Saturday, June 30, 2012

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days has become perhaps Jules Verne's most well-known title. And yet more people are familiar with the cultural accretions than with the story itself. Witness the hot-air balloons that appear so frequently on the covers of the book, of which the only comment within them is a quick dismissal: it "would have been highly risky and, in any case, impossible."

Yes, Around the World in Eighty Days is the kind of book that everyone knows about and no one has read. But it is well worth reading. Phileas Fogg, the quintessential British gentleman, is wealthy, stuffy, phlegmatic, and punctual beyond all reason. His servant, Passepartout, is excitable, emotional, extremely loyal, and quintessentially French. When some cool remarks on the possibilities of modern travel excites slight agitation in the hallowed halls of the inaptly-named Reform Club, Phileas Fogg causes a sensation by wagering that he can circumnavigate the glove in eighty days. Before Passepartout can object, he finds himself whisked away from the comfortable Fogg residence, far away on a whirlwind tour of the globe which will be filled with danger, excitement, and suspense. And that's even without the detective Fix, Fogg's nemesis, who follows him in the unshakeable belief that Fogg is the bank robber he's after...

One of the really classic adventure yarns, a brisk there-and-back-again story, Around the World in Eighty Days is heaps of fun. Verne's pure storytelling powers are perhaps best displayed here, in a straight adventure story. The plot is extremely simple, yet extremely well constructed. The characters look like stereotypes--but conceal hidden depths: Passepartout rises to all occasions, Phileas Fogg does have a heart, and Aouda, the Indian widow they collect while disrupting her husband's funeral pyre, is not bad with a revolver.

Unlike most of Verne's books, this is the one with apparently the fewest science fiction elements. And yet, by a strict definition, it is science fiction. The book is entirely based upon the cutting-edge technology of the 1870s: steam train and boat. In an age when anyone with the money can book a plane fare and be on the other side of the world in a few hours or at most, days, the idea of being able to book train and boat journeys all the way around the world, in relative comfort and with only slight disruption from wild Indians (brown and red), does not seem as strange and wonderful as it did to the people of Verne's day.

But at that time this was new and wonderful. Could a man really circumnavigate the world in a brief eighty days? Step back a handful of decades to a time when the world was bigger and stranger, and look for some high adventure with Phileas Fogg and his faithful servant.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

I've seen two movie adaptations of this book. The 1958 version roughly follows the plot of the book, only adding in as many stereotypical national spectacles and famous-actor-cameos as possible. The 2004 version...best we forget, no matter how much we love Jackie Chan. Neither, of course, really does the book justice.

8 comments:

Lady Bibliophile said...

Oh, we LOVE this book. :D

"So you do have a heart after all?"
"When I have the time."

Or something like that.

And we've seen parts of both movies. Half of the 1958 version, and two minutes of the 2004 version. Couldn't bear any more. But do check out the audio version read by Jim Dale. He captures all the characters exactly. :)

Lucy P said...

Oh, I loved this book. Passepartout fearing he has left the gas on.....Fogg's stoicism when he thinks he has lost his bet....the portrayal of Aouda....I don't watch films, but the BBC did a wonderful radio adaptation some years ago which is regularly repeated on Radio4extra....internet listening is a wonderful thing!

Lillyput90 said...

I read this recently and was pleasantly surprised by how witty and fun it is! I didn't know what to expect, because a few years ago I had to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for English and I was bored to death with it! But the characters in Around the World are so fun and I love the adventure of it:). The turn of the century must have been such an exciting time for all who lived in it, and that is why some of the best novels in existence come from this era! Men were thinking about things differently, a novel could be so much more exciting with the advance of technology, and ideas were flowing freely through people's minds:). All of a sudden, the impossible was becoming possible! I think that this is the story that really shines out from Around the World:)

Kim Marsh said...

Perhaps any institution whose membership is drawn from one gender and one class may not be the most exciting of venues but in the C19th the Reform club as a prinipal meeting place of the Liberal party was not inaptly named. Otherwise an excellent review highlighting aspects of the novel easily missed ( easily missed by me anyway when I read it 46 years ago!).
Regards Kim

Suzannah said...

Well--maybe it's not so un-read as I thought it was!

Lillyput--ahh, you say that just as I'd begun to think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might be fun!

Kim--thanks for the background, I didn't know anything about the Reform Club apart from what this book said. Probably the Frenchman Jules Verne poking a bit more fun at the stiff-upper-lip Englishmen!

Lucy P said...

20,000 Leagues is a tad tedious, but Journey to the Centre of the Earth is well worth reading - very funny.

Joseph J said...

After having consumed a steady diet of John Buchan this year (for which I am ETERNALLY indebted to you for having introduced him to me), I found Around the World to be disappointingly bland. Vernes makes almost no attempt at visual descriptions of any kind, and his characters are flatter than I would have thought possible for a novel of that length. He has an infatuation with numbers that better suits him to be a math teacher than a novelist. I admit I enjoyed parts of it, and the basic concept of the characters and the plot were rather unique, but I imagine it would make a better radio script than a novel. Having run out of Buchan novels I can borrow (and not willing to buy any until I can buy a good set, preferably of every book he ever wrote) it is a great relief and joy to have discovered Lorna Doone. With writers like Buchan and Blackmore around, I'm afraid I won't be giving Vernes a second chance. We have only so much time in life.

Suzannah said...

Ah well, but so few writers look good compared to John Buchan...

The creation of Buchan fans is one of my favourite pastimes. Thank you so much for letting me know that I have introduced you to a good author; feedback is nice! By the way, keep an eye out at second-hand book sales; there are usually some odd Buchan books available at the ones I've come across. It has taken me a few years, but I now have quite a respectable Buchan collection, without too much of an outlay.

Lorna Doone is also well worth anyone's time, of course! Enjoy!

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