It’s always hard to know what to read after an all-encompassing, absorbing book like “Life”, or something by a favourite author like Beverley Nichols – I did try Amelia B. Edwards short stories, but although they were good, they weren’t *great* (or I wasn’t in the right mood). Anyway, I abandoned them half-way through and turned to what I hoped would be a light, enjoyable distraction – “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” by Jules Verne.

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All I knew about the plot was from the James Mason film adaptation, and having had a bit of a root about online, it soon became obvious that the book would be quite different as a lot of changes were made for the movie. And the eternal problem of translation reared its head again, which I really wasn’t expecting! I thought, maybe a little naively, that translating from French to English would be more straightforward than say the Russians – but I was wrong. It seems that the early English versions of Verne suffered from sloppy translating and heavy, lazy editing which removed a lot of the scientific parts and contracted dialogue down to a paragraph of description etc. This made a little nervous but fortunately, my 1965 Penguin edition proclaims that it is a “New translation specially commissioned from Robert Baldrick for Penguin Science Fiction”.* Additionally, a useful online site which rates the various versions of Verne seems to think that this one is ok, so I breathed a sigh of relief and embarked!

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Most people will know the basic plot of this book – an eccentric professor, Lidenbrock, discovers an old manuscript by the explorer Arne Saknussemm, which gives hints of how to travel to the centre of the earth. With his reluctant nephew Axel and their taciturn but essential guide Hans, they set off to follow in Saknussemm’s footsteps, travelling down into an extinct volcano in Iceland and attempting to boldly go where only one man has gone before! The journey is full of excitement and drama, strange interior landscapes, underground seas and forests, and some very alarming creatures…

I had certain expectations of the book based on the film, but in many ways they were wrong. The film had additional elements added which made it a completely different prospect to the novel (love interest, evil rival) and if I remember correctly lost many of the more adventurous aspects. Because this book is nothing if not full of adventure! The characters are very well drawn – the irascible professor, the slightly cowardly but sometimes brave (and so therefore very human!) Axel, and the quiet but reliable Hans. We see how they learn to rely on each other in times of crisis, developing a deep friendship, and we watch their progress into the bowels of the earth with wonder.

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What is remarkable to realise is that Verne never travelled very widely – he made trips around Europe, and one to the USA, I believe, but not much further. So all of this wonderful imagery and description is summoned pretty much out of his very fertile imagination. And of course, the underground regions were completely invented because no-one ever had (or has!) travelled to the centre of the Earth! There is plenty of scientific discussions, as befits a couple of mineralogists, but this is very much in character, and doesn’t become tedious. And Verne’s prose and descriptions are excellent – for example, this wonderful piece of description of vertigo when Axel is becoming acclimatised to heights in Copenhagen:

“I saw the houses looking as if they had been squashed flat by a fall, in the midst of the smoke fog created by their chimneys. Over my head wisps of cloud were passing, and by an optical illusion they seemed to me to be motionless, while the spire, the ball and I were being carried along at a tremendous speed. Far away on one side there was the green country, and on the other the sea was sparkling under a sheaf of sunbeams. The Sound stretched away to the Point of Elsinore, dotted with a few white sails like seagulls’ wings, and in the mist to the east the faintly blurred coast of Sweden was visible. The whole of this vast spectacle spun around beneath my eyes.”

“Journey” is also a very gripping and exciting read. Verne never lets the pace flag, and our heroes pass from one adventure to another. There is a certain contracting of time, when we will learn in a couple of sentences how they travel through a particular place for hours (or even days!), so Verne doesn’t waste words! And his vision of what it’s like below the earth, although now scientifically disproved, is still stunning and unusual – he conjures up some wonderful images with his descriptions of strange plant and animal life, a huge and strange sea, clouds and caverns – it’s certainly an intoxicating, exciting journey to go along on!

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This was a really satisfying, enjoyable read – one of those books you just sink into straight away, and look forward to picking up and reading the next chapter. Is it science fiction? That’s a good question, and I would prefer to label it “imaginative fiction”. There is science in it, and exploration – but nothing from outer space, no flying saucers or aliens and it certainly isn’t anything like modern sci-fi. This was just simply a brilliantly written, exciting adventure; thought-provoking in places and great fun. I shall look forward to exploring more of Jules Verne!

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As an aside, it does seem such a shame that Verne’s reputation has suffered so much from the language issue. Bad and shortened translations really have led to him being dismissed a children’s’ author and denied much of a place in the great pantheon of literature. Why you should dismiss children’s authors is a question I’d like to raise anyway, but certainly he deserves to be recognised as a great writer of fiction. In searching for information on the various versions, I stumbled across this site, which was quite a useful guide. I then went off at a tangent trying to find out which versions were published by Wordsworth Editions, as they don’t always state the translators, and I must thank them for their very helpful and informative responses when I made contact – luckily the versions they put out are rated as ok on the Jules Verne site! So it’s off to track down some Wordsworths!

* If anyone is interested in vintage Penguin Science Fiction books, there is a wonderful resource here

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