by Matthew Walther
Jules Verne (translated, edited, and introduced by William Butcher)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas
Oxford University Press, pp.464, $12.95
I no longer have the thing, which was inscribed in cursive (pink marker) with my mother’s Christian and maiden names, nor does it seem likely, after years of intermittent searching, that I shall find another one like it. But I have still got some of the others, including Tom Sawyer, in which my uncle has scribbled just below his older sister, once again in marker (orange), and some old Dell Yearlings. If those covers, with their clean lines and monochrome borders and that magnificent horse in his little circular habitat — immaculately circumscribed but also somehow infinite, like a more wholesome version of the old Mobil Gas pegasus — do not make you close your eyes with holy dread, I am not going to dismiss you as insensate; I might wonder, though.
But about it: So far as I know it is the first book I ever read silently to myself. I do not know how it happened or why or when. I very much doubt that I actually started reading it at the beginning or that I made through till the end. All I know is that one night, lying in the same bed in which I either had or would go on to swallow a quarter and eat Play-Doh, I suddenly become a we and we came up from the water and took a boat to the shore of some remote island and went in search of rare shells and were about to be taken alive and eaten by five or six hundred cannibals. (The ever-present threat of anthropophagy deserves its place in the list of things which, rather disappointingly, prove not to factor much into life’s daily realities, alongside lava, space, swords, spears, halberds, and other antique implements of war, robots that do things other than produce unemployment, treasure — as opposed to money or even jewelry — and maps leading to the former.) The cover naturally depicted The Famous Squid Incident (worst indie folk debut of 2007?), but to this day the hunting expedition looms larger in my imagination.
That copy was replaced long ago by a sturdy little black paperback with a learned introduction. (Thus was I was initiated into such solemn mysteries as the difference between the English and French definition of a league and the names of the various luxury watercraft Jules Verne purchased with his huge and well-deserved earnings.) Along with an old Tor Classics (yes!) Three Musketeers in a delightfully bowlderized translation (own name in what I fancied was “French”-looking cursive, faintish pencil) and Kim, it has been placed by my wife on a kind of household Index librorum prohibitorum, certain books that I am not allowed to pick up when I have to write or pretend to know how to fix something because there will be no putting them down once they are opened. I am nothing if not a legalist. This new O.U.P. paperback is not technically proscribed. It is even, absurdly, work.
The first thing one notices is that oddly insistent terminal s. It does not matter how many times one has been reminded — by people whose French is even worse than ours — that the “sous” in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers refers to a distance traveled beneath the ocean’s surface rather than to depth, and that, in any case, going twenty thousand leagues — French ones or English — straight down would take you well beyond the center of the earth (whence we have also, of course, traveled with Professor Verne): It still looks odd, like “Kyiv,” or “Hammurabi’s Code” (as opposed to the familiar genitive construction).
That is not all. Connoisseurs of good-bad translators’ English will miss “signalized” in the famous opening sentence, rejected by William Butcher (omen?) more than two decades ago in favor of the plainer “marked.” In the very next line, too, we are spared the “Not to mention rumors,” which always looks as if it is going to end without the main verb that scuttles in dirtily, without apologizing. After that, though, things start to go sous. Who could possibly prefer
The businessmen, ship-owners, sea-captains, skippers, and master-mariners of Europe and America, the naval officers from every country, and finally the various national governments on both continents — all became extremely worried about the matter.
Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.
with its idiomatic dropping of the definite article, its antique capital G, its (to a child’s ears) pleasingly oldy-timey reference to “states” rather than countries? And, without daring to ask myself what Verne himself wrote, I can only say that “extremely worried” is what your mom is when you come in too late from hunting bats with your great-grandmother’s old golf clubs; “deeply interested” is how grizzled late-nineteenth-century naval men, captains of vessels in their fine navy coats and beautifully polished brass buttons, sitting with their pipes in studies lined with maps and charts and instruments of improbable origin and impossible complexity, feel about “the matter,” whatever it might be.
