This is a remarkable book with an even stranger setting – written in 1863, set in 1960, and not published till 1994. It’s not such a stretch, however, to include it in the Turn of the Century Salon, as Jules Verne was writing novels up through the early 1900s, and he is always associated with the original “steampunk” genre from this time period. Paris in the Twentieth Century is classic steampunk: a coming-of-age story combining 20th century technology with late Victorian culture.
His reputation sullied by a school prize for Latin verse, young Michel Dufrénoy comes to live with his aunt and uncle, who hope to convert him into at least an adequate banker and a “practical man.” Michel attempts to live up to his uncle’s expectations, but it is soon found he is unfit for even the lowliest job in commerce and industry. Eagerly, he resigns himself to the life of a “starving artist,” gambling on his dream that Paris has left at least one corner of literature for his heartfelt, lyrical, yet unfashionable poetic writings.
Imperfect though it is, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a book very dear to my heart. I cannot say it is a page-turner, but Michel’s eccentricity and struggle to be himself resonate strongly with me. Verne’s predictions of future technology are stunning, while the characters (except Lucy) are refreshingly unVernian. The ending, a superb juxtaposition of 19th and 20th/21st centuries, is lovely; the melodrama is forgivable, because the tragedy feels true.
There is a lot of truth as well in Verne’s predictions about 20th century society. Commercialism and the absence of a code of honor are a couple of them. A subtle point that I think is not quite accurate is the apparent worship of technology; it seems to me that though we today use, say, smartphones and tablets extensively, they have not really replaced the humanities as inspiration for our art. And, while I would agree that many bestselling books are poorly written (to put it mildly), the “great” literature of today is not chemistry or math-themed. Still, society’s dying appreciation of classic literature and classical music is spot-on – how ironic, too, that artists whom Verne cites as modern (e.g. Wagner) are today considered classic.
The life of an artist, as depicted here, seems to be fairly accurate. On the one hand, I have found that, within a university setting, non-science/math/computer majors seem to be well respected and often receive more visibility (through the campus newspaper and literary magazine). On the other hand, it is absolutely true that making a living as an artist is difficult (sometimes impossible), and subsequently there is a bit of a stigma attached to humanities degrees. Like Michel, most artists today must also follow mainstream trends and demands in order to be successful.
This is my second reading, and I think the main downside to the book is Michel’s surprise at technology he has been exposed to all his life. It is hard to avoid this anachronism, but it can be done (e.g. Star Trek succeeds at making teleportation look natural). If one can suspend disbelief of his disbelief, then it is a fascinating thing to view our modern world through a 19th century perspective. I am not one who wishes I had been born in an earlier era, but for sure, there are some things about this century that make me feel as “old-fashioned” as Michel. 5 out of 5 stars.
“…the men of 1960 were no longer lost in admiration of such marvels; they exploited them quite calmly, without being any the happier…”