Albert Robida (1848-1926) was a graphic artist and writer, a prominent, versatile, and prolific figure on the turn-of-the-century French cultural landscape.
Throughout his career he published images and words as a satirical cartoonist, a novelist, a chronicler, a historian, an illustrator of literary classics and contemporary fiction, and designed the 1900 Exposition Universelle life–size ‘Old Paris’ display. Today he is mainly remembered as a pioneer of science fiction, more particularly for a trilogy of panoramas of the future in lavishly illustrated novels: Le Vingtième Siècle [The Twentieth Century] (1883; initially published in installments in 1882), La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle [War in the Twentieth Century] (1887), and La Vie Electrique [The Electric Life] (1892).
These novels’ particular proportions of text and image and uncommon degree of interaction between the two mediums closed an era opened with such experimental texts as Charles Nodier and Tony Johannot’s pastiche of Laurence Sterne Histoire du roi de Bohème et de ses sept châteaux [Story of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles] (1830) and P.J. Hetzel’s collective panorama Le Diable à Paris [The Devil in Paris] (1845-69). Robida’s artwork in his own hybrid text/image novels constitutes an integral part of the narration and occupies roughly a third of the total printed surface. Eschewing the convention of merely duplicating information present in the written text, the illustrations engage into a rich interplay with the text, each alternatively supporting, complementing, and challenging the other. This interaction creates different levels of reading; it fleshes out the universe depicted and gives coherence to it.
The Twentieth Century (Wesleyan University Press, 2004) was the first critical edition of a work by Robida and the first English translation of Le Vingtième Siècle, a unique novel and cultural artifact—at once an objet d’art and a pulp fiction, a utopia and science fiction, a satire and conjecture, an extinct literary mutant standing between the novel and the comic strip.
My introductory essay defines its bold narrative strategy, situates the novel within literary history, examines its ideological positions, and emphasizes the novel’s original, “stereoscopic” form of realism as conjectural fiction and its rejection of popular literature’s simplistic dualism.
The Twentieth Century is a landmark in the development of science fiction, a link between the ancient tradition of utopian projection, from Plato to Thomas More and Francis Bacon on, and the ambivalent attitude toward technology of the late 20th-century cyberpunk novel. On a literary level, it draws from both narrative strategies of the French Realist novel and so-called panoramic literature of the 1830s-1850s.
Robida’ s anticipation was able to push culturally beyond the state of his modern society to anticipate the world’s evolution toward postmodernity. It displays constant tension between two ideological poles: positivist and postindustrial. The happy-go-lucky bourgeois novel showcases a future world dominated by the media, mega corporations, and simulacra, and constantly displays love-hate relationships with technology.
Finally, the story expresses a quaint form of feminism, in all its imperfections and wry chauvinistic humor, with the highly unusual choice of a female antihero for a main character. Today, public awareness of Robida is growing to the point when he may soon come to occupy the place he deserves as a unique figure in the history of narrative forms of fiction in general, and in that of science fiction in particular.
Upon publication of this book, I was privileged enough to be invited by Jim Freund, who “has interviewed practically every famous sci-fi and fantasy writer on his radio talk show, Hour of the Wolf,” on NYC’s WBAI-FM. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Today, Albert Robida is omnipresent on the web and in museums, but that was far from the case in 1999, when the internet still involved carrier pigeons and pneumatic tubes and I attended a talk at Vassar College by two young engineers introducing their project, Google, which they touted as the next best search engine to come. As the following article argued back then, Robida had been too long neglected by science-fiction historians and deserved recognition as a highly original and important figure in the history of science fiction. I think we’ve made some progress since then.
“A Stereoscopic View of the Future: Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century”, Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 26.3 (November 1999): 354-378 (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/79/willems79.htm): This essay analyzes the link between Robida’s unique narrative strategies in Le Vingtième Siècle, La Guerre au vingtième siècle, and La Vie électrique and his skill in endowing his fictional speculations with verisimilitude. Robida’s vision of France in the 1950s is striking in its overall organic coherence. Multiple factors generate realism in the Twentieth Century trilogy: its historical dimension, the depth of Robida’s cultural and societal insight, the network of different narrative voices used, and the multimedia aspect of these illustrated novels. Indeed, his artwork often acts as a distinct narrative channel in its own right, supplying peripheral information and avoiding the redundancy of conventional illustration.
The traits that set this versatile and prolific writer apart from the rest of his fellow scientific novelists are best illustrated by an analogy with an apparatus contemporary to him: the stereoscope. Like stereoscopic views, Robida’s snapshots of the future multiply perspectives to create an impression of depth; they offer more societal substance than any other pre-20th-century science fiction narrative.
In 1990, several years before I discovered Robida myself, historian and anthropologist of technology Edward Tenner introduced his science fiction work to the English-speaking public in a very insightful article for Harvard Magazine, probably the most extensive piece on Robida in English at the time: Albert Robida, World’s Greatest Futurist.
Albert Robida also created combinations of words and images that stand closer to the graphic narrative than to book illustration. As Jean-Claude Viche, President of the Association des amis d’Albert Robida, informs us, Robida illustrated six volumes in a collection of thirteen tales entitled Contes à Mariani (one of them written by him) between 1890 and 1904. Viche describes their layout as “bearing some resemblance with comic-strip albums, with concise text and the image playing a predominant role on the page”. Sought after by bibliophiles today, the collection was created by patron of the arts and marketing genius Angelo Mariani. Now, here come some juicy bits of Franco-American historical trivia for ya:
As Alain Delpirou explains, Robida’s friend Angelo Mariani was the rich and famous inventor of Vin Mariani, a mixture of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. It was sold as “tonique Mariani à la coca du Pérou, le plus agréable et le plus efficace des toniques et des stimulants” [Mariani Wine with Peruvian coca, the most efficient of tonics and stimulants]. Mariani was such a master marketer that he even got Pope Leo XIII to endorse it. According to Delpirou, French sculptor and designer of the Statue of Liberty Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi once exclaimed, “Coca feels like it increases all your abilities. Had I been introduced to it twenty years ago, the Statue of Liberty would probably have been 100 meters [328 ft] tall!” (Delpirou 34; translation mine). Today, Vin Mariani still exists, albeit in a softened version. Turn-of-the-20th century Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton used it as basic recipe for his French Wine Cola, later to become Coca Cola.
(Perhaps thanks to Vin Mariani,) Robida still manages to keep a blog. It features information on Robida-related publications, exhibitions, and events.
Here’s a very nice 3d animation of the above 1950s Paris tableau by Laurent Antoine LeMog.
Here’s LeMog’s 3D rendition of Robida’s Old Paris at the 1900 Exposition universelle.
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