Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Captain Literature

Jules Vernes had me at

Cinq semaines en ballon... (five weeks in a balloon). The remaining voyage evoked wild cheering resounding from all sides of my brain. Like a shadow I followed those fearless travelers and explorers whose energetic temperaments carried them across every quarter of the globe. Vernes' other stories tempered the regimen on which my youthful exuberance subsisted; supplying me with hurricanes, machines, and an explorer's voyage of discovery to Tabor Island (although, as a girl of ten, I could hardly imagine my parents allowing me to tag along).



"What is especially curious," Harding's words echoing in my mind, is how Vernes draws his readers into his stories. Is it the gulf between our daily lives and the lives of our imaginary world whereby a novel can drag us along on a bonadventure without protest? Why do Vernes' stories succeed while others fail? Failure is not admissible, the engineer might have replied. 

"Let us continue again," Harding would tell us. 
"Exactly!" Herbert would add. 

Just as a mystery existed for Pencroft, Herbert, and Neb, a mystery exists for many writers. Why is one book loved and favorited while so many others go unnoticed or unread? Could there be some entity hidden in the profoundest recesses of the pages? It is necessary at any cost to ascertain this if one wishes to envelop their own readers in a tale of intrigue. 

Like a vessel in the distance, this invisible being must be wonderfully narrow, well-masted, admirably built, and sail rapidly through the pages of our novel. It has to be something we cannot distinguish until at last we come face to face with it. 

But if this wretched presence tries to seize our story, we must defend it. For if we do not, it will invade our book, anchor there, and find accomplice with our words, an element eager to enter into communication with it. 

As the night falls and profound darkness envelops our subconscious, no light can pierce through the pages of our book. The essence of the entity we've been chasing fades away with the twilight. Not a page rustled in the book, not a ripple murmurs from its binding. Nothing can be seen of the entity; all her hinted existence is extinguished. It is as if she is still in sight of our story, but her whereabouts are undiscovered. 

"Well! who knows?" Pencroft reminds me. 
"Perhaps that cursed craft will stand off during the night, and we shall see nothing of her at daybreak." 

As if in reply to the sailor's observation, a turning of the page flashes a bright light in the darkness of our story, and a cannon-shot is heard. The entity in our story is still there. At the same time, readers can hear her rattling through the final chapters of the book. If we flip ahead, she disappears off beyond the horizon. 

This vessel, this invisible being that lurks through the pages of masterful novels, has anchored herself somewhere in our story, but we know not if or where she will be found. 

It is, I think, this invisible vessel that sails through the pages of the world's best-selling novels. Like Cyrus Harding and his companions, authors are ready to act, to bring her to shore, but, professional storytellers that they are, they remember to remain prudent. Perhaps they think that this vessel is concealed from their own readers. But if she is there, if she graces the pages of a novel, readers know it from the first page onward. 

But why is that flag still hoisted at the brig's peak? Why was that shot fired? Pure bravado? Doubtless; unless it was a sign of the act of taking possession. Irrespective, this author knows that this vessel is well armed, but my characters are in an impregnable position. The vessel cannot overtake the writer - hidden under reeds and parchment - and consequently it would be impossible for her to penetrate the story - or would it? 

There is indeed something there, amid the pages of the world's best novels. A presence lurking, preventing us from laying the book down until we read clear through to the last word. If she surfaces, the story ends, as does our fascination with it. If she escapes our grasp, the story continues, forever fixated in the realm of our imagination. 

As Ayrton makes preparations for his departure, so too do we make preparations for the possibility that that this vessel might someday return - in a sequel, maybe? Hitching a ride on Speedy, her return is forever possible.

As Harding might surmise,

the initial velocity [of this vessel] 
is in [direct] proportion to..." 

the quality of the writing.

Her presence depends on our employing the highest degree of resistance. We have, therefore, reason to believe that our invisible vessel will leave a wake through the pages of our book. 

Like Prince Dakkar, there is a handsome bounty payable for information on the whereabouts of our invisible entity. Every writer wants her for themselves. Every writer hopes she will journey through the pages of their stories, escaping all that pursue her. 

Quality writing never recedes; the law of necessity ever forces it onwards. Unable to find that invisible essence we court, overcome by disappointment when she fails to emerge, our hope falls prey to a profound disgust for writing until, when again, we pick up a masterful novel of unexpected brilliance. It is then she, this elusive entity; this moving, lighting, and heating agent that ignites our story with her presence and renders us devoted, as always, to her anonymous presence. 

For a long time I wondered just what it was that made one story great and another sub-par. Concluding that brilliance has something to do with this invisible vessel anchored off our starboard bow. Vernes' books follow her closely, but none possess her. She supplies us with the notion that all our wants might be granted, but there remains a fragment washed by the waves of literature, the tomb of which bears the name: Captain Literature. 

Cover of L'Algerie Magazine, June 15, 1884
The Text reads "M. Jules Verne: going to the best sources
for authentic information on the underwater world"


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