Exploring an uncharted world below sea level


Jules Verne: Voyages extraordinaires: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (English title: 20 000 Leagues under the Sea) ISBN: 978-2-07-012892-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The ambition of Jules Verne (1828-1905) was to combine the scientific education of his readers with the pleasure of reading a thrilling adventure novel. The French writer succeeded marvellously, his books sold well, and quickly they became part of the classics of French literature. Verne was a visionary as far as science is concerned: His heroes flew into space decades before man had built a rocket capable to overcome the earth’s gravity, they explored the abysses of the oceans well before the technology of modern submarines had been invented. Verne had invented the genre of science-fiction literature avant la lettre and ranks among the best and most important European writers of all times.

I clearly recall my first contact with Verne’s fantastic worlds as a young boy. It must have been in the late 1970s in southern France, not far from Nice. I went shopping with my family at the first shopping mall I ever saw. It had a cart circuit on the roof – I made very big eyes when I saw it – and a movie theater. And so I watched “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”, shrieking in terror when the giant octopus grabbed the submarine with Verne’s heroes on board. I do recall nothing from the film, except this specific scene.

Curiously I had never read any of Verne’s novels up to now. I realized what I had missed once I had started with “A Journey to the Center of the Earth”. After the first pages, I had caught fire and read four Verne novels on a row, the last being “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” in the French edition of La Pléiade, beautifully illustrated, heavily annotated and with an excellent introduction. It was one of those books that I had trouble to put down; needless to say that it didn’t take me much time to read it.

I will not spoil your pleasure by giving away key scenes, but I will summarize the story nevertheless. In the late half of the 19th century from different spots in different oceans mysterious sightings are being reported. A giant whale? A man-made machine? Nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion. Some reports indicate that the mysterious object is capable (and willing) to attack ships, but the brightest scientists cannot come up with a convincing explanation. It is decided that an expeditionary team shall search the ocean and uncover the secret. Part of the team are the whale hunter Ned Land, the marine biologist Prof. Aronnax and his servant Conseil.

A dramatic event leads to a situation where the three heroes discover the truth behind the enigmatic sightings: The object is man-made. A technological miracle in many respects. Land, Aronnax and Conseil end up in a submarine named “Nautilus” and commanded by a mysterious man: Captain Nemo. His origin is unknown, his wealth unlimited. He sails the ocean and flees humanity, which seems to fill him with a singular hatred. A very intriguing man. Prof. Aronnax is fortunate enough to create a kind of intellectual bond with Nemo and slowly discovers the multiple facets not only of the submarine’s commander, but also of sea life as such and the hidden treasures of the oceans.

However, the three heroes are aware that being privy to Nemo’s world means that they will not be permitted to leave the “Nautilus”. While Ned Land develops quite a few escape plans, Prof. Aronnax is torn between his fascination by Nemo’s way if life and his desire to report the marvellous marine world that Nemo had made him discover and compels him to flee. Eventually they will flee, as to how and why and when – read the book! “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” is a real page-turner with a lot of suspense, at the same time Verne’s beautiful, elaborate language makes reading an almost sensual experience.

The “Nautilus” is the submarine of my dreams. Captain Nemo not only had a well-stocked library built into it, it also features an organ and a vast collection of sheet music. For all his hatred against mankind, he does not repudiate its cultural artifacts. Nemo names a few of his favourites: Weber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Haydn. Joseph Haydn precisely wrote an opera called “L’Isola Dishabitata”, that perfectly fits into the context:

A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe

2 thoughts on “Exploring an uncharted world below sea level”

  1. It took me 48 years to read his novels! That’s quite unbelievable. And Dumas’ “Comte de Monte-Christo” stands here still unread! 😱 But I am currently obsessed by US politics. I will publish my review of Woodward’s book “Fear. Trump in the White House” in a week. Next to follow is a book about the US senator Elizabeth Warren, a remarkable scholar and politician who has developed a detailed understanding of the plight of the disappearing US middle class. Very well written with a lot insight into past US lawmaking and jurusprudence. Dumas will have to wait. 😫

  2. Ah, Jules Verne. A visionary. One of my childhood’s companions (along with Alexandre Dumas).

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