Monday 18 August 2014

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I expected to love 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. After all this was my second excursion with Jules Verne, not counting the lunches. I read his Journey to the Centre of the Earth back in 2012, and really loved it. I expected the same joy once again. Sadly it wasn't to be. 

Mind you, I did like the story itself, which is an exciting tale. A mysterious monster is attacking shipping in many places around the globe. Speculation mounts as to what it can be- a giant narwhal? French expert, Associate Professor Pierre Aronnax is sent on a mission with his trusty servant, the Belgian, Conseil, to capture the monster. Pierre Aronnax, Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land come to be trapped on the Nautilus with the rather enigmatic Captain Nemo.

Captain Nemo is a very famous character in fiction, whose reputation preceded him somewhat of course- but he wasn't what I expected at all. He remains rather enigmatic throughout the entire book. Why is he so enraged? Why is he so misanthropic? Sadly we don't really find out. We learn that his wife and children have been killed in disturbing circumstance, but not really any more details. And yet Nemo is a learned man, an unrecognised scientist, a gentleman scholar, but he can also be barbaric, and yet is often kind, even philanthropic, a Robin Hood character. Apparently much more detail about Captain Nemo is forthcoming in The Mysterious Island, a sequel of sorts to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

My lovely illustrated Harper Collins Books of Wonder version tells me that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is "Considered by many to be his greatest work, it has never been out of print in French or in English", and yet it's really a bit of a hard slog to read. Incredibly detailed, over detailed really, it is more a textbook than a novel at times. Historical fiction when Verne wrote it, is also one of the first books of the science fiction genre. A tale of an electric powered submarine criss-crossing the worlds oceans before readers of the book had electric light in their streets and houses must have indeed been quite fantastical.

There is so much detail about explorers, geography, history, oceanography and more. Many pages list species of fish, or seaweed, or shipping disasters. Not just a list of two or three example- paragraphs, pages of it. Dear god, if there was another mention of the taxonomy and classification of fish I thought I would go quite insane. It all got in the way of the story (which is actually exciting and well written), rather like the long swathes about Russian peasants got in the way of the story of Anna Karenina (which I never was able to finish). Rather incredibly there is a whole chapter about the disappearance of Monsieur La Perouse. Happily I have quite a fascination with the disappearance of Monsieur La Perouse, so I didn't really mind, indeed I quite enjoyed Verne's explication of events. But if I wasn't particularly interested in the exploits of French explorers of the 18th century then that chapter too would have been quite dull. For me there wasn't quite the same level of humour and fun that I found in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Although there were moments that brought a wry smile.

There are some interesting perspectives reading this book from the distance of the 21st century. Written as the Steller's Sea Cow was being hunted to extinction, environmental messages are balanced by a hunting/eat everything you see mentality.

"And do you know," I added, "what has happened since man has almost completely destroyed these useful creatures? Rotting plants have fouled the air, and it is this foul air which has produced the yellow fever laying wast to these remarkable lands. Poisonous vegetation has increased beneath these warm seas, and this disease has spread unchecked from the mouth of the Rio Plata to Florida!"

I was rather excited though at a random mention of the giant clam shells at Saint Sulpice in Paris.

This shell, furnished by the largest of acephalous mollusks, measured about thirty-three feet around its delicately scalloped rim. It was even larger than those lovely giant clams given to Francis I by the Republic of Venice, and which the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris has made into two huge holy-water basins. 

It rang a faint bell. Yes- I have a slightly blurry photo of one- taken in my church going frenzy in Paris last year.

I'll have to go back and pay more attention!

I also read the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition by William Butcher, who is very critical of prior translations of Verne's works.

The poor style often associated with his name is not his. 

Butcher tells us that "The books were generally chopped by about 20 percent. The translators, frequently anonymous, often did not understand the French, and so mistranslated it." He gives such examples as the Badlands of Nebraska being mistranslated as the 'disagreeable territories of Nebraska'. 20,000 Leagues would be a challenge to any translator with the many species names and scientific descriptors.

So while I didn't enjoy my whole journey aboard the Nautilus (much like Pierre Arronax, Conseil and Ned Land) I am glad to have made it.

Books on France, a great 2014 challenge
 from Emma at 
Words and Peace

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog


skiourophile said...

I think I used going to St-Sulpice as an excuse to visit the nearby Pierre Herme again. I wish I'd noticed the shells, but it was all geared more to Dan Brown than Verne!

Louise said...

Vicki I may have visited Pierre before going to St Sulpice... So handy to have him close by.

Paulita said...

Great detail on the clam shell. I don't think I've ever read the full novel either. Thanks for doing the work for me. And thanks for playing along with Dreaming of France. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Esme said...

I am going to return to the church to see the clam-I never noticed it. Funny thing is I have toured the church and do not remember the clam being mentioned---no the tour did not focus on the Da Vinci Code either.

PS the strawberry mousse was long before I would snap shots of food-but it was delicious.

Satia said...

I remember trying to read this novel when I was a child and not getting very far. I didn't remember why, however. Now, having read your review, I wonder if I didn't become bored early. Pages of catalogs of fish? Ugh.

Sim Carter said...

I loved reading your review, I can't imagine trying the book and now, I think I can safely say, 'pass'. Did you know it looks like Australia is going to be home to the next 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake? At one point David Fincher was going to direct but I think he's out. Apparently they're gearing up to start filming in 2015. Maybe we'll all enjoy the film better than you did the book???

Brona said...

I'm glad you've ticked another book off your 1001 list, but this one does not sound like me either.

But I do love it when a book and real life converge in some way. That's why reading is such a personal experience I guess.