Several books on Jules Verne (1828-1905) have been translated from French into English, including biographies by Verne's cousin (1928) and grandson (1976), and a study of the political themes in Verne's novels by Jean Chesneaux (1972). Now, for the first time, the reverse has occurred: a book on Jules Verne originally written in English has been translated into his native language. Sadly, Herbert R. Lottman's new biography of Verne, also published in France (in a translation by Marianne Véron), is not worthy of holding such a distinctive position in Verne studies. Although described by St. Martin's Press on the dust jacket as the first "modern biography" of Verne ever written, there is a long tradition of writing about the author, not only in French, but in English as well.
Lottman offers little literary analysis of Verne's works, and that which is present is cursory and often ill-considered. While the details of Verne's life are more developed, they are frequently marred by the author's determination to indulge in amateur Freudian analysis and to draw often highly questionable conclusions from his biographical data.
Generally, Lottman's discussion of Verne's writing is shallow, seldom extending beyond simple plot analysis. There is little evidence that Lottman has personally studied Verne's more than sixty novels and many additional short stories, plays, non-fiction, speeches, and poems. Approaching Verne's books in chronological order, Lottman makes little effort to examine the links between the works or the broader themes and narrative formulae which characterize Verne's oeuvre as a whole. Important issues such as narrative structure, 19th-century ideology, and stylistic innovation in Verne's works discussed over the past few decades by writers and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic are almost totally ignored (despite the fact that the author cites many of these critical works in his endnotes).
Lottman does not elucidate the cultural conditions that have played such a large role in determining Verne's literary reputation, nor does he attempt to explain how Verne still remains a best-selling author in this context. His observations on Verne's influence on science, culture, and literature are perfunctory.
Lottman does occasionally raise tantalizing questions about Verne's personal life, but despite his subtitle, An Exploratory Biography, many of these points are then never investigated. For instance, Verne wrote to his brother in 1893: "You and I both committed an enormous and irreparable blunder; you know which one, without having to be specific. Tear up this letter. But what a life we'd have had, without that blunder." Despite Lottman's dwelling on Verne's anti-semitism, he fails to examine the impact of Jules and his son Michel's different reactions to the Dreyfuss Affair; Lottman is typically content merely to say, "it was not the only time a family split over Dreyfuss".
Instead of using such material as a key to exploring Verne's creative psyche, Lottman chooses to classify him according to a preformulated psychological profile. He sprinkles the book with bits of Freudian analysis, but never fully develops this methodology so that it might lead to a full portrait of Verne the man or writer. Lottman labels Verne an "anal" personality, which
is used as a catch-all justification to explain such diverse matters as Verne's worries about income and the spendthrift proclivities of his son Michel.
With this book, Lottman lives up to his reputation for meticulous attention to detail, although at times he seems to dwell on minutiae. For a nonacademic, commercial writer, Lottman has done an impressive quantity of research, taking advantage of the Verne libraries in Amiens and Nantes. He has thoroughly perused the well-indexed Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne, a quarterly which, since the 1960s, has published scholarly articles and primary texts about Verne. Extensive endnotes cover twenty-three pages in the English edition, and thirty pages in the French edition.
To Lottman's credit, he does follow in the footsteps of many French Verne scholars to correct a number of factual errors that have appeared in earlier Verne biographies, and incorporates much of what has been discovered in the two decades since Jean Jules-Verne's biography. Lottman is much interested in the business details of Verne's life, as might be expected from one also who
makes his living by his pen, and these financial matters receive a full airing. He provides the first thorough account in any English-language biography of Verne's collaborations with Adolphe d'Ennery on turning his novels into plays. On the other hand, Lottman offers little discussion of Verne's occasional collaboration on novels with Paschal Grousset (André Laurie), or of
the role played by Verne's son Michel in the composition of the posthumous Voyages Extraordinaires. In the last decade, the original manuscripts have appeared in print, revealing that the first versions published in the decade after Verne's death were extensively rewritten by, and in some cases originated with, Michel.
Lottman's prose is generally highly readable and engaging. He has labored to produce what he clearly intends to be the definitive biography of Verne. He has accumulated a wide array of data, but has been unable to synthesize this mass of information in a meaningful way. Lottman's book is especially disappointing because the time is so ripe for an account that would fuse the new biographical discoveries about Verne with the many insights of recent Vernian literary criticism. By analyzing the strictly material side of Verne's life, Lottman has neglected the creative talents and the well-springs of imagination that produced the fiction for which Verne is remembered. Those readers seeking to understand the reasons why Verne is one of the most widely translated and enduringly popular authors of all time will find little explanation in this biography.