Monday, May 28, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MICHAEL STROGOFF” by Jules Verne (first published 1876)

Reading about a nineteenth century Russian scientist whose imagination was partly fired by the “scientific romances” of Jules Verne, I am inevitably reminded of the one popular novel Jules Verne wrote about Russia.

Michael Strogoff is famously not a “scientific romance”. Its first readers would have seen its story as a thriller contemporary with their own times. But it is still an “imaginary voyage” on the pattern of nearly all Verne’s other works.

In some of Verne’s 50-odd books, explorers spend five weeks in a balloon. Phileas Fogg goes around the world in eighty days. Speleologists make a journey to the centre of the earth. Captain Nemo travels 20,000 leagues under the sea. Members of an American club fly from the Earth to the Moon. Robur the Conqueror circles the world in his mighty airship, using force to teach pacifism to warring nations.

Likewise Michael Strogoff, presented as a Cossack superman, dashes from Moscow to the other end of the Russian Empire to warn Tsar Alexander II’s brother, the Grand Duke, of an impending Tartar attack on the remote Siberian capital Irkutsk. There is no scientific speculation, but there is the same Verne-ian formula of a journey as a thread upon which to hang adventurous encounters and solemn descriptions.

Michael Strogoff faces a bear in the Urals, is helpless to prevent his mother being captured and interrogated, rafts across rivers perilous with ice floes, fights off wolves and at one stage is caught and apparently blinded by the barbarous Tartars. He survives to fight a duel with the traitorous Ivan Ogareff. Along the way, he picks up Nadia Fedor, daughter of a Siberian political exile, who guides him when he is blind. Verne was incapable of doing anything remotely resembling complex adult emotions, so the relationship of Michael Strogoff and Nadia is simply a gesture to conventional love interest and the means of providing a happy ending. Characters are strictly one-dimensional.

As with all Verne’s works, there is the strong sense that much of it has been “mugged up”. Verne had never visited Russia and the slabs of geographical and ethnic description seem to have been lifted bodily from text-books and travel books and dumped into his text. Years ago, when I read Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon to my elder children as a bedtime story, they would groan when I came to the pages where Verne speculated on air pressure, volumes, distances and so forth, so obviously simply repeating his material (ill-digested and often inaccurate) from other sources. When I spotted such pages coming up, I tended to skip them.

There aren’t so many temptations to skip in Michael Strogoff because there isn’t much of the pompous amateur scientific exposition. There is, however, one element in the story that would have been regarded as ultra-modern in 1876. Already there was exploration for oil in Siberia, and the traitors who conspire with the Tartars to destroy Irkutsk are planning to burn the city down by firing its oil dumps.

By this stage you are wondering why I am drawing your attention to a book that is so obviously a piece of enjoyable escapist rubbish, and that would be most attractive to an imaginative fifteen-year-old. Once again (pretending that I don’t enjoy brainless adventurous dashes myself occasionally) I fall back on the concept of what the book reveals about Verne’s times and their assumptions.

Verne knew that Russia was technologically backward when compared with Western Europe. Partly to signal this fact, he has as comic relief two rival West European reporters, the Frenchman Alcide Jolivet and the Englishman Harry Blount, following Michael Strogoff’s adventures and reporting back on them to the civilised world. In Verne’s view, Russia was exactly the sort of barbarous and undeveloped land that offered space for great enterprises and the scientific exploitation of natural resources. Russian imperial citizens may not have been as fully civilised as Frenchmen and Englishmen, but they were certainly more civilised than those barbaric Asiatic Tartar hordes. So, in Verne’s view, an adventurer like Michael Strogoff, helping to hold together the Russian Empire, is still an agent of civilsation.

Naturally, like all European adventure stories of its age, Michael Strogoff has an undercurrent of Euro-centric racist mythology. Like the “Red Indians” of older Westerns, like the Zulus of Rider-Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Buchan’s Prester John, the Tartars of Michael Strogoff are the primitives who have to be tamed and ruled by their betters. As more than one critic has pointed out, this ignores the fact that the Tartars were a comparatively small ethnic minority in the Russian Empire. They had long since been been subjugated by Russian imperial masters and they were, by the nineteenth century, in no position to mount the type of attack upon the empire which the novel envisages. So, although Verne’s descriptions of Russian landscapes are apparently surprisingly accurate, Michael Strogoff has an in-built element of fantasy to it.

Three points of related interest.

Before the Russian Revoluton, it was France more than any other foreign country which had invested most in the development of Tsarist Russian industry and infrastructure. (The French liked to have an ally to the east of a united Germany.) Hence it was France that lost most of its investment when the revolution came. I’ve often wondered how much Michael Strogoff, a big best-seller in France, romanticised and made attractive to French investors the potential for the “civilzation” and industrialisation of Russia.

Second point of interest. Jules Verne was a staunch French republican, and knew how barbarous the absolutist Tsarist government could be. Verne scholars have pointed out that when the man first wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the mysterious Captain Nemo was going to be revealed eventually as a Polish political exile taking revenge for Russian repression of the Poles. Verne’s publisher persuaded him not to annoy his large Russian readership. So Verne changed Nemo into an Indian prince taking revenge for British repression of the Indian “Mutiny”. As good Frenchmen, neither Verne nor his publisher minded annoying their large English readership. (Fair enough.)

Final point. Largely through the medium of colourful Hollywood movies, most of Jules Verne’s better-known “scientific” romances are familiar to an international and English-speaking audience. Michael Strogoff, however, has always remained more popular in Europe than anywhere else. It has been filmed three or four times in Europe (once with a miscast Curt Jurgens in the lead), but only once (in the 1930s) in an English-language version, which was called The Soldier and the Lady. And even that version was made by adding English dialogue scenes to the action scenes of a prior European version (which took as its title the novel’s subtitle Courier to the Tsar).

I guess the time-and-place-specific Russian-set adventure story didn’t translate as easily to international taste as stories of submarines, moon rockets and peripatetic balloons.

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