My list is mostly made up of the books I feel the need to read, but I included a large selection of nineteenth-century pop fiction in order to have a pleasant break from what I knew at times would be some pretty heavy reading. In some cases, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, these books delivered exactly as planned, providing a fun romp to lighten the load. In others, however, I’ve had less success, finding myself plodding laboriously through what I thought would be a frolic. Unfortunately, this is the case with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which turned out to be a bland book that I really did not enjoy much at all and couldn’t wait to finish.
The book begins with our narrator reminding everyone of a mysterious sea object that began appearing in the oceans of the world: a long object, bigger and faster than any whale, spindle-shaped, and of great mystery to all who sighted her. This thing caused especial consternation when it began ramming ships with its large horn, so an expedition was mounted to find and kill the creature. Our narrator is an esteemed naturalist with a focus on the sea, so of course he is asked to join the expedition. Accompanied by his faithful servant Conseil, as well as by Canadian harpooner Ned Land, they proceed to spend some months roaming the seas looking for the great narwhal, debating its likely features, characteristics, and capabilities.
Ultimately, the search doesn’t last long, as our hero and his two companions find themselves left behind in the chase, floating in the sea with no hope of rescue, when the most curious thing happens: They happen to find themselves scrambling to the top of a long cylindrical object floating in the sea, where they proceed to spend the night. The object is metal, and obviously man-made, and is none other than the narwhal they’ve been searching for. Of course, it’s no narwhal at all, but is actually a submarine. Eventually the hatch opens, and they are allowed to descend into the craft.
This begins their adventures with Captain Nemo, a self-exiled super-genius with a grudge, who built the world’s most advanced submarine in order to break with humanity entirely and rule the world’s underwater domain instead. When he brings in his guests, he informs them that because he is maintaining secrecy from the world (for some unstated reason) they are welcome to stay on the ship in comfort with him as long as they live, but that they will never be allowed to leave. This causes some consternation among our captives, but at the same time, they find themselves enjoying Nemo’s hospitality in various ways, and they proceed to enjoy a variety of adventures unique to Nemo and the sea.
Our narrator Professor Aronnax is the most torn of the captives because, being a naturalist focused on the sea, he is able to study his subject with greater intimacy than he might any other way. The ship has a big picture window, and you can sit and watch the creatures swim by all day long, and of course Nemo steers them to various amazing sights as well. But because he is a naturalist, and also a very tedious writer, he spends long passages itemizing the various creatures he sees, putting them in the appropriate Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, and if just reading that list made you feel a twinge of boredom, then you have the barest glimpse of what the book has in store for you. These classifications might be interesting in a marine biology textbook, but as passages of an adventure novel they served only to make this reader sleepy.
Indeed, my main complaint with the book is that it is boring. There are all sorts of adventures, interesting characters, and intrigue, but Aronnax—and thereby Verne himself—lays it out with a really impressive lack of drama. The book was published about eleven years after The Origin of Species, which one gathers was the heyday of the Naturalist Adventurer, when the search for scientific knowledge was seen as a bold and dangerous career choice, traveling the world searching for new species, exploring jungles for exotic flora, and carting specimens back to the Royal Society. Perhaps for this reason, I speculate that Verne put too much emphasis on this aspect of the book so that it felt at times like naturalist porn. I mean, I like science as much as the next guy, but please get the hell on with the story, already.
I found myself wishing that the book were told from the point of view of one of the other characters. Aronnax has with him a faithful servant, Conseil, who essentially acts as an extremely erudite and committed butler, but who seems to be some sort of actual slave. He is also an accomplished naturalist (having followed Aronnax across the world and presumably carted his specimens) and would have likely been prone to the same flights of classification as Aronnax, but being a dutiful servant I suspect he would have served his readers with a bit more interest than his master did. Ned Land would have made a better narrator as well, I suspect. He was a simple man, a harpooner who lived for the hunt, and what he may have lacked in deft prose styling he would have made up for by getting to the point, spinning things into a more directed story.
The central mystery of the book is never really resolved, which is what is Nemo’s deal? Why is this crazed genius doing this, and what is his agenda? He’s like a naturalist superhero, who also happens to be the world’s foremost engineer, and he’s ensconced himself under the sea with a crew of devoted men who’ve all given their lives to this adventure, but we never really learn what the adventure is about. Nemo seems to have deep hatred for society, but we don’t know why. We discover he once had a family, which presumably has some influence on his actions, but we never get the skinny. And that’s too bad, because it has the potential to be an interesting book if we’d gotten less marine biology and more tortured genius.
There are some nice scenes strewn through the book, like when they visit famous shipwrecks or the remains of naval battles, or when they put on suits and hike across the ocean floor, first on a hunt for underwater creatures, and then to an underwater burial ground Nemo has created for his fallen crew members. I got the feeling that Verne felt that these would be so thrilling as to keep the reader turning pages, but they landed with me as a collection of excursions that were each sort of interesting, but did not add up to anything or serve to push the story forward.
Reading this book, one can’t help but be reminded of Moby Dick, published twenty years before, and this may have contributed to my dissatisfaction. The search for the sea creature that begins the novel, the mad captain with a singular drive, the harpooner sidekick, and even some of the naturalist bent is comparable. Like Verne, Melville also has an appetite for instructing the reader on matters of science and a tendency to tell you more about whales than you ever thought you needed to know. But unlike Verne, he sets these into a broader story that propels you forward. And where Verne never really reveals the source or motives behind Nemo’s actions, Melville makes these clear early on and allows us to spend the novel grasping the awful repercussions of Ahab’s vengeance. Even his characters are better—where Melville give us a tattooed savage for a harpooner, Verne gives us a Canadian.
