Saturday, November 10, 2018

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea(s)


Opening Passage: Using Walter's translation:

The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten. Without getting into those rumors that upset civilians in the seaports and deranged the public mind even far inland, it must be said that professional seamen were especially alarmed. Traders, shipowners, captains of vessels, skippers, and master mariners from Europe and America, naval officers from every country, and at their heels the various national governments on these two continents, were all extremely disturbed by the business.

In essence, over a period of time several ships had encountered “an enormous thing” at sea, a long spindle-shaped object, sometimes giving off a phosphorescent glow, infinitely bigger and faster than any whale.

Summary: Pierre Aronnax, of the Paris Museum, is asked to assist the Abraham Lincoln in hunting a mysterious monster that has been damaging ships. With his servant Conseil and the harpoonist Ned Land, he discovers that the sea monster is in fact a submarine ship powered by sodium-ion batteries, an extraordinary achievement of technology, built and captained by the mysterious Captain Nemo.

One of the nice things about the work is how well it captures the joy of sheer discovery, of diggining into the treasury of the unknown. Professor Aronnax goes from an expert on the sea who has written speculative books about it based on traces of evidence to having plumbed the depths and seen it all firsthand. Between the two there is a wide gap.

I've always found Ned Land's role in the book to be a bit odd, since he spends most of it complaining. His harpooning skills do occasionally come in handy, but I think the real role he plays is to keep the theme of freedom in the forefront of the narrative, since Aronnax is liable to get lost in the adventure. Nemo fled to the depths of the sea in search of freedom, but he has nonetheless taken the freedom of the three travelers, as surely as the freedom of his own native land was taken (this is left mysterious here, but it is later said in The Mysterious Island that Nemo is a prince of India who attempted to fight the British Empire in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and not only was defeated but lost his wife and child, although Verne's original idea was that Nemo would be Polish and hate the Russian Empire). The entire book can be seen as a reflection on freedom: freedom of inquiry, freedom from oppression, the perils of freedom, the exhilaration of freedom. Perhaps this is the reason why Verne will eventually try to find some resolution to Nemo's tale in The Mysterious Island, which is also about freedom; there is no resolution here, since the book deliberately ends with unknowns.

I read the work in two translations, Walter's and Lewis's; Walter's is infinite superior. I also listened to both the Family Theater (#180) and the Favorite Story; they both attempt to be faithful but in the attempt to compress it down to a radio episode they end up being quite different. Favorite Story focuses on Captain Nemo; Family Theater focuses on Pierre Aronnax. Unsurprisingly, given the usual approaches of each series, Family Theater plays up the hope of Nemo's redemption much more than Favorite Story does. It's remarkable how reasonably faithful adaptations can go in some very different directions. But both are quite good.

Favorite Passage:

“You love the sea, captain.”

“Yes, I love it! The sea is the be all and end all! It covers seven-tenths of the planet earth. Its breath is clean and healthy. It’s an immense wilderness where a man is never lonely, because he feels life astir on every side. The sea is simply the vehicle for a prodigious, unearthly mode of existence; it’s simply movement and love; it’s living infinity, as one of your poets put it. And in essence, professor, nature is here made manifest by all three of her kingdoms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. The last of these is amply represented by the four zoophyte groups, three classes of articulates, five classes of mollusks, and three vertebrate classes: mammals, reptiles, and those countless legions of fish, an infinite order of animals totaling more than 13,000 species, of which only one-tenth belong to fresh water. The sea is a vast pool of nature. Our globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who can say we won’t end with it! Here lies supreme tranquility. The sea doesn’t belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I’m free!”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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