Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days is one of those strange books that most people have heard of, but few people seem to have actually read. The story seems to be pretty well known (and is fairly self-explanatory from the title anyway), and it’s been adapted so many times in different forms (including a 2004 film with Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan, which I shan’t refer to again because it’s quite different from the book and downright ridiculous). I have to say though, considering the buzz that surrounds this adventure story, I was actually a wee bit disappointed.
Phileas Fogg is the main character of the book, and he makes a £20,000 bet with members of the Reform Club that he can travel around the world in eighty days. It’s an awful lot of money to be gambling with in those days, and it doesn’t really seem like it’s worth it considering the amount of money he spends on his journey, but I suppose the adventure story would be rather lacking in adventure if he’d turned the bet down. He’s accompanied on his trip by his french valet Passpartout, Aouda, an Indian woman they rescue from a suttee burial where she was to be burned alive on a pyre alongside her dead husband, and a detective called Fix who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber and spends all of his time trying to detain or arrest him.
It’s a bit of an odd book really, because it reads more like a long anecdote than an actual story. That might be due to the fact that it’s a work in translation though, and as my French is completely hopeless I’ll probably never know exactly how Verne’s writing style came across originally. There’s nothing really wrong with telling a long anecdote though, it was very readable and I did enjoy the narrative flow, but I must admit that when I got to the end I found myself asking “is that it?”
I have a couple of problems with Around the World in Eighty Days. My first problem is that none of the characters feel properly developed, apart from perhaps Passpartout. Although we know a few basic facts about Fogg, Fix and Aouda, by the end of the book I didn’t really feel like I’d got to know any of them. But having said that, I also feel that we know just enough about Phileas Fogg to suspect that making such a large bet doesn’t really fit with his character, and I never really got to grips with his motivation for doing so. Fogg’s a very mysterious character, but he’s also extremely particular and fussy. He has a very strict routine which must be adhered to by the minute; he fired his previous valet for bringing him shaving water that was a degree or two away from its usual temperature! He basically seems so nitpicky and rigid that making any kind of bet, let alone a bet worth £20,000 that would take him around the world, seems far too frivolous and spontaneous for the Fogg we’re introduced to. I also don’t believe that he was motivated purely by the money as, like I’ve already said, he managed to spend quite an extortionate amount getting himself and Passpartout out of trouble on several occasions. I just don’t get it. Why would such a tight laced man do something so daring and fun, completely out of the blue? He didn’t even give Passpartout time to turn his gas off, and yet he has an extremely rigid daily routine where every precious minute is accounted for. It doesn’t make sense to me. Obviously I’m glad he did it though, if anyone needed to live a little and let his hair down, it’s Phileas Fogg!
My second problem is the journey itself. It just seemed too predictable. No matter how many hurdles or obstacles were thrown in their way (missing their steamers, being arrested, being kidnapped by Sioux Indians), I knew all along that they’d win the bet in the end. I wasn’t convinced by any of the panic and drama about getting to certain places on time, because I knew they’d do it. And that’s not because I was already familiar with the story, I think it was more to do with the way the narrative was set up. Even in a real crisis, there wasn’t really any feeling of suspense. It seemed like a completely calm read, because Fogg’s getting back to London on time was never in doubt. Even the trick ending didn’t give me the slightest glimmer of doubt, I knew that it must be a trick because he was going to win, and he did! But in a way I found that quite disappointing. Obviously I wanted a happy outcome, but I didn’t want to know about it from the get-go. I really did hope that I’d got it wrong and Verne had surprised me, and that they hadn’t made it back to London on time, and yet I knew all along that of course they had. It might have helped if some of the crises were fleshed out a bit more too. The book spends so long going over how long it takes to get from A to B etc., and yet the rescue of Passpartout from the Sioux Indians is almost brushed over in passing. But that’s the kind of adventure I want to read more about! I’m not particularly fussed with which steamer runs faster, I want to know how Fogg tracked down Passpartout and freed him from the Sioux.
I just felt like the whole book was a bit too repressed. There was no real drama or excitement, and that’s what I long for in an adventure story. Again, that could be due to the translation though, and I may of course be doing Jules Verne a great disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy reading Around the World in Eighty Days, and I liked reading that kind of narrative style and flow, even if that’s what ultimately left me disappointed. I’d be interested to track down a different translation though, to see if Verne did pack a bit more of a punch with the original.