Vingt mille lieues sous la mer is the fourth Jules Verne novel I’ve read (the third in the original French), and I must say, it’s been my least favorite so far. This surprised me, as the subject matter is something I’m inherently interested in, and while my readings of Verne have never strayed that far form his greatest hits, Vingt mille lieues is arguably the greatest hit of them all (I’d argue Voyage au centre de la terre is second, and Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours third, though I admit I’m basing this on my own perception and little else).
Verne could be considered the prototypical nerd, in his use of narrative to obsessively catalog scientific minutiae. Whatever the story, you can bet that at some point, Verne will digress from the action at hand to write 500 breathless words about the origins of igneous rock, or the taxonomic details of coral. In some cases, this is more feature than bug—in de la Terre à la Lune, for instance, when his recurring treatise on ballistics lends credence and weight to what would otherwise be a spare narrative.
The key difference, I think, is that in Lune and Voyage au Centre de la Terre, there is an underlying urgency to the story that keeps Verne’s digressions in check. The cannon needs to launch at the precise date and time in order to hit the moon, and Axel can only spend so much time poring over subterranean fungi before Professor Lidenbrock drags him on to their ultimate destination. In 20,000 lieues, however, the story is essentially a chronicle of Professor Arronax’s time on the Nautilus, which Captain Nemo cruises about the oceans on a whim. Without that forward drive, Verne has no incentive to rush to any one conclusion, and as a result, the detours become the trip. Much of what happens feels like it is of no real consequence, and most events seem primarily positioned to allow Verne the opportunity to spout scientific facts and theories, some of more merit than others (Atlantis makes an appearance). In other Verne works, the opportunity to wax scientific is only part of the reason for events—there’s generally some forward plot momentum going on too.
And the descriptions of fish, my god, the descriptions of fish. There must be close to a dozen passages that are little more than taxonomic litanies of every bit of flora and fauna in a given sea. This is particularly frustrating for a non-native reader, as the names of many creatures he describes fall outside the scope of my e-reader’s built in dictionary, and by the third or fourth fish, I’m just too tired to bother looking them all up on my phone. As such, I’m stuck deducing what he means from the description of each animal. It doesn’t help that he tends to use less common names for some animals (though perhaps this is an issue of age more than erudition). Notably, he uses the word squale for shark in most cases, when a modern French speaker would opt for requin.
This all sounds a bit nit-picky, and maybe it is. Despite the book’s faults, there were still moments I truly enjoyed ,and Verne retains his capacity to make his own wonder at the world infectious. And Captain Nemo is a good character, intriguing in his sombre nobility. He is an honorable man who does dishonorable things, which is about as much nuance as you’re likely to get in a Jules Verne character (like Lovecraft, Verne is the kind of genre fiction writer who eschews character development almost entirely in favor of raw story, and whose vision is so honed and rich that he gets away with it).