Down the street and around the corner from our house here in Aniane is the church of St. Jean Baptiste des Pénitents. As near as I can determine, it was constructed somewhere between 800 and 500 years ago. It’s no longer an active church, and is used instead to host various expositions.
This month’s exposition concerns Jules Verne, and on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. we walked down the rainy street to hear an “animation” about the show.
Entering the church — which is quite enormous and austere — we were greeted with a series of vignettes about the work of M. Verne, each concentrating on one of his major works and including very intricate models, large reproductions of book covers and movie posters, and other interesting artifacts.
I had it in my head that an “animation” would be something, well, “animated.” Actors, singers, dancers, sound and light shows, that kind of thing. I’m the kid who went to school in a science centre, after all.
It turns out, at least in this instance, the word meant something more literal: a 2 hour talk to “animate” the exposition — to bring it to life in words.
Oliver, good soldier that he is, lasted about 30 minutes into this animation until the combination of having to sit still and having to listen to an animated discussion in a language he couldn’t comprehend got to the better of him. Catherine volunteered to shepherd him home, and I was left to myself for the balance.
I was not without experience in this format, as when I took “French as a Second Language” courses in Montreal ten years ago, our renegade professeur decided it was important, contrary to the official curriculum, for us to get out into the community and experience real Quebec culture. As a result we attended many talks, performances, and movies, just under the radar of the course administrators. It was invaluable experience, and taught our ears how to hear in French.
On Sunday I surprised myself with the degree to which I could still hear in French.
The very, well, animated man delivering the animation began with an explanation of the exhibition itself. It was intended, he said, to be a museum, but unlike other museums it didn’t have little explanatory cards identifying the objects because the idea was for you to experience and interact with the items, not to catalogue them. He called the exposition a vrai musée.
We all then stood up from our seats and followed him around from station to station, all of us gathering around while he animated the displays.
And animate he did, with a wide-ranging presentation that covered everything from how other authors ripped off Jules Verne’s work with low-grade non-realistic knockoff books, to how the design of many of Verne’s fanciful inventions — from spacecraft to submarines — became part of the inspiration for the real world conception of the same.
He talked about the evolution of science fiction writing, how Tintin was essentially a derivative work of Verne’s, and how the design of “little green men” of science fiction followed the design of a particular sort of undersea creature in Verne’s work.
The general idea was “I’m going to start with Jules Verne, and riff on a variety of related topics for a couple of hours while you follow along.”
The effect was quite mesmerizing, partly because to be able to follow his rapid pace I had to switch off my “translate this into English really, really fast” system and just let the French wash over me, and partly because I was amazed that a sizeable group — there were perhaps 50 of us in attendance — would come out on a rainy Sunday afternoon to wander around a chilly church to listen to an lecture about a science fiction author. And he was covering very interesting ground, to boot.
To everyone else in the audience it seemed like this was the most normal thing to do on a Sunday afternoon. It was all really quite heartening and reaffirming, if a little weird, to see so much curiosity on display.
And I’m certainly inspired to go and read all of Verne now to fill in the details.