So if you’re looking for a maritime adventure centered around a monomaniac, read Moby Dick. If you’re looking for an exercise in thrilling naturalism, read The Origin of Species. But if there is a reason one would argue for reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea instead, I’m afraid I do not know what it is.
Excerpt from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
A coral is a unit of tiny animals assembled over a polypary that’s brittle and stony in nature. These polyps have a unique generating mechanism that reproduces them via the budding process, and they have an individual existence while also participating in a communal life. Hence they embody a sort of natural socialism. I was familiar with the latest research on this bizarre zoophyte—which turns to stone while taking on a tree form, as some naturalists have very aptly observed—and nothing could have been more fascinating to me than to visit one of these petrified forests that nature has planted on the bottom of the sea .
We turned on our Ruhmkorff devices and went along a coral shoal in the process of forming, which, given time, will someday close off this whole part of the Indian Ocean. Our path was bordered by hopelessly tangled bushes, formed from snarls of shrubs all covered with little star-shaped, white-streaked flowers. Only, contrary to plants on shore, these tree forms become attached to rocks on the seafloor by heading from top to bottom .
Our lights produced a thousand delightful effects while playing over these brightly colored boughs. I fancied I saw these cylindrical, membrane-filled tubes trembling beneath the water’s undulations. I was tempted to gather their fresh petals, which were adorned with delicate tentacles, some newly in bloom, others barely opened, while nimble fish with fluttering fins brushed past them like flocks of birds. But if my hands came near the moving flowers of these sensitive, lively creatures, an alarm would instantly sound throughout the colony. The white petals retracted into their red sheaths, the flowers vanished before my eyes, and the bush changed into a chunk of stony nipples .
Sheer chance had placed me in the presence of the most valuable specimens of this zoophyte. This coral was the equal of those fished up from the Mediterranean off the Barbary Coast or the shores of France and Italy. With its bright colors, it lived up to those poetic names of blood flower and blood foam that the industry confers on its finest exhibits. Coral sells for as much as 500 francs per kilogram, and in this locality the liquid strata hid enough to make the fortunes of a whole host of coral fishermen. This valuable substance often merges with other polyparies, forming compact, hopelessly tangled units known as “macciota,” and I noted some wonderful pink samples of this coral .
But as the bushes shrank, the tree forms magnified. Actual petrified thickets and long alcoves from some fantastic school of architecture kept opening up before our steps. Captain Nemo entered beneath a dark gallery whose gentle slope took us to a depth of 100 meters. The light from our glass coils produced magical effects at times, lingering on the wrinkled roughness of some natural arch, or some overhang suspended like a chandelier, which our lamps flecked with fiery sparks. Amid these shrubs of precious coral, I observed other polyps no less unusual: melita coral, rainbow coral with jointed outgrowths, then a few tufts of genus Corallina, some green and others red, actually a type of seaweed encrusted with limestone salts, which, after long disputes, naturalists have finally placed in the vegetable kingdom. But as one intellectual has remarked, “Here, perhaps, is the actual point where life rises humbly out of slumbering stone, but without breaking away from its crude starting point.” Finally, after two hours of walking, we reached a depth of about 300 meters, in other words, the lowermost limit at which coral can begin to form. But here it was no longer some isolated bush or a modest grove of low timber. It was an immense forest, huge mineral vegetation, enormous petrified trees linked by garlands of elegant hydras from the genus Plumularia, those tropical creepers of the sea, all decked out in shades and gleams. We passed freely under their lofty boughs, lost up in the shadows of the waves, while at our feet organ-pipe coral, stony coral, star coral, fungus coral, and sea anemone from the genus Caryophylia formed a carpet of flowers all strewn with dazzling gems .
What an indescribable sight! Oh, if only we could share our feelings! Why were we imprisoned behind these masks of metal and glass! Why were we forbidden to talk with each other! At least let us lead the lives of the fish that populate this liquid element, or better yet, the lives of amphibians, which can spend long hours either at sea or on shore, traveling through their double domain as their whims dictate! Meanwhile Captain Nemo had called a halt. My companions and I stopped walking, and turning around, I saw the crewmen form a semicircle around their leader. Looking with greater care, I observed that four of them were carrying on their shoulders an object that was oblong in shape .
At this locality we stood in the center of a huge clearing surrounded by the tall tree forms of this underwater forest. Our lamps cast a sort of brilliant twilight over the area, making inordinately long shadows on the seafloor. Past the boundaries of the clearing, the darkness deepened again, relieved only by little sparkles given off by the sharp crests of coral .
Ned Land and Conseil stood next to me. We stared, and it dawned on me that I was about to witness a strange scene. Observing the seafloor, I saw that it swelled at certain points from low bulges that were encrusted with limestone deposits and arranged with a symmetry that betrayed the hand of man .
In the middle of the clearing, on a pedestal of roughly piled rocks, there stood a cross of coral, extending long arms you would have thought were made of petrified blood .
At a signal from Captain Nemo, one of his men stepped forward and, a few feet from this cross, detached a mattock from his belt and began to dig a hole .
I finally understood! This clearing was a cemetery, this hole a grave, that oblong object the body of the man who must have died during the night! Captain Nemo and his men had come to bury their companion in this communal resting place on the inaccessible ocean floor!
Public Domain. Translated by F.P. Walter