Rather disappointed by Jules Verne’s Master of the World (1904), I thought I’d give him another try. After all, Raymond Roussel had been so zealous about Verne as to forbid people in his presence from even mentioning the writer’s name lest it be sullied, and Verne’s clever linguistic games – presumably absent in English translation – had been an influence on the complex linguistic underpinnings of Roussel’s own narratives. I knew too that older translations into English of Verne’s works had a poor reputation, so perhaps the fault lay there. Skeptically, I embarked on his posthumous novel The Golden Volcano (1906) – its first complete English translation, issued in 2008.
The Golden Volcano helped revive for me - a bit - the spell I’d once experienced reading Verne. If not exactly a page-turner, the novel provided a moderately engrossing story of two Montreal cousins who inherit a Klondike gold mining claim and head west to see what it’s worth. Adventures ensue. Some of the trudging style from Master of the World persists here: Verne takes a full third of this 330 page book to describe, again in strictly linear narrative and encompassing granularity, the trip from Montreal to the mining claim outside the Klondike capital of Dawson City. A lot of numbers get bandied about in The Golden Volcano - claims, populations, monetary figures, geographical coordinates - amounting to a formidable display of research skills. I particularly liked a lengthy list of prices for commodities and services in Dawson City, culminating in reference to “an ordinary bath” costing $2.50, but a Russian bath costing $32.00 (that’s the one I would have wanted). But this informational accretion also weighs down the narrative, the quest for inclusiveness sometimes resulting in an awkward, Dan-Brown-style grafting of factual specifics onto the story. It’s reasonable to assume that Verne provides such meticulous detail - most of it employed in exposition leading up to his main story - partly to point out the fragility of human endeavors and the folly of greed, since all of that effort, as he illustrates at the end of the novel’s first part, can be wiped out by a sudden, indifferent act of nature.
But it’s clear too that Verne is attempting to transmit an enduring portrait of the hardship and human hysteria involved in the gold rush. I had expected adventure in Verne, but not such sweeping historical and social interest. With an attention to realistic portrayal that calls to mind Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, Verne vividly depicts the difficulties of the trek of thousands of fortune seekers to the remote gold fields of the Klondike, and the wretched conditions of the miners’ camps, boom towns, and perilous routes. While far more laconic than Dreiser (with whose descriptions a reader could have followed the route without need of map, compass or guide), Verne displays a similar attention to the downtrodden, most memorably in this instance, the women and children collapsing along the mountain passes or freezing to death in the towns and camps, completely unprepared for the ferocious Arctic winter.
The second part of the novel departs significantly from this naturalistic account. The cousins, possessing a crudely sketched map and a legend left them by a dying Frenchman (Franco-centrism seems to appear like a watermark in Verne’s books), head north to the Arctic sea in search of a legendary volcano of gold, and also into territory much more like the adventurous Verne that I’d remembered. One of the pleasures of reading Verne, despite his one-foot-in-front-of-the-other narrative style, lies in the fuzzy zone between realism and fantasy, most evident here in his cartoonish description of the volcano itself. Golden Mount, perched at the edge of the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the MacKenzie river, rises straight from the tundra, with sides of “at least a 70 degree angle” and a flat plateau on top from which the travelers can gaze into a caldera “75-80 feet in circumference” (in other words, a mere 25 feet across), from which smoke belches and flames flicker. Verne’s understanding of geological processes seems comical; an earthquake strong enough to change the course of a river is felt an entire mile away, and the functioning of the volcano seems more akin to a case of nausea than to a geological process (Verne says as much when a character later compares an eruption to an emetic). But the conception is too appealing to dismiss - or would be to young readers, anyway - a volcano that “would throw out the gold-bearing substances, nuggets, and gold dust along with the lava and slag,” such that one could “simply gather them up.” Nifty. Verne seems to have understood what Hollywood special effects makers, decades later, would know so well: that verisimilitude is entirely dispensable if one can manage to induce a willing suspension of disbelief.
The characters in The Golden Volcano have limited psychological complexity, but the situations in which they find themselves provide enough mystery, suspense and rich historical detail to maintain a modicum of interest, and enough amusing creative touches (“Stop” – what a perfect name for a dog) to elicit a few smiles. If revisiting Verne may have been disappointing overall, I could nonetheless appreciate that I might well have loved these books - The Golden Volcano in particular - if I’d read them at the right age. That age gap intrigues me; after all, other books from childhood - Treasure Island, Captain Blood, Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – have held up well under rereading. Jules Verne’s magic, however, seemed to me relatively diminished. Maybe I’ve become relatively diminished. In any case, I found enough engagement on this second attempt to eventually try one of Verne’s works in the original French. After all, there’s an entire bookshop in Paris devoted to him, and perhaps those French readers, even those lacking Raymond Roussel’s fanaticism, are accessing something I am not.