From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Endings (12)—Around the World in Eighty Days

[a] Le monde    RF
This is not a great book, but it surely is a fun one. I first read it as a fourth-grader, and remembered the various means of travel and the (still relatively fascinating) idea of getting around the world without the benefit of air carriers.  As I got older, I started to look at it a little more critically in terms of the writing. It struck me that Jules Verne became a master of entry-level suspense, and never brought his skills to significant new levels (this is not Tolstoy, people). Around the not deep stuff, but it works, and writers can learn a little bit about mixing up their prose to create at least a modicum of excitement on otherwise plodding pages. This is generally a good thing. Verne never rises as an author to the heights of multi-layered suspense, but he provides a good read, and that is worthy enough in its own right.

More significantly (and this is why he interests me a good deal), he was another one of those late-nineteenth century "ethnographers," who took a fancy toward almost anything that was other in the big, wide world. As I have already written many times, I wish to know a little bit about "what was in the water" in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, before anthropology became cemented as an independent discipline. Novelists writing about far-off places are most definitely part of that narrative, and I think that anthropologists have largely failed to articulate just how their discipline came to be (and to acknowledge our somewhat different kin).

Verne is kin, at least of a sort. He explored the surface of the globe, and then spent several volumes pursuing intineraries above and below it. The body of the work, the oeuvre, is rather more interesting than any single work on its own. That says something in its own right, and it is a little better than "damning with faint praise." Much better, really. I have gained a great deal of insight from reading (almost) all of Jules Verne's writings, while I don't think that even one of his books is particularly great. That is a point worth pondering in the future, and surely will be a part of the conversation when we discuss Journey to the Center of the Earth (the one that comes closest to greatness).

Fair warning. This is not the ending of the novel, but rather a string of basic "suspense sentences" that make up most of the book's penultimate chapter. I am quoting it more so that people can examine how easy it is (in some ways) to "create suspense" than for its literary merit. If you are interested in how Western writers looked at difference (something we've already seen in Francis Parkman's writing), you will want to read this book from cover to cover.

Let's take a look at the bulk of chapter thirty-six.
Jules Verne
Around the World in Eighty Days
[b] Around the world   RF

 In which Phileas Fogg's name is once more at a premium on 'Change
It is time to relate what a change took place in public opinion...The anxiety in which, for three days, London society existed, cannot be described. Telegrams were sent to America and Asia for news of Phileas Fogg. Messengers were despatched to the house in Saville Row morning and evening. No news...Bets increased, nevertheless, in number and value. Phileas Fogg, like a race horse, was drawing near his last turning point. The bonds were quoted, no longer at a hundred below par, but at twenty, at ten, adn at five; and paralytic old Lord Albemarle bet even in his favour.

A great crowd was collected in Pall Mall and the neighbouring streets on Saturday evening; it seemed like a multitude of brokers permanently established around the Reform Club. Circulation was impeded, and everywhere disputes, discussions, and financial transactions were going on. The police had great difficulty in keeping back the crowd, and as the hour when Phileas Fogg was due approached, the excitement rose to its highest pitch.

The five antagonists of Phileas Fogg had met in the great saloon of the the club. John Sullivan and Samuel Fallentin, the bankers, Andrew Stuart, the engineer, Gauthier Ralph, the director of the bank of England, and Thomas Flanagan, the brewer, one and all awaited anxiously.

And when the clock indicated twenty minutes past eight, Andrew Stuart got up, saying, "Gentlemen, in twenty minutes the time agreed upon between Mr. Fogg and ourselves will have expired."

"What time did the last train arrive in Liverpool?" asked Thomas Flanagan.

"At twenty-three minutes past seven," replied Gauthier Ralph; "and the next does not arrive till ten minutes after twelve."

"Well, gentlemen," resumed Andrew Stuart, "if Phileas Fogg had come on the 7.23 train, he would have got here by this time. We can therefore regard the bet as won."

"Wait; don't let us be too hasty," replied Samuel Fallentin. "You know that Mr. Fogg is very eccentric. His punctuality is well known; he never arrives too soon, or too late; and I should not be surprised if he appeared before us at the last minute."

"Why," said Andrew Stuart nervously, "if I should see him, I should not believe it was he."

"The fact is," resumed Thomas Flanagan, "Mr. Fogg's project was absurdly foolish. Whatever his punctuality, he could not prevent the delays which were certain to occur; and a delay of only two or three days would be fatal to his tour."

"Observe, too," added John Sullivan, "that we have received no intelligence from him, though there are telegraphic lines all along his route."
"He has lost, gentlemen," said Andrew Stuart,—"he has a hundred times lost! You know, besides, that the 'China'—the only steamer he could take from New York to get here in time—arrived yesterday. I have seen a list of the passengers, and the name of Phileas Fogg is not among them. Even if we admit that fortune has favoured him, he can scarcely have reached America. I think he will be at least twenty days behindhand, and that Lord Albemarle will lose a cool five thousand."

"It is clear," replied Gauthier Ralph; "and we have nothing to do but to present Mr. Fogg's check at Barings to-morrow." 

At this moment, the hands of the club clock pointed to twenty minutes to nine. 

"Five minutes more," said Andrew Stuart.

The five gentlemen looked at each other. Their anxiety was becoming intense; but, not wishing to betray it, they readily assented to Mr. Fallentin's proposal of a rubber.

"I wouldn't give up my four thousand of the bet," said Andrew Stuart, as he took his seat, "For three thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine."

The clock indicated eighteen minutes to nine.

The players took up their cards, but could not keep their eyes off the clock. Certainly, however secure they felt, minutes had never seemed so long to them!

"Seventeen minutes to nine," said Thomas Flanagan, as he cut the cards which Ralph handed to him.

Then there was a moment of silence. The great saloon was perfectly quiet; but the murmurs of the crowd outside were heard, with now and then a shrill cry. The pendulum beat the seconds, which each player eagerly counted, as he listened, with mathematical regularity.

"Sixteen minutes to nine," said John Sullivan, in a voice which betrayed his emotion.

One minute more, and the wager would be won. Andrew Stuart and his partners suspended their game. They left their cards, and counted the seconds.

[c] 80 Jours
At the fortieth second, nothing. At the fiftieth, still nothing. At the fifty-fifth, a loud cry was heard in the street, followed by applause, hurrahs, and some fierce growls.

The players rose from their seats.

At the fifty-seventh second the door of the saloon opened; and the pendulum had not beat the sixtieth second when Phileas Fogg appeared, followed by an excited crowd who had forced their way through the club doors, and in his calm voice, said, "Here I am, gentlemen!"[1]

You cannot understand how it all fits together without reading the entire book for yourself—RL for RSQ

[1] Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days [transl. George Makepeace Towle] (New York: Bantam Classics, 1984), 187-190.

Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days [transl. George Makepeace Towle]. New York: Bantam Classics, 1984.

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