As it turns out, “the matter” is, from that sentence on, about as absorbing as anything ever written. It is a testament to Verne’s abilities that when we discover early on that instead of either some quasi-sentient geological anomaly — a reef that is alive and moves of its own accord into the path of ships! — or a monster of unimaginable size and power, the great menace to international maritime affairs is simply another vessel, it does not feel like a letdown. I have in my time entertained a number of highbrow theories about why this is the case, all of which I have come around to rejecting in favor of a much simpler one — viz., that the voyage of the Nautilus combines at least two well-nigh universal childhood aspirations: building and occupying some kind of secluded fort or redoubt, from the confines of which adult experience and its mingled horrors and delights can be both rejected and discreetly explored, and naming the world, which Aronnax and his fellow submarine voyagers are able to do with something approaching the joy of Adam beholding creation for the very first time.
I find myself wanting to claim that Twenty Thousand Leagues is not one of those “good bad books” that we enjoy in spite of its style and other formal qualities. (It is worth remembering that Sand, Gautier, and Barthes numbered among Verne’s greatest admirers.) One can think of few novels mainly associated with children in which more passages of purely descriptive interest abound. Calling these “purple patches” would be an understatement. When Verne wants to tell us what something looks like he makes sure that he has at least half a page of unoccupied beach in front of him and builds castles out of novelty rainbow-colored sand that would have had Nabokov (another great fan) reaching enviously for his thesaurus. Part of the delight of revisiting this book is the chance to luxuriate in the sheer beauty of words whose definitions are mostly unknown to me: “meandrines,” “caryophyilliae,” “zooantharaiae,” “lepisachanthae,” “dactylopterae,” “monocentridae,” “tiontoreas,” “monocanthidean”. Surely no author in the French or any other language author has ever been half as eloquent on the not obviously promising subjects of ooze and seaweed. Poor John Updike would have killed to have written lines like
The white corollas moved back into their red sheaths, the flowers went out before my eyes, and the bush changed into a block of stony nipples.
The best way I can think of explaining the book to people who have only seen the Disney movie or read one of the less tonally faithful abridgements in childhood is that it is the sort of thing Sir Thomas Browne might have written if, in between cataloguing whale genitals and revising his spiritual autobiography, he had deigned to give us a pastoral romance. Like Browne, whose chapter headings — “Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs” — do not prepare you for the random felicities that will appear under them, Verne makes even the disgusting beautiful because he represents it faithfully (nerds cf. ST Ia q. 39 ad. 2). Like Browne’s, Verne’s fascination with the created order is the product of an explicitly religious imagination, albeit a heterodox one, an awe-based epistemology that is, or should be, the starting point for scientists and philosophers as well as prose poets:
All the products of the vegetable kingdom were only lightly attached to the ground. Devoid of roots, indifferent to the fixed points they were tied to, whether sand, shells, tests, or pebbles, they merely needed them as a point of contact, not for life. These plants were self-propagating, and the essence of their existence was in the water that bore them and nourished them. Most of them did not produce leaves but lamellas of fantastic shapes, although limited to a narrow range of colours: only pink, cirimson, green, olive, fawn, and brown . . . Padinae pavoni in fans seeming to implore the breeze, scarlet rose-tangles, laminaria extending their edible young shoots, threadlike flexuous Nerocystis opening out to reach a height of 15 metres, clumps of acetabulums with stems growing from the top, and many other pelagic plants, all without flowers.
I come here to praise Verne, not to bury him at sea or otherwise, but I would be lying if I said that I had no idea where Dan Brown got the notion that interrupting a narrative with barely altered snippets from reference books (“The name Sargaso comes from the Spanish sargazo, meaning ‘sea-wrack.’”) was a good thing to do in an adventure story. Nor is Verne, despite his reputation, particularly good at action scenes, especially when they involve human beings. Here is how we are actually introduced to the giant squid:
It was a squid of colossal dimension, eight metres in length. It moved backwards at extreme velocity as it headed towards the Nautilus. It was staring with its enormous fixed eyes of a sea-green hue. Not only were its eight arms, or rather legs, implanted on its head, thus giving these animals the name of cephalopods, but were twice as big as its body and writhing like the Furies’ hair. We could distinctly see the 250 suckers in the form of hemispherical capsules on the insides of the tentacles. Sometimes these suckers were placed on the salon’s windows and stuck there. The monster’s mouth — a hrony beat like a parrot’s — was opening and closing vertically. Its tongue emerged oscillating from this pair of shears, and was also made of a horny substance, itself equipped with several rows of sharp teeth. What a freak of nature: a bird’s beak on a mollusc! Its body, cylindrical but swollen in the middle, formed a fleshy mass that had to weight 20 to 25 tons.
