what a weird book.

October 5, 2008

A few weeks ago when I was going through my books for a garage sale, I noticed my childhood copies of Around the World in 80 Days and The Three Musketeers (both abridged). When I was thinking about keeping them, I realized that what I really should have are unabridged copies. So, the $5 copies were ordered from Chapters, my abridged versions got sold, and, now, the reading has begun.

I started with Around the World in 80 Days, because I remembered being really enthralled by the story and the characters. What a strange, strange book!

First, there are reasons why one shouldn’t necessarily buy the cheapest available version of a classic – the introduction to my Aladdin Classics edition says that in 1872, “Countries began forging the ties that, two centuries later, have become our tightly woven global economy” (xiv). I understand being a bit loose with those sorts of measures, but still…2072?

Anyway, Verne’s text itself is weird enough.

Most offputting were its confused attitudes towards the various cultures and countries encountered on Phileas Fogg’s journey. Indians (from India) are referred to as having “barbarous customs” and being fanatics, and Fogg’s interest in a young Indian woman is justified by the fact that she, “from her manners and intelligence, would be thought a European” (92).  She speaks English with “great purity” (104). At the same time, however, there are passages like this, that indicate Verne recognizes at least some of the problems of colonialism:

“What would these divinities think of India, anglicized as it is to-day, with steamers whistling and scudding along the Ganges, frightening the gulls which float upon its surface, the turtles swarming along its banks, and the faithful dwelling upon its borders?” (108)

When Fogg travels to America, Mormons get the same treatment. On one page, it’s suggested that polygamy is Mormonism’s “foundation” (224). Six pages later, “it must not be supposed that all the Mormons are polygamists” (230).

Americans themselves are rash and foolhardy (249, 241), and, of course, the Sioux attack Fogg’s train “like enraged monkeys” (252).

So, overall, Verne’s attitudes are pretty typical for his day, even if they get a bit muddled every once in a while.

The second interesting thing is the book’s focus on “the exact sciences”, meaning, especially, time, money, and branding. There’s a great deal of concentration on what things cost, what sort of things are bought, even before Fogg begins on his journey. And these sorts of terms are applied also to people: at one point, Fogg moves “mathematically” (140). Huh?

Fogg is the most fascinating element of the book, to me. He’s a lot like the great American character, Melville’s Bartleby. Everyone, including the narrator, is constantly trying to ascertain his motives and feelings, and Fogg defies all such speculation:

“If anyone, at this moment, had entered the Custom House, he would have found Mr. Fogg seated, motionless, calm, and without apparent anger, upon a wooden bench. He was not, it is true, resigned; but this last blow failed to force him into an outward betrayal of any emotion. Was he being devoured by one of those secret rages, all the more terrible because contained, and which only burst forth, with an irresistable force, at the last moment? No one could tell. There he sat, calmly waiting – for what? Did he still cherish hope? Did he still believe, now, that the door of this prison was closed upon him, that he would succeed?” (294-295)

I just wish that this characterization – the utterly inscrutable – was carried out all the way to the end. But, of course, it’s a good adventure story. So it ends with one of those neat endings I was talking about before.

Although, there’s a clever note even at the end – one of the characters has left his lamp burning the whole time, and his reward from the trip goes to paying back the bill.

I think I’ll move on to the Musketeers.