THE CHOPPAH’s Review of Jules Verne’s TWENTY-THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA

Posted: November 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

Hey everyone.

So, THE CHOPPAH recently read TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA for the first time and was blown away by Verne’s encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s seas and the life dwelling within. It was a magnificent achievement of imagination supplemented with scientific fact–all the more so because of its narrator’s undeniable, erudite authority on all matters concerning marine biology. Verne pulls off here what Lovecraft pulled off in AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. Both narrators are so well informed, so competent and logical/scientific in describing minute details throughout those stories that the reader can’t help but to respect (and, thus, believe) them.
Moreover, Captain Nemo is a wholly remarkable character–one of the great, mysterious characters in English literature. We as readers are given only hints as to where he came from, what his political/military aims are, and what made him the misanthropic, marine-obsessed genius Verne’s novel presents. And much of Nemo’s dialogue is really magnificent:

“The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the `Living Infinite,’ as one of your poets has said. In fact, Professor, Nature manifests herself in it by her three kingdoms–mineral, vegetable, and animal. The sea is the vast reservoir of Nature. The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquillity. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! sir, live–live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!'”

 

This is actually one of the lesser excerpts of a handful of memorable monologues throughout the book. Through Nemo, Verne makes a powerful, persuasive case for living out one’s life wholly underwater (and the evils of life on land).

And–again–the details describing the sea life seen through the thick, glass windows of the Nautilus are simply enchanting:

The Nautilus floated in the midst of a phosphorescent bed which, in this obscurity, became quite dazzling. It was produced by myriads of luminous animalculae, whose brilliancy was increased as they glided over the metallic hull of the vessel. I was surprised by lightning in the midst of these luminous sheets, as though they bad been rivulets of lead melted in an ardent furnace or metallic masses brought to a white heat, so that, by force of contrast, certain portions of light appeared to cast a shade in the midst of the general ignition, from which all shade seemed banished. No; this was not the calm irradiation of our ordinary lightning. There was unusual life and vigour: this was truly living light! 

In reality, it was an infinite agglomeration of coloured infusoria, of veritable globules of jelly, provided with a threadlike tentacle, and of which as many as twenty-five thousand have been counted in less than two cubic half-inches of water.

During several hours the Nautilus floated in these brilliant waves, and our admiration increased as we watched the marine monsters disporting themselves like salamanders. I saw there in the midst of this fire that burns not the swift and elegant porpoise (the indefatigable clown of the ocean), and some swordfish ten feet long, those prophetic heralds of the hurricane whose formidable sword would now and then strike the glass of the saloon. Then appeared the smaller fish, the balista, the leaping mackerel, wolf-thorn-tails, and a hundred others which striped the luminous atmosphere as they swam. This dazzling spectacle was enchanting! Perhaps some atmospheric condition increased the intensity of this phenomenon. Perhaps some storm agitated the surface of the waves. But at this depth of some yards, the Nautilus was unmoved by its fury and reposed peacefully in still water.”

The action is exciting and engaging and (usually) plausible, and the exploration the narrator and his companions experience onboard feels surprisingly novel, considering that this story was written in the mid-19th Century.

And that’s the thrill of the novel that I couldn’t get over. Here was a writer half a century (and more!) before his time. Verne doesn’t just use the (what was then) science fiction in his stories to meet his plots’ ends. He describes and indeed explicates HOW his new-fangled devices function, from top to bottom.

I’m no marine biologist or physicist or engineer, but I finished TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA with a sense of awe and a feeling that Verne’s submarine (and many of Nemo’s original steampunk devices) COULD have been implemented with the proper tweaking and effort in the fucking 19TH CENTURY when he wrote the damned thing. Extraordinary.

There are flaws of course. The narrative sometimes gets TOO mired in details, going off on tangents about this or that explorer or getting carried away in describing minute, scientific details about a certain rare type of mollusk. Some readers will find some chapters rather dry and somewhat redundant. But–as I indicated above–these are elements that also help create that wonderful sense of reality and authority and INTEGRITY that the novel creates.

Unfortunately, the last fourth of the novel is somewhat of a disappointment, as Verne makes a turn with Nemo that I thoroughly disliked and thought was a bit of a cop out. I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that this unexpected plot turn–which seemed a bit artificial and rushed to me–certainly didn’t ruin the greatness and importance of the overall story.

 

And the story is indeed important.

This novel SCREAMS sequel, and it’s a wonder Verne didn’t write one. OTOH, it’s little wonder that contemporary masters like Alan Moore have used Captain Nemo and his extraordinary Nautilus in support of their own artistic creations. It is fertile ground to work, and is–to me–simply one of the very most innovative and visionary science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

So, yeah–people.   Read this fucking book if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.

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Comments
  1. Benson says:

    Hey, that was a fucking great review man! Movies, Porn and classic novel reviews? You’re one peculiar dude. But I’m loving it!

  2. thechoppah says:

    Thanks, man. I’m going to try to supplement the blog with a few thoughts about the books I’m reading.

    Currently working on Edgar Rice Burroughs THE MAD KING. I swear — Burroughs was second only to Robert E Howard in writing concise, riveting action stories.

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