This is bad, and for a lot of reasons. One is simply that even if the reader is willing to grant Aronnax and companions the remarkable faculty of intantananeously determining the precise lengths and weights and suction organ capacities of monsters that are about to eat them without so much as a rounding error, the fact of their being shared with us either in metric or imperial units tends to interfere with our ability to concentrate on such trivialities as as being horrified or thrilled and wondering how our heroes will possibly make it out alive. Lovecraft was in many ways an atrocious prose stylist, but it’s hard to imagine one of his narrators casually interrupting his and our sublime apprehension of ultimate evil to inform us that Cxaxukluth weighed eight hundred stone and ten. For all I know all that muck here about counting the suckers — did he use his fingers, I wonder? — is just there to distract us from questions even deadlier to Verne’s ostensible narrative ambitions, such as how Aronnax can even see the eyes of a creature that we have just been told is moving very rapidly backwards. Nor does it help matters much when, having gone into so much detail about mass and velocity and so on, he glosses the actual death of an unnamed crew member with: “A strong smell of musk filled the atmosphere. It was horrible.” It certainly is.
Something similar happens at what is almost certainly the novel’s climax, when Professor Aronnax has decided that it is finally time to confront Captain Nemo about his recent acts of maritime terrorism (and maybe even, you know, leave the ship):
There was no time to hesitate, even were Captain Nemo to surge up before me. I carefully opened my door. And yet it seemed that as it moved on its hinges, it made a frightening sound. Perhaps the sound existed only in my imagination! I crawled forward through the dark gangways of the Nautilus, stopping after each step to compress the beatings of my heart.
I arrived at the angled door to the salon. I slowly opened it. The room was plunged in deep darkness. The chords of the organ were still faintly echoing. Captain Nemo was there. He did not see me. I think that even in full flight he would not have noticed me, so much did his ecstasy absorb him.
I dragged myself across the carpet, avoiding the slightest contact whose sound might have betrayed my presence. It took me five minutes to reach the far door leading into the library.
Without turning to the French for possible clues, I find myself wondering, among other things, 1) whether non-sliding doors can in fact move on things other than hinges, 2) whether a person who says he is crawling can actually stop after each “step,” 3) whether a person who is (once again) crawling really is capable of doing so without “making the slightest contact” with anything, including the carpet he is on top of, whether he makes a sound or not, 4) whether Aronnax on his hands and knees moves at the pace of one of his favorite molluscs or the ship has actually grown so large that it takes five minutes even while crawling to go what until this point appeared to be a very short distance. Perhaps these and other shortcomings exist only in my imagination!
A writer like Conan Doyle or Buchan, neither of whom would have dreamed of attempting anything half as difficult as the marine life catalogues in these pages, would have made easy work of such a scene. Besides, in the present edition we are assured over and over again in the notes and introduction that much of the allegedly biological content here is in any case wrong, that Verne was bad at Latin and didn’t know the difference between a polyp and an octopus, that he forgets where certain islands should be and spells various names incorrectly, that he sometimes mixes up words — e.g., crécerelles (“kestrels”) and crécelles (“rattles”) — and sometimes invents them, not only for made-up places and technologies but when he wants to say something like “uncovered” (déponté), that he dips freely between giving time according to the Greenwich and Paris meridians, and that he didn’t even know how long a league really is! (I for one cannot see how Sixteen Thousand Six Hundred and Sixty Seven Leagues Under the Sea(s) would have been a better title.)
