Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe

In Wormwood no. 16 (May 2011), one of my "Late Reviews" covered Jules Verne's sequel to Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), entitled Les Sphinx des Glaces (1897), based on reading the 1898 translation by Mrs. Cashel Hoey. I will copy my "Late Review" below, but here I'd like to call attention to "the first complete English translation" of the book, recently published by the State University of New York Press. Translated and edited by Frederick Paul Walter, it contains not only a full translation of the book (noting on page 387 that Mrs. Hoey's version is "heavily abridged, chopping some 36% of Verne's original", and that her edition "features a number of careless mistranslations, retitles chapters, interpolates passages, fabricates notes, and reorganizes Part Two by shoehorning sixteen chapters into ten"), but also includes the full text of Poe's short novel as one appendix, and a translation of the section on Pym from Verne's 1864 article "Edgar Poe et ses œvres" from the magazine La Musée des familles. Seventeen illustrations also appear, and I recognize most of them from the old translation I read.  The new complete text must now be considered the preferred edition.  Copies are available in an oversize trade paperback edition, very reasonably priced, via Amazon, click here, and Amazon UK, click here. I wonder whether reading the full text would alter my original opinion of the book, which I did not know was abridged at the time I read it. 

Verne, Jules.  An Antarctic Mystery (Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott Company, 1899).  Translated from the French by Mrs. Cashel Hoey. 
            In an article on the works of Edgar Allan Poe published in La Musée des familles, Avril 1864, Jules Verne (1828-1905) observed of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) that “the story of Pym’s adventures breaks off in mid-air.  Who will take it up again?  Someone bolder and more daring than I, who does not fear to launch himself into a sphere of the impossible.”  Thirty years later Verne himself did just that, in Le Sphinx des Glaces (1897), which first appeared in English as a serial, beginning in 1898, in The Boy’s Own Paper under the title Captain Len Guy; or, An Antarctic Mystery. It was subsequently collected in The Boy’s Own Annual for 1899, and also came out as a separate volume, re-titled An Antarctic Mystery, from Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London, around October 1898, with a U.S. edition, published by Lippincott, a month later (though it is dated 1899).  Sadly, none of these versions use Verne’s more poetic French title, which in English would be Sphinx of the Ice-Fields. 
            Poe’s masterful narrative is open-ended, deliberately lacking closure so as to leave the mysteries foremost in the reader’s mind. Inevitably this invites others to write continuations of the story, and the attempts made to explain Poe’s mysteries are inevitably disappointing. Verne’s sequel was the first published, beating out Charles Romyn Dake’s A Strange Discovery (1899) by a matter of months, though it seems likely that both were being written around the same time. And both Verne and Dake hinged their sequels on the supposed reality of the character of Dirk Peters, Pym’s companion, who according to Poe’s note at the end of the book was still alive in 1838, a resident of Illinois.
            Verne’s story is set some eleven years after Poe’s.  Captain Len Guy of the Halbrane is the brother of the Captain Guy who sailed with Pym, and Len Guy has come to believe that his brother, and others of the ill-fated expedition, may still be alive.  The book is narrated by a Mr. Jeorling, who takes passage on the Halbrane and though initially skeptical becomes convinced of the truth of Poe’s narrative, supporting Captain Guy in his search for his lost brother.  Any sequel to Pym is almost by its nature bound to rehash familiar material, as the new expedition retraces the steps of the earlier one, moving farther and farther south towards the pole and Pym’s mysterious end.  Verne adds new hardships for the crew of the Halbrane to overcome, including mutiny and the capture of the Halbrane by a rolling iceberg, leading to its complete destruction. One mysterious crewman of the Halbrane turns out to be the half-breed Dirk Peters, Pym’s companion, who reveals that contrary to what Poe published, Pym never returned to America but drifted off in the Antarctic, after he and Peters had become separated.  Verne brings the story to an implausible conclusion.  Captain Guy eventually find his brother, and the enormous Sphinx they encounter is revealed to be a lodestone—an enormous magnet.  Pym’s frozen and dead body is discovered six feet up the Sphinx, magnetically bound by the iron of the gun which he carried over his shoulder.  Dirk Peters falls dead of grief.
            Both as a novel in its own right and as a sequel to Pym, Verne’s story is unsatisfying. A weak work written in Verne’s old age, his own earlier imaginative writings are much, much better. 

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