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Submarine dreams: Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

The classic sci-fi novel is more than a ripping yarn – it anticipated the ecology movement and shaped the French avant-garde.

© Jillian Tamaki, 2014

I was introduced to Jules Verne at Christmas 1948 when my parents gave me a beautifully illustrated and cleverly abridged copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. I loved this book, and read it again and again. It inspired in me a passion for stories of underwater adventures, even more thrilling to me than travels in space and moon landings. I continue to be enthralled by submarine photography, by tales of giant squid and underground lakes, by shipwrecks and desperate voyages. The vast underwater world is full of wonders, and we have hardly begun to explore them. The sense of excitement communicated by Verne more than half a century ago is with me still.

Verne was impassioned by travel, by exploration, by motion, by all means of transportation and locomotion. The first of what came to be grouped together as his Voyages extraordinaires was Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), which, after some years of struggle, launched his career as a commercially successful writer. These novels explored the outer realms of scientific possibility, and were backed up with extensive research and erudite displays of not always wholly trustworthy statistics. The plausible appearance of scientific verisimilitude enabled his enterprising and well-connected publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, to market Verne’s works not only as romantic adventures but also as educational and instructive works.

Travel by balloon, a theme to which Verne returned several times, was swiftly followed by journeys to the centre of the earth, to the moon, to underground cities, to mysterious volcanic islands, to the Arctic and to the Antarctic, and even to complicated and competitive wager-driven journeys round the United States by train, bicycle, motor car, schooner and horse. Movement itself entranced him, and so did both natural and man-made wonders. He anticipated the restless mass tourism and relentless appetite for sightseeing of the 20th century, and his name appears on the title page of one of the earliest satires of package holiday travel, the posthumously published L’Agence Thompson et Cie (1907), though this was in fact largely written by his son, Michel.

But his greatest and most profound love was, arguably, for the sea, and all that was on it, in it and under it. He was born in the French town of Nantes, on the Loire, some 30 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, and he is said to have tried to run away to sea as a boy. He kept a succession of yachts, all named Saint-Michel, and he greatly enjoyed sailing and long sea voyages. He first described an underwater boat in the 1850s and we know that he was extremely excited when he hit upon the concept of his submarine novel, the subject matter of which was commended to him by an admirer, the novelist George Sand. Verne boasted to Hetzel that it would be unlike anything anyone had ever written before – it would be “superb, yes superb!” – and composed some of Twenty Thousand Leagues (1870) while sailing in his Saint-Michel, where everything he saw prompted new ideas and images.

The starting point of the adventure is stunningly simple: we embark, with our scholarly narrator Dr Aronnax and his two carefully selected comrades, on a chase after a vast and dangerous beast that is causing havoc to the world’s shipping. This monster may or may not be a narwhal, a legendary and quasi-mythological sea creature with a single horn like a unicorn’s. At once we are in the realm of the epic, and are reminded of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick. The voyagers discover not a narwhal, but the even more extraordinary Nautilus.

The characterisation of the main players – the narrator Pierre Aronnax, a lecturer at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, explorer and author of “a two-volume in-quarto work entitled The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps”; his valet, the ever-faithful, classification-obsessed Conseil; and the hawk-eyed French Canadian harpooner Ned Land (a name of awesome monosyllabic resonance in a novel of the sea) – is of a stark but effective simplicity. These three representative mortals, cooped up together in the midst of almost limitless space, live out their personal dramas in tense and close confinement: as Richard Holmes, in his history of balloon travel Falling Upwards (2013), points out, in Verne’s work the balloon basket, the moon rocket or the submarine provide the “ideal enclosed space in which to stage a drama, and draw out contrasting characters under pressure”.

Yet, despite their enclosure, they have a magnificent view of the spectacle of the underwater world. Verne’s pleasure in describing the forests of kelp, the shoals of fish, the nesting turtles and the tentacles, beak and triple heart of the giant squid is infectious. Who could resist “blue dolphinfish picked out in gold and silver; parrot fish, true oceanic rainbows competing in colour with the most beautiful birds of the Tropics”, or “golden Pomacanthus . . . decked out in emerald strips and clothed in velvet and silk, like lords out of Veronese’s paintings”?

Captain Nemo, the commander of the Nautilus and its mysterious polyglot crew, is a more complex figure than his three hostages; a Romantic, Byronic exile of perplexing nationality and (in this novel) obscure motivation. Cultured, tragic, ruthless, wealthy, he is at war with humanity, yet compassionate to the oppressed and the poor. He is anti-imperial, anti-colonial and republican at heart. We know that Hetzel steered Verne away from his politically sensitive conception of Nemo as a Polish nobleman seeking revenge against Russian tyranny, a character who might have prefigured some of Joseph Conrad’s later protagonists. Hetzel, by this censoring pressure, may thus have introduced some contradictions into Verne’s conception of his lonely ruler of the oceans, but Nemo nevertheless emerges as one of the great heroes, or anti-heroes, of fiction. When I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues as a child I had no idea that he would reappear a few years later as an agent of providence in Verne’s 1874 novel of shipwreck (or balloon-wreck) The Mysterious Island. I was astonished to meet him again, and to learn the explanations of his tragic past and ultimate fate.

