoiding dangers and inconveniences along the way.  This positive view of modernity and industrialization contrasts sharply with the opinions of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, the authors I read in the two weeks preceding this one. At first I thought that part of this could be attributed to Verne's location in the 1870s, versus that of Lawrence in the 1910s-20s: perhaps Lawrence saw effects of industrialism that Verne never anticipated?  But this hypothesis is faulty as Hardy was a compatriot of Verne's, publishing in the 1870s as well.
     Despite the positive outlook of Around the World, I don't wish to paint Verne as a saccharine optimist; some of his other works show a much darker point of view.  The most famous example is Verne's lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Verne wrote it in 1863 but his editor suggested he set it aside for 20 years (do most editors take such a long view of things?) because it was too dystopian and technologically unbelievable. Verne put it in a safe, and it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989 and published in 1994. That's right, just 17 years ago.  Oh, and some of the unbelievable things Verne predicted? Gasoline-powered cars, mutually assured destruction, electric chairs, calculators, computers, the internet, high-speed trains and skyscrapers. Nothing about Wonder Bread though...perhaps too dystopian for a Frenchman.

mathematicalicious hero: Phileas Fogg
goofy manservant: Passepartout
warrant-less stalker: Detective Fix
Fogg's pasttimes: reading newspapers, playing whist
there was a lot of: trains, steamers, generous tips, exotic locales, delays, improvisations
there should have been more: adding more description would have slowed the plot down too much, so I will excuse the general lack of  food (I really need to start eating something before I write these blog entries!)
this book makes you want to: be prepared, pay attention, keep calm and carry on, visit a place you've always wanted to see, not freak out when your precious schedule encounters a slight delay
this book makes you glad you don't have to: sit on a steamship for 21 days to get from Tokyo to San Francisco or be cremated alive with your deceased husband in an Indian suttee, everything else sounds pretty good...well, except for the opium den. And the railroad tracks ending in the middle of a jungle. And the typhoon. Also being captured by Indians and dueling on a moving train.


Anonymous said...

I love your mission for the year and your perspective; however I was wondering if you have given thought to perhaps making a master list of all the books you have read to date? I think that others as well as myself would find it helpful, and you may even find it encouraging.

Kara said...

That's an interesting idea, one I wish I had thought of when I was in high school. At this point I could not recall the titles of all the books I've read, especially if you count university textbooks and books I used to do research in school. If you want a list of only classic literature, I should be able to recall all those books. I think I'll do a separate blog entry on my literary past, and provide a link to a list. Thanks for your interest!