Captain Nemo at the Organ
Jules Verne. By Kenneth Mott. (Cresset Press. Iss.) a ANYONE who has worked for publishers will know how absorbed they are in the manufacture of biography—thinking out subjects and fitting them to authors. The very great, or very famous, man, in a new iconoclastic version (Lytton Strachey), is still the best bet ; but there are natural limits to the supply within the ideas and prejudices of one period. Cruel men of action and power, prostitutes, queans, eccentrics, frauds are likely sales, if their obscurity is balanced by their peculiarity. Romantic poets repeat well. But, generally, artists and writers are not favoured. They are not all like Goya, or Rimbaud, or Aretine ; their lives are not always active and eventful ; their role is not heroic ; they are apt to sneak round behind the haystack and watch the heroes jabbing and thrusting. So Mr. Allott, I think, is lucky to have found a publisher willing to accept a book on Jules Verne. Verne was not a man of action ; he collected other men's actions into a large library filled with maps. He was humdrum, with children and a wife. He lived in Amiens and wrote two books a year. His glamour is not in his bourgeois life, but in The Yourney to the Centre of the Earth and in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—Captain Nemo at the organ, while the octopus, object of marine biological research, hangs outside the
window. But his interest—that is another matter. He is a Great Exhibition man, a "Great Eastern" man, a Railway Age man, a Suez Canal man (Captain Nemo and the Canal were born within a year of each other), an Evolutionary Compromise man ; and his books and his tastes are worth thinking about as a point where all the processes leading to the nineteenth century, and lo to ourselves, come into focus. Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Franklin (his injunction : "Not to waste time "), Edgar Allan Poe, Beckford, Scott, Edward Irving, John Martin, Hudson the Railway King ; economics and industry and scientific application ; the wild, the ruined, the big ; the Individual, cut at last, though not apparently or confessedly so, from moral balance or the final, desperate idealisation of love —all this confused mixture of " advance " and "decline," in its effect upon the mass of humanity, becomes almost clear for a moment in such a popular author as Jules Verne ; and obviously Verne is a better man to choose for Mr. Allott's purpose than the more limited, though more active, artist-technicians of the century, men such as Fulton, Rennie, I. K. Brunel, James Nasmyth or Cornelius Varley.
Up to a point Mr. Allott focusses upon Verne with sharpness and nervous enthusiasm. He does not reel off Verne's life from birth (1828) to death (1905). He tells it in sections, and in between makes a relevant anthology of what else was happening in the world, and talks about science, romanticism, politics and the organisation and sanctions and compelling forces of European life. Here and there he makes comments which are shrewd and true. He detects and holds many things in one convincing image, as when he talks of the development of the habit of the child's money-box in the nineteenth century ; or when he describes Jules Verne, after the climax of 1870, writing on for another 35 years, "sometimes brilliantly, sometimes repetitively, but always tirelessly, like a mongoose running backwards and forwards along the wire-netting in front of its cage." He has been industrious. He flicks, in reference, from one thing to another ; but he does not always possess what he refers to. He uses names too often without a depth of knowledge behind them, which makes him say things—to be open—that are ignorant as well as silly, talking, for instance, of "Wordsworth retreating to the mountains," taking a cliché view elsewhere of Nietzsche, speaking oddly of Clare as though he and Chatterton coincided in spirit and time. Mr. Allott has looked at a few drawings by Samuel Palmer and then decided—an odd piece of Philistinism for a poet, and ignorance for an interpreter—that his trees are "thrown this
way and that by the same fury which sent share prices rocketing and hurled men up Everest or to the Poles.' His use of the word "same "—the "same fury "—recurs more or less when he comes a bit self-importantly, to one of his " discoveries ": that the Nineteenth Century and the Renaissance were much like each other, which he substantiates by saying that the Nineteenth Century thought it was much like the Renaissance. Paul Elmer More once pointed the whole ocean of difference in a quotation from Chapman:
Give me a spun that on this life's rough sea Loves t' have his sails fill'd with a lusty wind . There is no danger to a man that knows What life and death is Beside which it might be unfair to put Verne on himself : "0 my imagination, my imagination, neither a Crampton locomotive, nor an electric spark, nor a tropical cyclone can keep pace with you."
Mr. Allott may be right enough (though it has been said before) when he decides that we should not regret the romantic experiment in "absolute naturalism," between the Renaissance and now, but should regard it as an inevitable, necessary,- useful and gigantic experiment in living, which will teach us how to temper the natural law. It is certainly no good attributing " mistakes " to history or trying to correct them by retrogressive "movements." Mr. Allott gets to this end by an odd tropical forest route through the Nineteenth Century or, like Verne in at an Icelandic volcano and out in a rush through Stromboli. His book—in bits—is good enough to make one wish that his pomposities, scraps of pretension and cheapness (he comes down to writing "We are not amused ") had been smoothed away with still more industry and a more faithful regard for quality.