Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) by Jules Verne
Jules Verne's greatest creation was not a story or novel. His masterpiece was the brilliant, mysterious Captain Nemo, one of the greatest fictional characters of the 19th century. We might forget some of the details of plot in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but we never forget Nemo or the amazing submarine of his design, The Nautilus. He was a genius and lover of personal freedom who made himself master of the oceans. In him burned a hatred for the world above the waves and he swore never to set foot on dry land again. Who was this mysterious man and what drove him on his never-ending journey across the oceans? That mystery is the heart of this timeless novel.
In the year 1866 ships had been encountering "an enormous thing," that was larger than any whale and had a mysterious glow. Professor Aronnax, who believes this thing to be some deep sea monster, has been invited on board a ship out to hunt the beast. They encounter it and the Professor is thrown overboard. His faithful servant Conseil attempts to rescue him and the two are both lost at sea. Not for long though, for soon they encounter the floating monster itself, and sitting on top of it is the harpooner from their ship, Ned Land. Of course the "monster" is really a submarine.
Ned, Conseil and the Professor are brought inside and meet the mysterious Captain Nemo, lord of The Nautilus. He commands a crew that seem to be from all over the globe and who speak a strange language of their own. Nemo believes the castaways are a danger to him now that they know the secret of The Nautilus. He lets them live but they are his prisoners. He decides that they must never return to their world so he condemns them to live in his. He tolerates them, and as far as he is concerned they are lucky he does.
And so begins their strange adventures. Twenty Thousand Leagues is an episodic book that often reads like a bizarre travelogue. Every step of their journey is detailed down to their exact coordinates. Verne delighted in scientific detail, and we get a load of it in this novel. The descriptions of the sea life they encounter cover whole pages at a time. All this works to give the story a sense of reality, as if this fantastic journey actually happened and Professor Aronnax is merely giving his bland chronicle of everyday events.
While the Professor seems to be having a fine time, Ned Land just wants to escape. The tension between Land and Nemo grows throughout the story. Eventually the castaways together decide they must escape at all costs and they await their opportunity. Of course, Nemo has made it clear he will never let them off The Nautilus alive.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea remains one of the greatest adventure novels ever written and Captain Nemo is one of literature's immortals. He stands alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dracula as a 19th century character who will never die. Jules Verne, unfairly considered a writer for children, has never been given the credit he is due for creating such a complex character.
I should note that the first English translation, in addition to making several strange blunders with the language, also cut out a good chunk of the text. Many good translations are now available. I would recommend the text available from Oxford classics.