Thursday, January 16, 2014

Revisiting Jules Verne, Part I: Master of the World

I had assumed that my days of reading Jules Verne ended when I was about 12 years old. However, he’d been floating about in my head since I read of Raymond Roussel’s obsession with him, and a bout of insomnia one night prompted me to pull out an old, unread Airmont paperback of Master of the World featuring an overblown cover illustration of a man in an orange jumpsuit piloting what looked like a toilet.

I was surprised to find that the book took place in the U.S., and more surprised to find that it began in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, where I had spent much time during my youth (having somehow never noticed a volcano Verne places there).[i] The novel then ranges around the nation, from Wisconsin to Cape Cod, from Washington, D.C. to Kansas, from Niagara Falls to the Gulf of Mexico, following the appearances of a mysterious, superfast hybrid contraption, “The Terror.” “The Terror” ruffles the placid surface of American life and sends ripples of concern into the top echelons of the federal police. M. Strock, a police inspector, is assigned the task of investigating, partly due to his insatiable curiosity. In fact it’s this curiosity that helps drive the novel, since Strock is irresistibly drawn towards resolving the mystery even as he faces the danger of pursuing the megalomaniacal, self-described “Master of the World” revealed, in a series of letters, to be behind the events. At one point finding himself on the mysterious vehicle itself, Strock alternates between safety and curiosity: “…to escape without having learned anything of the Terror’s secrets would not have contented me at all.” Strock hunts down his prey across America while at the same time manifesting an inquisitiveness  about the mad genius’ futuristic invention that threatens to distract him from his aim.

Like his main character, Verne appears irrepressibly and contagiously curious about the future. This curiosity is evident in Verne’s trademark anticipatory enthusiasm for science: “So this machine fulfilled a four-fold use! It was at the same time automobile, boat, submarine and airship. Earth, sea and air – it could move through all three elements! And with what power! With what speed!” More interesting to me, Verne’s curiosity is also evident in Master of the World’s occasional, pointed commentaries concerning the United States, the character of its people and its future. Verne seems alternately fascinated and repelled by the new nation, predicting its ascendency to world power - “It goes without saying that America does things on a magnificent scale” - yet daunted by its steamrolling energy and rapaciousness, noting, in reference to an automobile race, that “the death of men is but a detail, not considered of great importance in that astonishing country of America.” A kind of fervor for exacting detail is also manifest in Verne’s keen attention to geographical particulars; were he alive today he’d certainly be gaga over Google Earth (and would likely have avoided the one glaring misstep in his otherwise careful research for Master of the World: placing a vast mountain lake some 40 miles west of Topeka, Kansas).

But having read Verne as a child, I was disappointed, reading him as an adult, to find what a dull writer he could be in this boyish boy's tale. In part, this stemmed from a linear narrative in which details amassed along the way as though Verne were afraid to move from Point A to Point B without stopping every five feet. It also arose from that most maddening fault a mystery writer can commit: letting the reader get ahead of the detective, such that the former spends tedious paragraphs, and sometimes pages, waiting for the latter to catch up to a conclusion already known from a single preceding sentence. I can also add that the book ended in a heated rush, as though Verne (perhaps having nodded off over his map of Kansas) had finally decided to call it a night and just slapped on an expedient ending borrowed from a previous novel (Robur, the Conqueror), a dissatisfying conclusion that saps the novel’s sense of mystery and implies serious memory lapses in his detective.

Reading Master of the World served as one of those curious experiences of getting to know an author again for the first time and having to revise one’s childhood impressions via an adult looking glass. I marveled that I could ever have found him so enthralling. The elements of the fantastic that had so enchanted me reading 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea so many years ago here seemed but mildly engaging, not quite enough to hold my interest for long. And while I could admire Verne’s forward thinking as well as his admirable model of a curiosity so intractable (at least as reflected in his narrator) as to place strong value in a high degree of risk-taking, I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for Master of the World - as a novel, anyway. As a soporific, it worked wonders.

Tomorrow: a second attempt at Verne.

[i] However, The Great Eyrie, as described by Verne, bears a striking resemblance to Mount Pilot, further north in the state near the town of Mt. Airy, most famous as the model for Mayberry R.F.D. in the old Andy Griffith television series, a link I did not expect to find with Jules Verne.


  1. Too bad this did not hold the luster it did if you were younger. I too think that I would have loved this as a child. The flaws that you mention would likely be a problem for me too.

    Have you ever seen the 1961 film version of this book staring Vincent Price? I loved it when very young but have not seen it in years.

    1. Brian - I have not seen the film, but I'm a great fan of Vincent Price and would like to seek it out. He'd make a perfect "Master of the World."