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Julian Meynell's Books

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Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne,  Brian W. Aldiss, Michael Glencross Spoilers

This is Jules Verne's masterpiece and not 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as it is usually credited to be.

Before beginning, I want to address a criticism of the book that it is pro-colonial and racist, which given the era that it was written in is a grossly unfair criticism of the book. Verne does talk positively of the British Raj, but his view is nuanced. He sees colonialism as bringing benefits and drawbacks, as is made clear by his criticism of the British opium trade. His view is very much in line with the modern Indian view which sees the British as being an invader bringing certain benefits to India which are absorbed into its culture, and talks of cultural preservation, so it is a nuanced view, which sees good where there is good and bad where there is bad. Seeing something problematic with Verne is especially unfortunate because Phineas Fogg one of the two main characters marries an Indian Princess and a widowed one at that, and this is presented as entirely non-problematic and a desirable romance, which puts him a century ahead of his time. Seeing Verne as a uncritical defender of colonialism is to look through an inappropriate and narrow lens, which is all the more wrong, because the book is about the world becoming small and the merging and coexistence of cultures. It is a book that celebrates the global village.

Having addressed what I think are criticisms that are unfair, I want to talk a little about what makes this book good. The books plot is contained in its title. It is about a British eccentric who makes a bet to travel around the world in eighty days, accompanied by his servant Passepartout. The book at the time it was written was very topical. The transcontinental railroad of the USA was then five years old and the Indian railway just completed. The round the world trip that Verne describes had only just become possible. The fact that this caused a shrinkage of the world was grasped by Verne and as always because of his scientific optimism is seen as purely positive. The central message of the book is that this allows a positive shrinking and merging of cultures and a mutual understanding. That is most clearly symbolized by Fogg's marriage to the Indian Princess.

In order to convey this message Verne imagines a trip around the world taking eighty days. What makes the book more successful than either 20,000 Leagues or Journey to the Center of the Earth is that instead of writing as a drama Verne writes as a comedy and in particular borrows certain structural elements from Don Quixote. Verne, ever the dreamer, instead of making his eccentric dreamer mad, he makes his prophetic and a role model and reverses the message of Don Quixote. His Quixote is prophetic and not deluded, but he has the same eccentricities and dedication that Quixote has and the same dedication to a romantic ideal.

Verne's books can bog down, but 80 Days does not at all. The journey with its race against time is mirrored by the pacing of the book. My addition worked out to 2 and a half pages a day. This speed helps Verne to avoid the pacing problems that can plague him. In addition, there is a picaresque like quality to the book as we move from adventure to adventure, with the adventures connected only by the structure of a journey. Also, characterization and psychology which can be problems for Verne are ameliorated by the book being fundamentally a comedy. Certain reviewers on this site have criticized the book for being unrealistic in parts and this is beside the point. The sort of villain of the piece Detective Fix pursues Fogg around the world on the basis of essentially no evidence at all and repeatedly tries to arrest him. The absurdity of the situations works fine. Many of the scrapes, such as Passpartout being captured by the Sioux, rescuing the Indian Princess or being drugged in a Chinese opium den are both adventurous and comedic.

The book is in many ways an Anglophile book. Verne clearly admires the British for their embrace of technology and their phlegmatic attitudes. Verne is always on the side of reason over emotion and always on the side of science and technology. He sees the British as the exemplars of that. At first it is surprising that Verne, a frenchman, makes the servant who while loyal is not that bright also a Frenchman, but it is really Passpartout who is the central character in the book. His loyalty to his master initiates him into the modern world of globalization and it is this loyalty that allows him to experience and feel the new shrinking globe. It is really fundamentally his story and the story begins with his hiring.

I had previously found Verne most interesting for his role in the invention of Science Fiction. I found him to be inferior to the other key figure Wells, because Well's was torn between intellectual optimism about science and emotional pessimism and it is this tension that makes his work so interesting. Verne with his unreserved optimism could not compete, but in this book by embracing comedy and abandoning drama Verne can have his cake and eat it to.

Around the World in Eight Days is a kind of reverse Quixote and has a charming love of globalism that would be impossible today. A very good book.