20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, translated by Frederick Paul Walter

In some ways/at some moments I liked this more than I liked Journey to the Center of the Earth, because some of the descriptions of underwater/oceanic sights were vivid or lovely—but sometimes it felt like more of a slog.

When the novel opens, it’s 1866 and boats have been seeing something big in the water: “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.” Is it a previously-unknown kind of whale or some other sea monster/sea creature? Everyone wonders; no one knows. In 1867, it collides with a boat and damages it: suddenly it seems like maybe it’s a submarine. Spoiler alert: it is a submarine, and our narrator (Pierre Aronnax, “Assistant Professor in the Museum of Natural History in Paris”) ends up as its passenger/prisoner, along with his servant (Conseil) and a sailor who’s served as a harpooner on whaling ships (Ned Land). They are the prisoners/guests of Captain Nemo, who has built this vessel (the Nautilus) and lives on it full-time with his crew, having “broken all the ties of humanity” for reasons we will learn as the book proceeds.

Aronnax, as a scientist who studies the ocean, doesn’t really mind being trapped on this submarine. Nemo has a whole library, and there’s a collection of art and natural specimens to look at, and, of course, there are the underwater vistas and experiences: there are retractable panels that open to give a view of the submarine landscape the Nautilus is passing through, and Nemo invites his prisoners/guests to try out the diving suits he and his crew use for underwater hunting/fishing expeditions. And the vessel itself (which runs on electricity) is interesting to Aronnax from a scientific perspective. Ned Land, meanwhile, just wants to go home, by any means necessary; Conseil sort of agrees with Ned, though he can also see why Aronnax isn’t as bothered by their captivity. So: we get scenes of Aronnax’s wonder at various sights—sunlight refracting through water (or, later, icebergs), shells and jellyfish and seaweed and corals, phosphorescence and underwater forests and underwater volcanoes and shipwrecks. There are some moments of humor, like when the Nautilus is stranded on a reef near an island and Ned wants to go ashore and hunt because he’s tired of eating only things that come from the ocean (“on that island there are trees; under those trees, terrestrial animals, bearers of cutlets and roast beef, to which I would willingly give a trial” + “until I have killed an animal with cutlets I shall not be content”). There are moments of adventure and peril, but there are also a lot of passages where the Nautilus is just making its way underwater and Verne is just kind of listing different varieties of fish. I’m glad to have read this, and I’m a little curious about The Mysterious Island, but I might need a break from Verne for a while.






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