Friday 19 October 2012

REVIEW: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne (3.5*)

(Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

'Is the Master out of his mind?' she asked me.
I nodded.
'And he's taking you with him?'
I nodded again.
'Where?' she asked.
I pointed towards the centre of the earth.
'Into the cellar?' exclaimed the old servant.
'No,' I said, 'farther down than that.'

Everyone knows the basic premise of Journey to the Centre of the Earth - but like so many novels that have made their way into the public consciousness (Frankenstein, anyone?) it's still well worth reading the original, because they're never quite what you think!  Like a game of Chinese Whispers, things get so distorted and simplified along the way that nothing beats going back to the source...

I had tremendously high hopes for this book, because as a little girl I had a mini square illustrated children's edition which I read cover to cover several times over.  I still remember the images of some of the most dramatic moments - Axel collapsed in a tunnel, all alone; Gretchen (simplified from the original GraĆ¼ben) weeping over her beloved's departure; superhero Hans drawn in clean black and white ink...  Needless to say, I've been very much looking forward to reading the all-grown-up version these 20 or so years down the line!

As most of you will already know, the novel pretty much does what it says on the tin; it begins with Professor Lidenbrock, a geologist, scientist and all-round intellectual (the book calls him a savant)*, finding an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed in code, left in a book by the Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussemm.  When he finally deciphers the code, he is astonished to find that the parchment contains the precise location of the starting point of a journey to the centre of the earth.  His interest piqued, the eccentric professor immediately sets out for Iceland, dragging his long-suffering nephew with him.  There he hires a guide, ascends Mount Sneffels, and determinedly follows Saknessumm's footsteps down into the bowels of the earth...

I made that sound like the start of the story, right?  Indeed, the blurb of my Penguin Popular Classics edition states that "Their journey... begins on the summit of a volcano..."  Well, yes, but what it DOESN'T mention is that 100 pages into the 250-page book, they are only just reaching the crater that marks the real start of their adventure.  This is not a novel that plunges you head-first into action and excitement; it takes a LONG time to get going, and nearly half the book is taken up by the description of the trip to - and across - Iceland.  I couldn't help but think that if this was a modern novel, it would probably have been returned to the author with 'PACING!!!' scrawled across it in red ink...

Fortunately the pace soon picks up once the descent begins, and from that point onwards, the novel becomes a rip-roaring tale, crammed with drama and peril, excitement and discovery, all narrated by young Axel and sprinkled with scientific intrigue.  It must be said that Verne doesn't always wear his science lightly - at times his novel reads more like a scientific-minded vintage travelogue - but then another dramatic event will occur, or another wonder will be uncovered, and the reader is captivated all over again.  Not that the scientific elements are dull, particularly - in fact, Axel can become quite poetic about his pet subject, and some of the historical details are fascinating - but there is a liberal sprinkling of Latin names and geological jargon that requires a little care and concentration to grasp.

I think it was probably the three main characters themselves that made the novel for me (that, and the incredible prehistoric cavern with its glowing light and subterranean sea).  While Axel is probably the weakest of the characters - he reminded me rather unfortunately of Fanny Price, constantly keeling over or going into a blind panic even as his middle-aged uncle strode calmly on - he has a gently wry sense of humour and describes his companions very astutely.  He paints a wonderful picture of his uncle as the archetypal eccentric genius: determined, short-tempered, single-minded and completely ignorant of his own flaws.  Their hulking guide Hans, in contrast, is always calm, extremely skilled and capable, strong and unshakeable; he is their rock and their saviour on many occasions, like some kind of Nordic Superman.  It made me smile when Axel described his eyes as 'dreamy blue' - the hero-worship, the sheer awe with which he reveres him definitely borders on a man-crush at times!

Would I recommend reading this book?  Well, yes, of course - it is a classic adventure story, and as I said before, it has worked its way into the public consciousness to such an extent that it really deserves to be enjoyed in its own right.  It is not a fast-paced thriller, but it is one of the most famous fictional journeys in literature; it occasionally wears its scientific background heavily, but read in the right spirit is crammed with interesting nuggets of information; its narrating character is not the most witty or memorable of men, but he describes his surroundings beautifully.  I'm not sure yet whether it's going to be a keeper for me, but I AM glad to have honoured my childhood love for Verne's imagination and read the original at last!

*Okay, HOW MUCH did I want to write "defender of the innocent, protector of the weak, and all-around good guy... George of the Jungle" right there?  *coughs and grins*

Notable Quotables:
  • "On our old icy island people are fond of study.  There isn't a single farmer or fisherman who can't read and doesn't read.  We believe that books, instead of mouldering behind an iron grating, far from inquisitive gazes, should be worn out under the eyes of a great many readers."
  • "The rector did not seem to go in for traditional hospitality - far from it.  Before the day was over, I saw that we were dealing with a blacksmith, a fisherman, a hunter, a joiner, but not in any respect with a minister of the Lord.  Admittedly it was a weekday, and perhaps he was different on Sunday."
  • "On earth, even on the darkest night, light never entirely abdicates its rights.  It may be subtle and diffuse, but however little there may be the eye finally perceives it.  Here there was none.  The total darkness made me a blind man in the full meaning of the word."
  • "Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth."

Source:  I bought this book years and years ago - I have no idea where!