This is not to suggest that Butcher, who does triple duty here as translator, editor, and annotator, is what his name might suggest. He’s just someone who, unlike his distinguished predecessors Lewis Page Mercier (a Masonic chaplain, naturally) and Anon., knows the difference between New Caledonia and Scotland. In a hundred small places one can spot him improving, if not on Verne, than on previous Englishers, giving us “his good lady wife” where Anon. had, coldly, “his wife.” Not uniformly, though: I for one will miss “cork jackets,” which is the best Mercier could do with scaphandre. The idea of Aronnax et al. milling around the bottom of the Pacific in a kind of air-tight spacesuit made by Carhartt is just too delightful to abandon (yes, I realize “cork jacket” is an antique name for life vest); if you can imagine it too, congratulations upon entering the mental universe some of us oldsters have inhabited since the Clinton administration.
This is the part where I grumble about what the kids are reading these days. I must confess that I am not entirely unfamiliar with the series of novels that might be described as “Tom Brown’s School Days if the title character dabbled a bit in the occult and was constantly being asked by Lord Melbourne to save the realm, in addition to the usual games, jokes, rivalries.” The last time I was in a Barnes and Noble there was a whole section devoted to “Teen Paranormal Romance,” which sounds very much like a crime in most common-law jurisdictions; between that and a thousand undistinguished rewrites of Go Ask Alice that differ from the original only in their authors’ agenda of convincing youths that whatever has replaced L.S.D. in the new version is in fact good, I imagine we can exhaust their horizons, assuming they don’t just watch videos of people taking orange headphones out of boxes. Having recently passed the Weinberg threshold for confidence myself, I should just say I don’t know and it’s not worth asking.
But I think I can say with confidence that the anti-heroes have been going steadily downhill. So you enjoy “graphic” novels about guys in suits? Cool. We had an undersea Garibaldi-cum-Tesla with a mean Ted Kaszczynski streak, a polyglot aristocratic guerilla warrior whose vast non-scientific interests range from gourmet cooking to opera to Baroque painting. It is worth pointing out here that unlike so many once-established children’s classics, Twenty Thousand Leagues passes all the woke tests save for the one about women having a conversation that concerns something other than a male acquaintance (for the very simple reason that there is not, as far as I can recall, a single female character in it). Otherwise, though: A bunch of unmarried white dudes — the smart guy who has actually done the reading, the patient guy who gets along with everybody and doesn’t contribute much, the badass, slightly raunchy guy spoiling for a fight, the really edgy political guy with mystique — having conversations about nothing important amid a vaguely nautical backdrop? Sounds like a new dirtbag left podcast.
When it comes to the other characters, well, let’s be real: Aronnax, even graded on a generous science fiction narrator curve, is a bit of a drip. I get that he is very keen on marine biology and that Stockholm syndrome is an actual widely attested phenomenon, but you would think that he would take just slightly more umbrage at being told that he has to spend the rest of his life eating kale in a mobile aquarium because his new best friend is obsessed with privacy. Also: he talks like this: “The fellow was thirty years old, and his age was to his master’s as fifteen is to twenty. May I be excused for saying in this way that I was forty.” You may not, Professor. Meanwhile Conseil, the “fellow” in question, is your typical Man Friday / Sam Gamgee / C-3PO trusty servant who addresses everyone in the third person (“‘As monsieur pleases,’ he replied calmly”) and, since all the cooking and cleaning are taken care of by Nemo’s mysterious crew, seems to exist largely for the purpose of joyfully reciting the Latin names of various fish. Ned Land is more interesting. For one thing, he is Canadian, which to American readers connotes bad beer and hockey and an oddly sound national banking system, but to Verne evidently means some kind of Jim Webb “Born Fighting” type: “burly, more than six feet tall, muscular, grave, silent, sometimes aggressive, and very bad-tempered when contradicted.” Practically the first thing he does upon finding himself imprisoned on the Nautilus is to remind his companions that he still has his Bowie knife. (This, in case you were wondering, is “a broad-bladed knife that an American always carries with him.” Always!) Land never doubts for a moment that the mysterious entity is a whale and that he is going to kill it; when it turns out to be made of metal, he does not change his mind. He likes harpooning things and eating them, has “almost unbelievable manual dexterity,” and is the only member of our trio who seems even remotely to mind the fact that they are being held captive by a terrorist. Otherwise, apart from the comparatively brief cameos by the crew of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln early on, there are no other named characters here. Even the guy who gets killed by the squid is unknown to Aronnax.
