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The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz
Jules Verne (translation by Peter Schulman)
Bison Books, 219 pages

The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz
Jules Verne
Jules Verne (1828-1905), French writer and pioneer of science fiction, is best known today for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). He was born on February 8, 1828, in Nantes, France. As a boy, Jules Verne ran off to be a cabin boy on a merchant ship, but he was caught and returned to his parents. In 1847, Jules was sent to study law in Paris. While there, however, his passion for the theatre grew. Later in 1850, Jules Verne's first play was published. His father was outraged when he heard that Jules was not going to continue law, so he discontinued the money he was giving him to pay for his expenses in Paris. This forced Verne to make money by selling his stories. He published his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

In a way, the story of this book is far more interesting than the story in the book. The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz was one of the last novels that Verne wrote before his death in 1905, and in 1904 he was writing to his publisher to say that he hoped to see the book in print before he died. It was not to be: the novel, indeed, was not quite finished at the time of his death as a couple of minor points in this text show. The novel went on to be one of the works published posthumously under the aegis of his son, Michel, but when Verne's manuscripts were made available in the 1980s it became obvious how extensively Michel had tampered with his father's work. In the case of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, in particular, he had shifted the setting of the novel from the late 19th century to the 18th century. This is incomprehensible not just because it betrayed his father's love of the modern, but also because the book is suffused in a low key way with the technology of the period. Railways, newspapers and telegrams play significant parts in the unravelling of the plot, there are references to the Ruhmkorff induction coil and Roentgen rays, Verne makes constant reference to the fashions of the day, and the politics implicit in the book is all post-Franco-Prussian War. To remove all trace of the 19th century from the novel would be to remove most of what holds the book together, it's hard to see how the novel could survive; perhaps it didn't, since it is hardly one of Verne's best-known works. The only previous translation into English came from I.O. Evans in 1963, was inevitably based on Michel Verne's distorted text, and itself made further changes to the work. Finally, in the mid-1990s, a new edition appeared in France based on Verne's original manuscript, and this is the first English translation of that original text. It has been a long, epic journey, but at last we can read something pretty close to what Verne actually intended. The people involved in this enterprise, especially the translator and editor, Peter Schulman, must be thanked and congratulated.

As to whether it was all worth the effort, I remain unconvinced. It has to be said: The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is far from being Verne's best book. It is a novel about invisibility, and is clearly intended as a response, indeed a riposte, to his old rival H.G. Wells, whose own The Invisible Man had appeared in 1898, not that long before Verne began writing his story. Verne always accused Wells of being a fantasist, who did not lard his books with genuine science the way Verne did. But where Wells looked closely at the scientific and psychological consequences of invisibility, Verne turned his own story into a Gothic melodrama (which is not helped by setting the story in Hungary and making constant reference to the superstitions of the people there, which in turn may help explain Michel's decision to transpose the tale 100 years earlier). In Wells's novel, it is the effects of invisibility that turn Griffin into the villain of the piece; in Verne's story, Storitz is already the villain by virtue of being German, and indeed for much of the book neither Storitz nor, it would seem, Verne, have much idea what to do with invisibility.

Part of Verne's problem, I suspect, is that he had more and more come to see his books as education more than entertainment. The novel opens with Henry Vidal setting out from Paris to join his younger brother, Marc, in the Hungarian town of Ragz. Marc, a successful portrait painter, has met and fallen in love with Myra Roderich, the daughter of an eminent doctor in that town, and Henry is going to be there for the wedding. Just before leaving Paris, Henry hears that Myra had previously had an unsuccessful suitor, Wilhelm Storitz. Having set up this situation, Verne now devotes the second chapter to a long and, to be honest, rather tedious travelogue describing Henry's leisurely journey to Vienna and then down the Danube which reads like it comes from a geography textbook, full of populations, major industries, agricultural produce. This is Verne being overly concerned that his young readers should learn something from the book. Apart from a brief interlude towards the end of the chapter, this adds nothing to the story, and yet the descriptions are so flat that they don't particularly work as travel writing either.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Verne became rabidly anti-German. He clearly adored the fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but other than him, Germans are mentioned only as objects of suspicion and hatred. The fact that he was Prussian is considered sufficient reason to reject Storitz as a potential husband for Myra; indeed, most of the book reads like an excuse for an extended anti-German rant. But, of course, Storitz is German, so he is a thoroughly nasty person. Having been rejected by the Roderich family, he vows revenge; and as the son of a recently deceased and renowned chemist, he has inherited the means to exact that revenge: the secret of invisibility.

I am not sure that Verne thought at all seriously about invisibility and what it might entail. In a scene in which Storitz's house is searched, we learn that Storitz has been reading about things like induction tubes and Roentgen rays, and there is a mysterious jar that is broken and whose liquid contents evaporate immediately. This is hand-waving to suggest that this is a story about science, but in fact we see nothing resembling a laboratory in Storitz's house, we never learn whether the mysterious liquid is meant to be ingested or used externally, and it would appear that invisibility affects everything the person is wearing, even if they change their clothes, but nothing that the person is carrying. In truth, despite Verne's strictures against Wells, it is evident that in this instance he is writing a fantasy, and a fairly feeble fantasy at that, in which invisibility is nothing more than a magic potion.

I suspect that Verne was well aware of this, since he keeps hesitating to get the story going. The long travelogue in chapter two is only one of several digressions that stall the action, and indeed we are nearly half-way through the book before anything like a story really gets going. It is at a grand ball to celebrate the betrothal of Myra and Marc that Storitz first begins his revenge. Wrapped in invisibility, he bursts into the crowded ballroom, sings a provocative German song, steals the wedding wreath, and slips away again. Despite the fact that we are carefully told how crowded the room was, he manages all this without apparently colliding with anyone, invisibility clearly equates with insubstantiality. And though this is a pretty feeble disturbance, it is enough to disturb the whole town of Ragz for weeks to come.

Of course, no-one suspects an invisible man is in their midst, why should they; which gives Verne plenty of opportunity to sneer at the credulity of the Hungarians. But when Storitz makes his next dramatic intervention, at the wedding ceremony itself, Henry concludes, without an ounce of extra evidence, that Storitz must have learned how to make himself invisible. It's an unlikely leap in the dark, but it gives Henry an opportunity to expound on a host of dangers that invisibility might present, as if Verne has, only now, woken up to the possibilities of his invention. Unfortunately these possibilities occur only in Henry's monologue, not in the plot, and they come so late in the day that they read as an afterthought. There is time only for one last plot twist, a wonderful reversal that shows Verne to have been a much better novelist than this book might so far have given us reason to believe.

We are left with a book that should be welcomed as an example of historical rescue, an opportunity to read Verne as he intended rather than as he was bowdlerised by his son. At the same time, we are left with a book that really doesn't do Verne many favours.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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