Viaggio al centro di Jules Verne

Umberto Eco writes of the great science-fiction author on the centenary of his death:

April 11, 2005

When 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 price.)

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!

Another 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.

One 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.