Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I hate criticising classics! When a book has been around for over a hundred years and shows no sign of ever disappearing, you tend to feel a little hesitant to speak negatively about it. Somebody once accused me of writing “another abortion of a review” because I dared to tell it like I experience it. But a book hits you like it hits you, and there’s no getting around that fact without resorting to lies. So here we go once again.

I’m not sure what possessed me to read this book. I guess I thought old Verne was worth another shot since I had only read one other novel by him. Also, I was rather fond of the old Disney movie. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of a great monster prowling the oceans. Professor Aronnax and his young associate Conseil join the hunt for the beast. After many months of searching, battle finally ensues. But when the professor’s ship is demolished, several of the crew find themselves stranded in the ocean with the creature. Only it turns out not to be a creature at all, but a massive submarine vessel.

Here we are introduced to the well-known character of Captain Nemo, commander of his submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo is a fascinating, complex villain. His compassionate invite to take the stranded seamen on board is tempered by his intent to keep them prisoners forever. On the one hand is is capable of attacking certain sea vessels without provocation. On the other, he will risk life and limb to save a poor native from the jaws of a hungry shark. The character of Nemo is the main strength of the story and is, I would guess, an uncommon find in old fiction. In modern fiction, we have learned to appreciate realistic heroes and villains who are more grey than black or white. It’s nice to discover that this trend isn’t entirely new.

The story catalogues the a journey of 20,000 leagues across several oceans. I now understand that the title literally means “twenty thousand leagues travelled whilst under the sea,” not “twenty thousand leagues deep” (which would be somewhere through the core of the earth, out the other side, and off into outer space!). The story is episodic in nature – lots of mini adventures featuring various foes and locales that I won’t spoil. What does spoil several of these adventures is Verne’s insistence on cataloguing a horrendous amount of sea life for the reader. Fair enough, Prof. Arronax is a marine biologist, but do we really need lists upon lists of names of ocean creatures shoved in our face, not just once, but many times throughout the book? I’d like to think that Verne wasn’t descending to the level of show-off, but I’m not sure. What is certain is that he appears to have no perception that he is slowing his adventure to a crawl whilst engaging in these pointless encyclopedic epsiodes.

One interesting side of the story is the description of the submarine’s operation. The book was written before the invention of the modern submarine, although Verne cannot be credited with its design, as he was using known research of the period. I tickled me when I read about the submarine being steered by the primitive means of a pilot in a glass bubble, sonar having not been invented.

Overall, an average read. I had two versions at my disposal when reading this. A complete version and a shorter abridgement by Puffin books, which seeks to remove the problem of the lists. I chose the longer version, out of respect for the author, and I wish I hadn’t. It’s not often you’d hear me recommend a version of a book that had been tampered with, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Do yourself a favour, and read the shorter one. In days of old, readers may have had more patience, and writers less awareness of the importance of pacing. I leave you to decide whether there’s something tragic in our modern attitudes. All I know is, when I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to be bored.

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