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Around the World in Eighty Days : from book to play

September 30, 2011 21 comments

Le Tour du monde en 80 jours by Jules Verne (1828-1905). 1873.  English title: Around the World in Eighty Days

A couple of weeks ago, I took a bunch of CFOs and CFOs-to-be to the theatre in Paris. Yes, contrary to what you read in books and newspapers, finance guys have a soul, can be a lot of fun and half the time are women. I had chosen Around the World in Eighty Days and as always in this case, I like to read the book first to compare it to the theatre version.

It can sound strange but I had never read Jules Verne at all. In this novel, Mr Phileas Fogg, a British gentleman, bets with acquaintances in his club that he’ll be able to travel around the world in eighty days. He takes his French valet Passepartout with him. At the same moment, £50 000 are stolen from the Bank of England. The Inspector Fix, from Scotland Yard, is certain that Fogg is his thief and he follows the man in his trip around the world, in the hope to get a mandate to arrest him as soon as they are on British grounds. The novel relates their adventures in boats and trains, in foreign countries.

Several things struck me while I was reading.

The first one is its buoyant optimism, present in the style as Jules Verne makes an abundant — and sometimes tiring — use of exclamation marks. Verne shows a strong confidence in science and marvels at technological progress. Transcontinental trains in America. The Canal of Suez. The book was written in 1873 and I thought the morale of the country was rather low at the time, not far after the defeat of Sedan and riots in Paris. Was he trying to cheer people up?

The second one is the caricature of the British gentleman. Really, Fogg corresponds to the perfect cliché the French have about British gentlemen of the Victorian Era. Imperturbable. Utterly polite. Dressed to the nines. Generous and chivalrous. Unmovable whatever the difficulty. Self-confident. By the way, I suppose it’s highly improbable that a man like Phileas Fogg could marry an Indian woman without a huge scandal in his social circle. In real life, wouldn’t that even mean banishment from his beloved club? The opposition of characters between Fogg and Passepartout is rather funny. The valet’s name means “master key” or as an adjective “all-purposes”. Passepartout admires Fogg and his bonhomie. They make a good comic team, the British forecasting all the problems and the French creating most of them. In French we say “avoir une idée fixe” i.e. to have an obsession. I wonder if Inspector Fix’s name comes from that expression as he relentlessly pursues Fogg.

The third one would be the style and the vocabulary. All amounts in pounds are dutifully converted into francs for the French reader. Today, it sounds so odd. I also noticed many many English words instead of French ones. Like: Londoner, railway, steam-boat, cab, steamer, pardeck. I can’t tell when the corresponding French words were invented but “billet de banque” for “bank note” must have existed in 1873, as well as “chemin de fer” for “railroad”. I wonder why Verne wrote like this. Sometimes, I also thought that the syntax was strange, like L’Etat de Névada, when we now say l’Etat du Névada or Il égalait le Mongolia [a boat] en vitesse mais pas en confortable where we would usually say Il égalait le Mongolia en vitesse mais pas en confort. Some phrases are incomprehensible out of the context, like Il y avait grand concours de populaire for Il y avait beaucoup de peuples différents. He even included English expressions in sentences like Ce “great attraction” de la représentation devait clore la série des exercices. Weird for a French reader, really, it kept catching my eyes and attention. I wonder how it is translated into English.

For once, the play was a lot better than the book. I was rather bored by Fogg jumping from boats to trains and trains to boats. Of course, he doesn’t get seasick, finds a solution to any impediment, all this with perfect class. I’m bored by perfect characters, they don’t exist in real life so I was a little bored by the book. The play was…playful. It was so funny. The actors yelled, jumped, danced and created the atmosphere of boats and trains in a very convincing manner. They inserted double-entendre and allusions to today’s society that perfectly fit in. We had a wonderful evening.

For another take, Amateur Reader has written a great review Ballooning with the dummy in the top hat. I love that title.

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