Albert Robida, The Twentieth Century
(Wesleyan University Press, 2004)
Jules Verne, Paris in The Twentieth Century (Ballantine Books, 1996)
These books are both recent and first English translations of novels written by French authors during the last half of the nineteenth century. As their titles suggest, both are speculative fantasies that look ahead into The Twentieth Century. I started this adventure by reading the Robida book, which Wesleyan University Press was kind enough to send to the Green Man offices for review. The introduction in Robida led me immediately to purchase and read the Verne book. I decided the best way to talk about the one was by comparing and contrasting it with the other.
I initially learned about The Twentieth Century from a brief blurb that appeared a few weeks ago in the New Scholarly Books section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper marketed to academic types like me. Now what would make a translation of a nineteenth century French novel scholarly, you might ask? Well, this is indeed the first English translation of a work originally published in 1882. As if that weren't enough to justify its treatment as a scholarly work, the translator, Philippe Willems, a native of France currently teaching at an American university, has written a 50-plus page introduction that could easily pass as an article published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Wesleyan spared no expense with this magnificent edition. It's an oversize trade paperback, designed so that its cover has fold-in flaps that mimic those on a conventional dust jacket. Willems' introduction provides an excellent overview of this particular work and its place in literary context, as well as to the author's oeuvre, which is largely comprised of drawings. Indeed, the pages of the novel itself are full of the detailed black and white illustrations that appeared in the original French editions. Although I wouldn't go so far as to call The Twentieth Century a graphic novel, it is certainly a heavily illustrated novel, more so than most fiction of this period. This edition also contains extensive and very useful endnotes, a bibliography of Robida's published work and of other texts written about his work, and a brief biography of Robida.
So, what is The Twentieth Century about? Alas, the story is the weakest
part of this otherwise quite splendid book. In 1952 seventy years later than
its initial publication a rather naïve and pretty young woman named Hélène
returns to Paris with her two distant cousins from a school they have attended
in Brittany for the last several years. The cousins' father, Raphaël Ponto,
is an immensely wealthy financier who has adopted Hélène. Now
that the three young women have completed their education, M. Ponto urges them
all to find careers. The plot, such as it is, follows Hélène through
several unsuccessful attempts to accomplish that task, until at last she finds
happiness by marrying M. Ponto's son Philippe. A number of the early presentations
of The Twentieth Century in France were serialized, which makes a great
deal of sense, given the episodic nature of the story.
Robida's illustrations in The Twentieth Century are fine for portraying the buildings, costumes and vehicles that he imagines in 1950s Paris. His narrative is essential to elaborating some of his more complex flights of fancy, such as the carefully staged decennial revolutions or the prisons that resemble theme parks. He combines drawings with text in explaining other phenomena, including the catering companies that deliver food and beverages to subscriber households via pneumatic tubes that sometimes don't work quite the way they are intended and the telephonoscope, a device that enables M. Ponto to watch live theatre in the comfort of his study.
Robida seems particularly interested in speculating about women's liberation. He shows his female characters dressing in fairly short skirts and explains that women have successfully taken over several professional domains, including law. Although Hélène isn't much of a role model, M. Ponto's wife, for example, is a leader in the Feminist Party while his two daughters quickly assume management positions in the family's far-flung financial empire.
In his introduction, Willems devotes considerable attention to drawing comparisons between the Robida book and Jules Verne's Paris in The Twentieth Century. So I suppose it was only natural for me to want to read the latter, as well. I easily found a copy in the science fiction section of our local Borders store, where I had already picked it up and flipped through it more than once.
As I noted above, this book is also available for the first time ever in English, translated by Richard Howard, a poet and English professor with childhood memories of other Verne fiction. In his very brief introduction to this slim, unassuming volume, Eugen Weber (a retired history professor) explains that Verne's great-grandson found the unpublished manuscript for Paris in The Twentieth Century in a safe he opened in 1989 when he was preparing for the sale of a family home. It was later confirmed to be a text that Verne's publisher rejected in 1863 because he didn't think it would sell as well as the author's other works.