In addition to all the things I have mentioned above Verne is guilty of numberless absurdities, some of them frankly painful. I have, for example, always wondered about the provenance of the mysterious “seaweed rich in nicotine” from which Captain Nemo makes his cigars. How is it possible for them to smoke onboard — he tells Aronnax, a confirmed addict, that he should feel free to do so as often as he likes — even though there is no mention of any kind of air filtration system and they often go days and even weeks without returning to the surface? Hell, even the Navy doesn’t allow submarine smoking anymore. Could it be that Verne, in the course of spinning his yarn, found himself thinking that a life aboard a ship that afforded its passengers so many pleasures — friendship, philosophic conversation, tasteful interior design, good food, a massive library and picture gallery, and almost daily opportunities for scientific discovery — would still be unbearable without tobacco, or something like it anyway, in virtually unlimited quantities? The mind reels, in a delightful upward spiraling direction, reeking of kale-flavored smoke.
Unfortunately this barely scratches the underwater surface. I can do no better here than quote Butcher, who himself relies upon a similar catalogue made by Jean Gagneux (apparently the dean of Verne studies):
Why are the Scotia’s passengers having “lunch” at 4:17 p.m.? How do you “push” someone along when he is floating “motionless on his back, with arms folded and legs extended”? How do people stay dry on a platform only three feet above the sea? How is Aronnax able to describe his own facial expressions? How does the Nautilus manage to remain motionless in the depths using juts its inclined planes and the thrust of its propeller? Why does lightning strike fish, and not the much larger metal submarine? What happens to the fragile displays in the salon when the subramine lists dramatically or collides with objects? How are pitching and rolling avoided? Why do Nemo’s apartments take up so much space, when his twenty crew members have a living space of 5 by 2 metres? How can a boat that two men are able to remove carry ten people or ship “one or two tones” of water? How does “an unbearable sulphurous smell” reach 60 feet down? If Nemo loves the sea so much, why does he avoid contact with sea water? . . . How does the sun shine brightly at 100 metres depth, and how does it produce a rainbow underwater? How does Aronnax hear rain 300 metres down? How does Nemo extract sodium from salt water, which requires a temperature of 3,000°C? How does a compass work inside a metal hull? How does an 8-metre wide cylinder resist a pressure of 1,600 atmospheres? How do you reverse a submarine at 20 knots through a narrow ice-tunnel? Does the 16,000-metre rise in four minutes not equal to more than 120 knots? What about the bends? What happens to the inclined planes when the submarine goes clean through the ship? And finally, where are the toilets?
I laughed till I cried. But it would be unfair if I failed to end with something that matters much more than the not exactly remote possibility that Verne never once considered the question of where and when his characters would relieve themselves (even if he did consider roughly eighty other irrelevant things per printed page):
As for fish, they were numerous and often remarkable. The following were brought in most frequently by the nets of the Nautilus: rays, amongst them lymma with oval bodies of a dull red colour and irregular blue spots, recognizable from their twin serrated stings; Forsskal’s stingrays with silvery backs; whip-tailed stingrays with dotted tails; bockats, huge two-metre-long cloaks undulating through the water; totally toothles aodons, which are a sort of cartilaginous fish closely related to the shark; dromedary Ostracea, whose hump ends in a curved sting a foot and a half long; ophidians, which are actually moray eels with silver tails, blue backs, and brown pectorals bordered in grey; fiatolae, species of strommateids zigzagged with narrow golden stripped and decked out in the three colours of France; 40-centimetre-long gourami blennies; superb scads with seven transversal bands of a fine black fint, blue and yellow fins, and gold and silver scales, snooks; oriflamme mullets with yellow heads; parrot fish, wrasses, triggerfish, gobies, etc., and a thousand other fish found in the oceans we had already visited.
I cried, simpliciter. I am crying now.
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