Grubbs on Boumahdi (2012)


Boumahdi, Fabrice. Jules Verne: Un océan tumultueux de mots et de rêves. Paris: Éditions Honoré Champion (coll. “Passeurs d’idées”), 2012. Pp. 322. ISBN: 2745324659

Caroline Grubbs, University of Pennsylvania

As part of a new collection from Honoré Champion entitled Passeurs d’idées (under the direction of Jean Pruvost), Fabrice Boumahdi’s Jules Verne: Un océan tumultueux de mots et de rêves proposes an evocative – if not particularly critical – introduction to the works of Jules Verne. The goal of the Passeurs d’idées series is to offer both a thematic study and an annotated bibliography of the literary production of “des personnalités qui ne sont pas nécessairement des auteurs de premier plan au regard de la littérature, mais dont l’œuvre reste profondément marquante dans la mémoire collective.” Boumahdi’s contribution to this series is thus based on the premise that although Jules Verne holds a prominent place in the popular imagination as one of the most translated novelists in the world and a frequent source for Hollywood adaptations, his vast literary corpus is uncharted territory for many readers. Boumahdi seeks to introduce these readers to the important themes that arise repeatedly in the “océan tumultueux de mots et de rêves” that constitutes the Voyages extraordinaires. Furthermore, he also aims to situate Verne’s novels in their broader historical, cultural and literary contexts.

His approach is two-pronged: in the first section, consisting of fourteen chapters each devoted to a particular theme, Boumahdi discusses a wide selection of novels through the lens of key Vernian preoccupations (wanderlust, cross-cultural encounters, shipwrecks, acquisition of knowledge); in the second section, he provides a bibliography of Verne’s prose fiction, complete with detailed plot summaries. This annotated bibliography, though it excludes early works of theater and poetry as well as Verne’s geographic essays, is perhaps the most helpful aspect of Boumahdi’s study and could be a fine resource for anyone seeking a quick tour of Jules Verne’s world in eighty titles. Regrettably, throughout the volume there are several misspellings of character names and places. For example, “Werst” not “Herst” is the name of the village in Le château des Carpathes (274); the French doctor in Les cinq cents millions de la Bégum is neither “Sarrazin” (21) nor “Sarazin” (23), but “Sarrasin”; and Flaubert’s Emma is most certainly not “Madame de Bovary” (16).

The thematic chapters of the first section offer multiple, important ways of accessing the corpus for readers new to Verne. However, Boumahdi attempts to cover so much ground in his portrait of Verne’s œuvre that the volume ultimately lacks focus and critical depth. Boumahdi is clearly a passionate reader of Verne. His elaborate descriptions of Verne’s work capture some of the energy and verve that make the novels such compelling reads. Moreover, he pays welcome attention to lesser-known titles and attempts to challenge or nuance certain received ideas about Verne’s literary production such as the dearth of female characters, the portrayal of colonial subjects and his positivistic attitude towards technology. The lack of a central thesis or interpretive angle, however, makes the first section feel somewhat aimless and repetitive. There is no clear organizing principle to the chapters (why do “Une ouverture aux autres” and “L’esclavage” appear at opposite ends of the section?), and certain themes feel arbitrarily chosen (e.g., “La guerre”) while others are underdeveloped (surely “De bien drôles de machines” merits more than fourteen pages, five of which are given over to a long excerpt). Several chapters, most notably chapter eleven on “L’esclavage” and chapter fourteen on “Le suspense porté à son comble,” consist almost entirely of excerpts that span up to six pages without any proportionate close-reading analysis to justify the inclusion of so long a quotation. Ultimately, none of the chapters culminates in any kind of conclusion.

Given the rich history of scholarship on Jules Verne, it is unclear what new insights into Verne’s life and works can be gleaned from a study that does not read the texts in original ways and fails to acknowledge or engage with the critical tradition. Although Boumahdi includes a bibliography of secondary sources, it is a patchy list that misses important critical texts, including those by Marie-Hélène Huet, William Butcher, Daniel Compère, Arthur B. Evans, Timothy Unwin, Michel Butor and Roland Barthes. While Boumahdi’s book helpfully provides points of orientation within Verne’s expansive literary universe for the uninitiated, it may appeal less to Verne specialists and to those seeking a critical examination of Verne’s work.