After reading and reviewing Jules Verne’s Hector Servadac last year, I stumbled upon a phenomenal bargain: a Kindle edition of the complete works of Jules Verne—160 titles, with 5400 illustrations—for US$ 2.51 at this writing, published by Arvensa. This is not a cheap public domain knock-off, but a thoroughly professional publication with very few errors. For less than the price of a paperback book, you get just about everything Jules Verne ever wrote in Kindle format which, if you download the free Kindle French dictionary, allows you to quickly look up the obscure terms and jargon of which Verne is so fond without flipping through the Little Bob. That’s how I read this work, although I have cited a print edition in the header for those who prefer such.
The strange story of Doctor Ox would be considered a novella in modern publishing terms, coming in at 19,240 words. It is divided into 17 chapters and is written in much the same style as the author’s Voyages extraordinaires, with his customary huge vocabulary, fondness for lengthy enumerations, and witty parody of the national character of foreigners.
Here, the foreigners in question are the Flemish, speakers of dialects of the Dutch language who live in the northern part of Belgium. The Flemish are known for being phlegmatic, and nowhere is this more in evidence than the small city of Quiquendone. Its 2,393 residents and their ancestors have lived there since the city was founded in 1197, and very little has happened to disturb their placid lives; they like it that way. Its major industries are the manufacture of whipped cream and barley sugar. Its inhabitants are taciturn and, when they speak, do so slowly. For centuries, what little government they require has been provided by generations of the van Tricasse family, son succeeding father as burgomaster. There is little for the burgomaster to do, and one of the few items on his agenda, inherited from his father twenty years ago, is whether the city should dispense with the services of its sole policeman, who hasn’t had anything to do for decades.
Burgomaster van Tricasse exemplifies the moderation in all things of the residents of his city. I cannot resist quoting this quintessentially Jules Verne description in full.
Le bourgmestre était un personnage de cinquante ans, ni gras ni maigre, ni petit ni grand, ni vieux ni jeune, ni coloré ni pâle, ni gai ni triste, ni content ni ennuyé, ni énergique ni mou, ni fier ni humble, ni bon ni méchant, ni généreux ni avare, ni brave ni poltron, ni trop ni trop peu, — ne quid nimis, — un homme modéré en tout ; mais à la lenteur invariable de ses mouvements, à sa mâchoire inférieure un peu pendante, à sa paupière supérieure immuablement relevée, à son front uni comme une plaque de cuivre jaune et sans une ride, à ses muscles peu salliants, un physionomiste eût sans peine reconnu que le bourgomestre van Tricasse était le flegme personnifié.
Imagine how startled this paragon of moderation and peace must have been when the city’s policeman—he whose job has been at risk for decades—pounds on the door and, when admitted, reports that the city’s doctor and lawyer, visiting the house of scientist Doctor Ox, had gotten into an argument. They had been talking politics! Such a thing had not happened in Quiquendone in over a century. Words were exchanged that might lead to a duel!
Who is this Doctor Ox? A recent arrival in Quiquendone, he is a celebrated scientist, considered a leader in the field of physiology. He stands out against the other inhabitants of the city. Of no well-defined nationality, he is a genuine eccentric, self-confident, ambitious, and known even to smile in public. He and his laboratory assistant Gédéon Ygène work on their experiments and never speak of them to others.
Shortly after arriving in Quiquendone, Dr Ox approached the burgomaster and city council with a proposal: to illuminate the city and its buildings, not with the new-fangled electric lights which other cities were adopting, but with a new invention of his own, oxy-hydric gas. Using powerful electric batteries he invented, water would be decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen gas, stored separately, then delivered in parallel pipes to individual taps where they would be combined and burned, producing a light much brighter and pure than electric lights, not to mention conventional gaslights burning natural or manufactured gas. In storage and distribution, hydrogen and oxygen would be strictly segregated, as any mixing prior to the point of use ran the risk of an explosion. Dr Ox offered to pay all of the expenses of building the gas production plant, storage facilities, and installation of the underground pipes and light fixtures in public buildings and private residences. After a demonstration of oxy-hydric lighting, city fathers gave the go-ahead for the installation, presuming Dr Ox was willing to assume all the costs in order to demonstrate his invention to other potential customers.
Over succeeding days and weeks, things before unimagined, indeed, unimaginable begin to occur. On a visit to Dr Ox, the burgomaster himself and his best friend city council president Niklausse find themselves in—dare it be said—a political argument. At the opera house, where musicians and singers usually so moderate the tempo that works are performed over multiple days, one act per night, a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Hugenots becomes frenetic and incites the audience to what can only be described as a riot. A ball at the house of the banker becomes a whirlwind of sound and motion. And yet, each time, after people go home, they return to normal and find it difficult to believe what they did the night before.
Over time, the phenomenon, at first only seen in large public gatherings, begins to spread into individual homes and private lives. You would think the placid Flemish had been transformed into the hotter tempered denizens of countries to the south. Twenty newspapers spring up, each advocating its own radical agenda. Even plants start growing to enormous size, and cats and dogs, previously as reserved as their masters, begin to bare fangs and claws. Finally, a mass movement rises to avenge the honour of Quiquendone for an injury committed in the year 1185 by a cow from the neighbouring town of Virgamen.
What was happening? Whence the madness? What would be the result when the citizens of Quiquendone, armed with everything they could lay their hands on, marched upon their neighbours?
This is a classic “puzzle story”, seasoned with a mad scientist of whom the author allows us occasional candid glimpses as the story unfolds. You’ll probably solve the puzzle yourself long before the big reveal at the end. Jules Verne, always anticipating the future, foresaw this: the penultimate chapter is titled (my translation), “Where the intelligent reader sees that he guessed correctly, despite every precaution by the author”. The enjoyment here is not so much the puzzle but rather Verne’s language and delicious description of characters and events, which are up to the standard of his better-known works.
This is “minor Verne”, written originally for a public reading and then published in a newspaper in Amiens, his adopted home. Many believed that in Quiquendone he was satirising Amiens and his placid neighbours.
Doctor Ox would reappear in the work of Jules Verne in his 1882 play Voyage à travers l’impossible (Journey Through the Impossible), a work which, after 97 performances in Paris, was believed lost until a single handwritten manuscript was found in 1978. Dr Ox reprises his role as mad scientist, joining other characters from Verne’s novels on their own extraordinary voyages. After that work, Doctor Ox disappears from the world. But when I regard the frenzied serial madness loose today, from “bathroom equality”, tearing down Civil War monuments, masked “Antifa” blackshirts beating up people in the streets, the “refugee” racket, and Russians under every bed, I sometimes wonder if he’s taken up residence in today’s United States.
An English translation is available. Verne’s reputation has often suffered due to poor English translations of his work; I have not read this edition and don’t know how good it is. Warning: the description of this book at Amazon contains a huge spoiler for the central puzzle of the story.
Verne, Jules. Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox. Seattle: CreateSpace,  2017. ISBN 978-1-5470-6408-3.
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