Jules Verne: Journey to the Centre of the Earth
This 1864 book was Verne’s fourth novel, but was the second one published in book form. This leapfrogged The English at the North Pole (or The Adventures of Captain Hatteras), then being serialised in the magasin d’education et de recreation, as well as Paris au XXe Siecle (Paris in the 20th Century), which was fated to be lost and finally saw the light of day in 1994. From the beginning, it is clear that between the writing of Five Weeks in a Balloon and Journey to the Centre of the Earth Verne had advanced his craft considerably. Whereas his first novel contained, and indeed started with, lengthy, dry descriptions and lists of scientific principles and names, Journey is much more character led, making it an easier and more enjoyable read.
The novel concerns Dr Liedenbrock, a German professor of minerology and polymath who discovers an ancient islandic text in his local bookshop. As he begins to translate it, out drops a leaf with a message on it, hidden by the author alchemist Arne Saknussemm. Once the runic code is cracked, the professor sets off with his nephew Axel to Iceland to follow Saknussemm’s route down an extinct volcano, and thence, after picking up a stoic Icelandic duck hunter named Hans, to penetrate to the centre of the Earth. The beginning section of the book is a breath of fresh after Five Weeks. The lists of equipment have largely dissapeared and in their place we see Axel attempting to dissuade the professor from making the journey because of the danger. Added to this is the rather nice twist that Axel is in love with the professors ‘ward’, Grauben. Axel attempts to get her to back him up in his arguments, but she sides with the professor, preferring Axel to become a famous adventurer before they marry. This is a lovely example of the humanity that Verne has started inject into his writings, dealing with actual characters rather heroic archetypes.
The story itself is somewhat dry, and only really picks up about halfway through the novel after there has been much travelling through Iceland, and then through the cave system in the Snaefellsjokull volcano. However, Verne’s writing style does little to excite the reader. The clash of titanic sea monsters amounts to little more than ‘there were some big monsters, they fought, we were scared’, and even the pathos of the discovery of an unimaginably vast plain of bones from creatures of all the geological ages is entirely short-circuited by the professor giving a lecture upon the descent and antiquity of man in a chapter suitably entitled ‘The Professor in his Chair Again’.
There are, however, two things that really impressed me about this book (about from the leaps and bounds Verne made in his characterization). The first is the way that the adventurers exit from the centre of the Earth which, unusually, is not rushed through and contains only a bare minimum of pontificating, and second is the character of Hans. Here Verne’s style actually comes into its own. In the withdrawn and indefatigable Icelander we have a character who’s motivations are, on the surface at least, purely pecuniary, yet there is a determination and fearlessness to him whose origins remain a mystery. He is a perfect example of the difference between Five Weeks and Journey; less is more. Likewise, the absentee character Arne Saknussemm looms large and is highly intriguing.
Despite its flaws, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a very readable book, but is hardly a thrill-ride. Verne intended this to be a somewhat didactic piece, particularly in his placement of certain creatures in their original geological context. However, I did not feel this came across particularly well as there was so much geological information thrown at you as the travellers wind their way down, then up, then down the caves at the beginning that you ended up glossing over it all and getting a bit lost. An intriguing book which shows off Verne’s erudition to the highest degree, but after reading it it quickly becomes clear why Conan Doyle chose to use the central premise from this as the basis of the far more exciting The Lost World. It’s a brilliant idea too dryly executed. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable step up for Verne.
Notes:— For this review I used the leatherbound Barnes & Noble edition of ‘Jules Verne, Seven Novels’. The book itself is beautifully put together and a joy to look at, but there are a surprising number of typo’s for such a ‘prestige’ volume. Further, whilst it is clear from the names of the characters used that this is not one of the earlier flawed translations in which a certain amount of unnecessary artistic licence was taken, the actual translation used (or whether it is a composite, or a retouched version) is not credited, again a sad omission for an otherwise excellent book.
Also, I have no idea how to put special characters in a wordpress post, so sorry for the lack of accents in names.