I must confess that I haven't read any of Verne's other works since I was in my teens. My most recent connection to him prior to this was through viewing episodes of the short-lived SciFi Channel series The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. So I am definitely not qualified to compare this book to his other writings. However, I can say without hesitation that, although it is considerably shorter than Robida's book, has truly dreadful line drawings scattered throughout its pages, and features terribly sketchy endnotes, Paris in The Twentieth Century is much better than the former, in terms of both plot and character. I can almost hear the writers in the audience muttering, "I'm not surprised!"
Writing some twenty years earlier than Robida, Verne was far less optimistic about the future. In part, this may be a matter of focus while Robida's main characters are all social elites who are fully invested in the social order, Verne keeps his attention on people who live at the margins of society and are quite critical of it. Like Robida's Hélène, Verne's protagonist Michel is a somewhat naïve young person just completing his formal education. Like Hélène, Michel is the ward of a wealthy financier who advises him to find gainful employment. But Michel has a well-developed sense of self and a talent that he would like to use. He is a poet. In fact, as the story opens in 1960, he is receiving a prize for Latin verse from the so-called Academic Credit Union, amid loud taunts from his classmates. His guardian reacts in an equally negative manner when he learns of this unwelcome recognition
The story line follows Michel through a series of tedious clerical and low-level copy writing jobs for which he is completely ill-suited. It appears that this society handsomely rewards creativity that is directed toward practical application but has no particular use for pure artistry. This is evidenced in one of the book's most detailed scenes, Michel's visit to the Five Quarters Bookstore on the one day off he gets between his graduation and the commencement of his initial paid employment. The bookstore is actually an immense warehouse where patrons must ask for the works they want to buy. Michel asks for books by Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, two nineteenth century French writers who would have been among Verne's own favorites. The clerk can't help him with these at all, but instead tries to sell him books with titles like A Practical Treatise for the Lubrication of Driveshafts.
Michel's existence could be truly miserable, but Verne gives him a few wonderful friends whose presence relieves the misery and provides inspiration. These include Michel's long-lost Uncle Huguenin, a librarian who has filled his small apartment with copies of all those forgotten literary works; Monsieur Quinsonnas, who maintains the ledger at the Casmodage Bank but has a secret life as a musician and composer; and Monsieur Richelot, Michel's classics teacher, who appears at Uncle Huguenin's apartment for dinner one day with his lovely granddaughter Lucy. The scenes in which combinations of these characters share their dreams are quite beautifully written, reminding me of similar scenes in some of Emile Zola's novels, particularly The Belly of Paris and L'Assomoir.
Yes, Verne spends some of his narrative explaining aspects of Paris in The Twentieth Century, such as the aforementioned bookstore and bank, a theatre company, a busy seaport and an elevated railroad. I did not find that these expository passages detracted from the overall story. Verne kept them to a reasonable length and connected them to the plot in ways that flowed nicely.
Paris in The Twentieth Century ends on a sad note during a winter so cold that the major rivers of Europe freeze solid, the food crops of Provence are destroyed, and all the technological innovations celebrated by this society are unable to prevent widespread starvation. I can easily understand why Verne's publisher was so reluctant to pick up this title!
If you are looking for a relatively weak story comprised of a lot of funny and intriguing ideas strung together by equally funny and intriguing illustrations, check out Robida's The Twentieth Century. Willems' introduction offers a fascinating discussion of this odd genre of speculative fantasy, especially if you are relatively comfortable with the language of postmodern theory (how about a subheading titled Hermeneutic Heterogeneity?). If you are looking for a good, compelling story with sympathetic characters and a plot that will leave you more than a little troubled, go for Verne's Paris in The Twentieth Century. Either way, you're in for an interesting experience!