THE KEY WAS LOST LONG AGO. Still, the massive bronze safe had been shuttled among the descendants of Jules Verne for generations. Michel Verne, the only son of the legendary French author of Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea, is thought to have inherited it when his father died in 1905 at the age of 77. The next owner was Michel's youngest son, Jean Jules, who used the 4-foot-by-31-inch safe to hold up a workbench in the garage of his Toulon, France, home. When Jean Jules died in 1980, it went to his youngest son, Jean Verne. "Nobody else wanted it," says Jean, 31. "It was a useless encumbrance." But the half-ton box intrigued Jean, who'd spent much of his childhood wondering what was behind its foot-thick armored door. "I desperately wanted to open it," he says. "I'd read Treasure Island. I imagined it was full of wonderful objects my great-grandfather had acquired during his life."

Little did he know. In 1989, Jean hired a safe specialist to blow open the box with explosives. Inside he found treasure more precious than any pirate gold, at least in literary circles: a handwritten 1863 manuscript by his great-grandfather Jules of a never-published—and remarkably prescient—novel about life in the 1960s. Titled Paris in the 20th Century, it is a bleak tale of a society where culture has been virtually abandoned in favor of technological progress. Verne's Paris is a bustling, overcrowded metropolis teeming with starving homeless and "vehicles that passed on paved roads [and] moved without horses." Years before they would be invented, Verne also imagined elevators and fax machines.

It was a vision Verne's editor flatly rejected. Notes in the margins advise, "My dear Verne, if you were a prophet, no one today would ever believe your prophecies." Contemporary readers know better. Since its publication in France in September, Paris in the 20th Century has been climbing the best-seller charts, with sales of more than 100,000 copies. Random House plans to release an English-language version here next January.

Ironically the Verne family—four of whom are sharing profits from the release of the manuscript with Jean—initially weren't thrilled by the discovery. Though Jean's father had been fascinated by Jules—even writing a biography of his grandfather—the remaining Vernes had tired of their famous ancestor. "We had it up to here with Jules," says Jean. "Whenever we traveled, it was to inaugurate something named after him or to celebrate an anniversary. It was always for Jules. It was to the point that I refused to read his books until I was 20—his presence was too overwhelming."

His father's tales of Jules as a bitter and eccentric old man who suffered from diabetes and bulimia only confirmed in Jean's mind his view of the patriarchal genius as trouble. "He was solitary and didn't talk to anybody, but he'd come down to lunch at noon sharp," says Jean. "He'd had a special chair built for him that put his chin and mouth at the level of the table, and he would shovel food in with both hands. He'd eat entire roasts."

After reading Paris, Jean, a bachelor and struggling opera singer, softened his opinion. He identifies with the novel's protagonist, an artist who finds himself adrift in a society where culture has been virtually annihilated in favor of technological progress. "His hero is an outcast because he only cares about poetry, that's what touches me most," says Jean. "There's a certain sense in which I feel I was destined to find the manuscript."

CYNTHIA SANZ
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Nolan.