Part of me wishes that I had managed to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was a lot younger, if only so that I could have had a more visceral affinity with the imagery that Jules Verne uses with gusto. There’s always a thread of exuberance in his prose that typifies the most optimistic of colonial literature. This novel, however, has more emotional weight than the other Verne novel I’ve read, Around the World in Eighty Days. It tackles issues such as the overhunting of the oceans, the slave trade, and rampant capitalism. A chapter can start off as a breathless travelogue then turn on a dime and transform into a claustrophobic thriller.
The only struggle that I experienced came from “almanac fatigue,” because Verne spends pages listing animals and plants that the characters see throughout the novel. The thorough descriptions of all the marine flora and fauna wears the reader down after a while, especially when you’re anticipating the inevitable batshit crazy climax at the end. The tedium makes it even more glaring that the final confrontation lacks a true denouement.
Seen through the point of view of a French naturalist named Pierre Arronax, the story begins with a collective of seafaring nations looking for a mythical giant narwhal. Dr. Arronax is conscripted into an expedition and sails in a vessel named the Abraham Lincoln with his butler Conseil. There, he meets a Canadian harpoonist named Ned Land. Their ship spots what looks to be the narwhal and attacks it, but the creature damages the ship instead, causing Arronax, Land, and Conseil to be thrown overboard. They hang on to the back of the giant narwhal to survive, but then discover that it is not an actual living thing but a fantastical submarine called the Nautilus. They meet the sub’s striking and iconoclastic captain named Nemo, who benevolently “hosts” them in his ship but the three of them are, in truth, his hostages.
Posterity will remember Jules Verne for creating Captain Nemo who, along with Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, looms over the popular imagination’s image of the sea. Nemo is cultured and whip-smart, but there is also a hint of madness behind his eyes, something that gives Arronax a healthy bit of unease. Between extended episodes of under-the-sea travel and a rare furlough on a deserted island, Arronax and the others discover Nemo’s disdain towards civilization, an enmity shared by his equally mysterious crew. Captain Nemo’s final moments in the novel as he leads the Nautilus to a suicidal battle with a powerful warship is one of the most dramatic moments in literature.
My conception of Jules Verne has been colored by pop cultural depictions of him, such as his appearances in Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant webcomic and the hilarious disdain that a fictional H.G. Wells has for him in Paul F. Tompkins’ The Dead Authors Podcast. I imagine him as the science fiction fanboy of the Belle Epoque who was entranced by technological bells and whistles and wanted to be bros with Edgar Allan Poe. It jives pretty well with the tone of his work that has long been regarded as inferior to high literature just because it is great fun.