You may think you know this story from the 1954 movie – it pops up on TV from time to time. Like another old classic, War of the Worlds, the original book’s old fashioned style can be a chore to read, but a few elements are so memorable that the story lives on: the powerful submarine Nautilus with Captain Nemo and crew who will remain at sea all their lives, the attack of a huge squid (called a cuttlefish or poulp in the book – Kraken would be sexier), and a steampunk sort of technology. This last label is funny because Verne was thoroughly excited by electricity, so there’s no steam on the Nautilus.
Scifi fans should read this classic, but be ready for battle, in a literary sense, to conquer the book.
At least HG Wells wrote his Martian invasion in English (from 1898, but still English). Jules Verne wrote (in 1870) in French and there are several translations in both abridged and unabridged editions. The basic story follows a French professor of marine biology, his faithful servant, and a rowdy Canadian whaler. After sightings of the Nautilus are mistaken for a huge whale, the three join an expedition to bag the beast, but end up falling overboard, only to be rescued by Captain Nemo. The captain refuses to release them and they go on a round-the-world undersea journey with him.
The professor is quite happy with the opportunity but the Canadian wants to escape.
Today if you’re interested in nature there are documentaries. In 1870 people had Verne.
Verne’s book is a series of travelogues with occasional bouts of danger. In each part of the seas Verne lists scientific names and descriptions of species of flora and fauna, mostly of the ocean but some on islands – and these lists can be long and repetitive. There are some history lessons, too, and I suspect Verne tried to be as true to life as he could, filling in gaps in the days’ knowledge with imagination. Exact latitudes and longitudes are given frequently, so you can chart the journey on a world map if you’d like.
Here are some examples of his style:
I do not know how long I wooed Death’s twin sister, Sleep. But my dozing must have been a protracted one, for it rested me completely from my harrowing fatigue.”
I repeat, sir, the dynamic power of my engines is almost infinite.” [Cool. Though Verne’s electric bullets for underwater guns strikes me as an error.]
[Nautilus] does need electricity to make it move, elements to make the electricity, sodium to furnish the elements, coal to manufacture the sodium, and a coal mine to supply the coal.” [Yikes. Sodium metal is so reactive in water it explodes. I wonder what he had in mind?]
Glass, which breaks at a blow, is, nevertheless, capable of offering considerable resistance. During some experiments of fishing by electric light in 1864 in the northern seas we saw plates less than a third of an inch thick resist a pressure of 16 atmospheres.” [Doesn’t this sound like it was a real experiment?]
And Verne uses lots of saidisms, which are frowned on in modern writing. Verne’s characters chirp, reply, answer, growl, assert, object, and exclaim more often than they say. Their cursing is fun, though. My favorite is “Jerusalem crickets!”
I read a 2006 republication of an unabridged 1922 English edition in the original translation by Philip Schuyler Allen. I read from a historical interest and not solely for entertainment, so I’m glad I found this edition in a garage sale. If you are more interested in entertainment, a healthy dose of modern editing might be appreciated. The mystery of Nemo – who he is and why he follows the life he does – is never fully explained, which you may find annoying. But to judge from Amazon, plenty of readers love the book.
You’ll find several editions on Amazon. Weirdly, reviews of 20,000 Leagues and Connecticut Yankee have gotten mixed together! You’ll find discussions of the different translations by reviewers who know more than I do. Aside from complaining about various translations, it was the travelogue style that some readers dislike.
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