On the surface, Twenty Thousand Leagues is an action-packed tale of adventure and exploration, precursor to and inspiration for Boy’s Own classics by British writers such as Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and John Buchan. In England Verne has been considered mainly a supreme storyteller. The very word “league” (both in English and in its French version) has a ring of the yarn or the tall story. Verne’s inventiveness of plot and boldness of characterisation are matched by a pleasure in daily details that bring his fantasies to life; he is particularly good, as perhaps a French writer should be, on food. Nemo is a gourmet, and Aronnax’s pleasure in the ingeniously contrived delicacies with which he is presented is delightfully portrayed: so is Ned Land’s hunger to get his teeth into a chop. The giraffe steaks and eland barbecues of Rider Haggard and the ham rolls, hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer of Enid Blyton pale in comparison to Captain Nemo’s fillets of emperor fish, soup of turtle, livers of dolphin and anemone jam. Ashore, Ned Land creates a feast of wood pigeons, wild boar, “rabbit kangaroos”, breadfruit and mangoes, a point at which Aronnax confesses that he has “become exactly like the Canadian. Here am I, in ecstasy at freshly grilled pork!”

Verne does, however, show that he recognises the dangers of hunting, and of growing threats to species and to the planet. Although great numbers of creatures are slaughtered and devoured in the course of the book, Verne and Aronnax tend to deplore needless killing. We now reread 19th-century classics for early signs of awareness of ecology and environment and entropy, and we can find them in the criticisms of the bloodthirstiness of Ned, and in the information that the poor dugong and the great emerald bird of paradise have been hunted almost to extinction. Conseil speaks for the future when he reflects that, if the dugong is the last of its line, it should be spared in the interests of science.

The French have taken Verne’s work in general more seriously than the Anglo-Saxon literary establishment, seeing beyond the storyteller. Although it has been argued that he was never truly admitted to the canon, he was much admired by writers as different and as eminent as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. The symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud was directly inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues. “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”, 1871), his best-known poem, owes some of its tumultuous, exotic imagery to Verne, and perhaps also a little of its world-weary melodramatic melancholy. As human beings, Verne and Rimbaud inhabited different universes; as writers, they meet, reminding us that, although Verne never overstresses the significance of the great subconscious pull of the oceans, he is aware of their chaotic depths and currents.

A new generation of avant-garde Continental writers rediscovered Jules Verne in the 1960s and he became one of the cult heroes of the experimental group known as Oulipo, which included Raymond Queneau (1903-76), Italo Calvino (1923-85) and Georges Perec (1936-82). They investigated the connections between mathematics and language, enjoyed verbal conundrums and constraints, and stressed the playful, formal, puzzle-engendering aspects of literature, enlisting Verne as a writer who had explored in fiction the deployment of bets, wagers, challenges, inventions and statistics. Perhaps the most successful product of this movement is in a sense a direct homage to Twenty Thousand Leagues: Perec’s remarkable novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978). It is based on the conceit of an immensely wealthy and immensely bored man called Bartlebooth, who is obsessed both by harbours and by jigsaws, and who has devised an elaborate plan of occupying the first half of his life by sailing the world with his faithful valet to paint harbours. These paintings will be returned to Paris, where they will be made into wooden jigsaws, which he will spend the second half of his life constructing, and then destroying. This is a parody of Nemo’s restless circumnavigation of the globe; the novel is full of references to Verne, and to Verne’s predecessor in the creation of the myth of the obsessed oceanic pursuit, Herman Melville. Perec, like Verne, was fascinated by lists, by the multiplication and classification of phenomena, and he wrote to one of his readers that Verne liberated his imagination “to rediscover the archetypes of the adventure story – multiple and mysterious births, filiations, inheritances, aquatic monsters, curses”.

Jules Verne was buried in Amiens in March 1905, and his grave is marked by an extraordinarily dramatic sculpture, showing him bursting forth from his tomb and pointing upwards towards the heavens. The sculpture is called Vers l’immortalité et l’éternelle jeunesse (“towards immortality and eternal youth”). Verne is the saint of travel agents and the master of the travelogue, as well as the unwitting prophet of the surreal cruise liners of the 21st century. Despite parody and plagiarism and commercial exploitation, the haunting spirit of Nemo and his Nautilus sails on. 

A version of this essay appears in a new edition of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas” (translation by William Butcher, illustrations by Jillian Tamaki) published by the Folio Society (£36.95)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood