This is the penultimate post in our Victorian Summer Reads from 1978. I can picture the cover of this one very clearly. Those dear, dear Moby Illustrated Classics that would horrify me now (abridged?!) staked their unassailable claim on me with their compact size, straight-forward illustrations and wide-open gateways to new worlds. God bless you McDonald’s execs who made that happen, wherever you are now – probably dead, from eating your crappy food – but you are remembered.
We’ve talked about Jules Verne before, and we even pointed out a cool game based on Around the World in 80 Days. (I’ve tried it; it’s fun.) He is underappreciated in the English-speaking world, on account of the lame translations we had until the mid-60s. The old ones are still available, on account of their public domain status. So, experiment: for Around the World in 80 Days, I read just any-ol’ translation, and I will read one of the high quality translations next, for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I want to see how different the experience is.
Even without whatever literary qualities we’re missing in this translation, 80 Days is a rousing, suspenseful adventure. Really fun and exciting, no doubt – but I definitely had the thought, “Wow, kids would love this. Hmm, I guess ‘literature’ was simpler back then.” And really, it’s a story for boys. I’ll explain why in a second.
This story is a contrast of two main characters. Phileas Fogg is the machine-like, upper class, Whist aficionado who has wagered nearly everything he has that he can do the titular trip. He is simultaneously cool as ice and frustratingly narrow; he has not the slightest interest in any place they visit – and they visit all the places. He is Spock before Spock was invented, complete with outrageous behavior that is… logical. Passepartout is his bumbling but scrappy and courageous valet who accompanies him. He is Samwise Gamgee: on the surface, kind of a doof, but in the end – absolutely indispensable. There is the frustratingly dutiful detective who follows, with the suspicion that Fogg is actually a notorious thief. And there is the damsel in distress… who really does nothing, but is at least not a gold-digger. She does nothing beyond exhibiting loyalty to her man. I mean, kudos for that, but you know…. You know.
That said, it’s still a good book for kids to read: you can’t go-it alone, never give up, keep your head, keep your word, people are more important than money, etc., etc.. If we want kids to learn such basic guidelines for life, an engrossing story is a damn good way to do it.
For the guy who foresaw travel to the moon and submarines (but not heroic female characters), there is less prognostication here than usual, but it’s not totally absent. When describing the Pacific Railroad train they take from west to east, “It was supplied with saloon cars, restaurants, and smoking cars; theater cars alone were wanting, and they will have these some day.” Not only that, Mr. Verne – but each seat will have its own screen.
We’ll look at a fancy translation next, but even a hack translation of Verne is better than most books. Unless you’re a girl.