Monday, January 7, 2008

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

(I think we're supposed to cross-post reviews. If not, Callista, let me know and I'll just replace the post with a link!) (Cross-posted, with changes, at my blog.)

I finished Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne on January 2nd. It's my first completed book of 2008, and it's also my first pick for the Numbers Challenge. This post ended up too long, even without a plot synopsis, so if you want to know the story's bare bones, Wikipedia tells it quite well (though if you read the last paragraph, it tells the ending).

I've never read Jules Verne before, but of course I've heard of him. And, while I am about to comment on his writing style, I'd like to point out that apparently the B&N edition uses an older translation that cuts out 23% of the original French text. Of course, if I had known that, I'd have gone with a different translation. So I was actually quite curious about how the original French sounded, since the English I read was, in a word, uninspired. And this being the day of the internet, I found the French version and read chapter ten of part one (when the reader, and narrator, meets Captain Nemo). It corresponded quite closely with the English, in that the construction was simple and the vocabulary straight-forward. How straight-forward? Well, with two years of college French, I was able to read the whole chapter, and the few words I didn't already know were easily discovered through context. While this might be great news for a French lit student (oh why did my professor make us slave away with Apollinaire?), the style combined with the endless cataloguing of sea life makes the book feel like an enthusiastic schoolboy's daydream. That's not necessarily a bad thing-it's quite fun to get swept along with Verne's equal fascination for technology and oceans-but it did prevent me from giving it more than just three stars.

Because it's not just the style that's schoolboyish. Of the four main characters, three of them-Pierre Aronnax (a French scientist), Conseil (his faithful-one might be tempted to say dog like-servant), and Ned Land(the red-blooded Candian harpooner) feel like charactertures. In fact, throughout the entire novel, I couldn't find one instance of character development; everyone behaved in the exact same manner all the time. The only intriguing person in the book is Captain Nemo for, while his behavior in the present never changes, there are hints at a dark past (after all, what could have compelled him to renounce humanity and live in a submarine?). Unfortunately, those hints are all too rare. It's possible to excuse this, in fact to find a certain brilliance it in, since Pierre is the first-person narrator. He tells the story through his journal and, as a rational scientist, it's easy to imagine that aboard the submarine he'd be much more focused on the nature and gadgets that surrounded him than any of the people. I haven't read any other Vernes, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe that he was staying perfectly true to his narrator. Also, there are moments when poetry, in the form of Captain Nemo's speeches, glimmer through:
"You like the sea, captain?"
"Yes, I love it! 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 manifest herself in it by her three kingdoms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. The sea is a vast reservoir of Nature. The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knnows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquility. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terristrial 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 recognize no masters! There I am free!"

If this is the case, I can only wish that Venre had chosen a scientist narrator interested in psychology! Really, Pierre himself best sums up the fault in the book
...I have read it to Conseil and to the Canadian. They found it exact as to facts, but insufficient as to effect.
Despite my qualms about Verne's style and characters, I found the plot to be wonderfully inventitive and exciting; whether Captain Nemo was saving a diver from a shark or showing Pierre Atlantis, I was always curious about the next adventure!
While the fiction may be lacking a thing or two, the science is certainly up to snuff. Verne does a meticulous job of presenting the wonders of the deep sea to readers. Take Pierre's catalogue of fish, the first time the 'windows' of the submarine are revealed:
For two whole hours an aquatic army escorted the Nautilus. During their games, their bounds, while rivaling each other in beauty, brightness, and velocity, I distinguished the green labre; the banded mullet, marked by a double line of black; the round-tailed goby, of a white color, with violet spots on the back; the Japanese scombrus, a beautiful mackeral of these seas, with a blue body and silvery head; the brilliant azurors, whose name alone defies description; some banded spares, with variegated fins of blue and yellow; some aclostones, the woodcocks of the seas, some specimens of which attain a yard in length; Japanese salamanders, spider lampreys, serpents six feet long, with eyes small and lively, and a huge mouth bristling with teeth; with many other species.

These kinds of lists are one of the main feautures of the book, and I quite enjoyed them. Also, whatever energy Verne spared in character development must have been turned to making the technology believable. The Nautilus is a submarine, but also a self-contained environment that can get everything it needs from the ocean, except air (which it surfaces for rather like a mechanical whale). Through Captain Nemo, Verne (in my opinion a tad overzealously) justifies the possibility of such a craft. Here's a sample passage of the kind of information Captain Nemo shares:
"Professor," said Captain Nemo, "my electricity is not everybody's. You know what sea-water is compsed of. In a thousand grams are found ninety-six and a half percent of water, and about two and two-thirds percent of chloride of sodium; then, in a smaller quantity, chlorides of magnesium and of potassium, bromide of magnesium, sulphate of magnesia, sulphate and carbonate of lime. You see, then, that chloride of sodium forms a large part of it. So it is this sodium that I extract from sea-water, and of which I compose my own ingredients. I owe it all to the ocean; it produces electricity, and electricity gives heat, light, motion, and, in a word, life to the Nautilus."
How's that for technical? Passages like this are common as well.

In sum, I had a lot of fun exploring the ocean, found out many interesting facts (for instance, a fathom is six feet, and the Sargasso Sea terrified sailors due to its sluggishness and large amount of seaweed), and have a bit of a crush on Captain Nemo. I see him as a civilised, ocean-dwelling counterpart to Heathcliff (oh! if only I could read Captain Nemo's backstory as relayed by a Bronte), and I appreciated being able to spend time aboard his splendid, and scientifically rigourous, vessel. A fitting start to 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Yep absolutely you can cross post the reviews! That's what I'm hoping for. What a thorough review!


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