Umberto Eco on Jules Verne

Umberto Eco writes of the great science-fiction author on the centenary of his death in an article that was published on 11 April, 2005, in L’Espresso:


we were boys, we were divided into two groups: those that held to
Salgari [Italian author Emilio Salgari] and those that held to Verne. I
quickly confess that at that time I held for Salgari, and now History
compels me to revisit my opinions of that time. Salgari, retold, cited
from memory, loved for all the colors it gave one’s infancy, no longer
seduces new generations or – to tell the truth – the elders either.
When they reread him in search of a little ironic nostalgia, the reading
simply makes them tired, and too many of those mangroves and wild pigs
come to be an annoyance.

Instead, in 2005 we are celebrating the
centenary of the death of Jules Verne, and not only in France are there
daily and weekly conventions dedicated to him, searching to demonstrate
the many ways that his fantasies anticipated reality. A look at the
editorial catalogs in our country suggest to me that Verne was
republished far more often than Salgari, to say nothing of France, where
there exists an absolute industry of Vernian antiquities. The old
hardbound Hetzel editions are certainly very beautiful. (In Paris, on
the Left Bank alone, there are at least two stores possessing these
splended volumes laid out in red and gold, offered at a prohibitive

For all the merits that our Salgari must be remembered,
the father of Sandokan did not have a great sense of humor, (not unlike
the rest of his characters, with the exception of Yanez), while the
romances of Verne were full of humor. It is enough to remember those
splendid pages of “Michele Strogoff” where, after the battle of Kolyvan,
the reporter from the Daily Telegraph, Harry Blount, goes to the
telegraph office and spends thousands of rubles transmitting verses of
the Bible* to his corrispondent in Paris in order to impede his rival,
Alcide Jolivet. But Jolivet succeeds in robbing Blount of his position
at the telegraph and blocks him in turn by transmitting the little songs
of [François] Béranger.

“Hallo!” said Harry Blount.
“Just so,” answered Jolivet.”

And tell me if this is not style!

reason for this fascination is that many futuristic stories, read at a
temporal distance when that future is already known, leaves the reader a
little disappointed, because the things that truly happened, the
inventions that were actually realized, are more marvelous than those
imagined by the books of the previous era. With Verne this is not so,
no atomic submarine will be more technologically wonderful than the
Nautilus and no dirigible or jumbo jet will ever be as fascinating as
the majestic helix ship of Robur the Conquistador….

And if we
do not have the money to buy the old Hetzel editions from antique
bookstores and we are not satisfied with the contemporary re-editions?
You can go on the Internet, to the address
There a gentleman by the name of Zvi Har’El, a collector of all the
news of Verne, has a list of the worldwide celebrations, a complete
bibliography, an anthology of sayings, 304 incredible stamps dedicated
to Verne from various countries, translations in Hebrew, and most of
all, a virtual library where you can find integral texts of Verne in
various languages and see the original French editions as well all of
the engravings to save and afterwards enlarge as you like because,
sometimes, we are even more captivated the second time.

of the most decent things about writers, a famously indecent lot, is
that they are one of the few disciplines who trouble to remember those
who went before.

*Eco makes an uncharacteristic mistake here,
as “the verses learned in his childhood” do not refer to the Bible, but
rather “the well-known verses of Cowper”, which is to say, William
Cowper, the English poet.