Book Of A Lifetime: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, By Jules Verne

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The Independent Culture

One of the books I have read and re-read with unfailing pleasure and interest is Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea'. I can date my first reading precisely, as I still have my copy, given to me by "Mummy and Daddy, Christmas 1948", when I was nine. This edition was published in 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio, and has beautiful illustrations of sea creatures and seascapes, and of the brave adventurers who travel with Captain Nemo in his spacious submarine, the Nautilus. As a child, I liked the pictures of the narwhale and the kelp forest best, but now I also admire the narrator and his manservant Conseil, portrayed in handsome nakedness. Illustrated books were a rarity in that post-war period, and all the more to be cherished.

I loved the underwater world, and would have been a marine biologist if I'd had any scientific encouragement at school. The flying fish and sharks and giant squid of Verne's novel entranced me. I was in love with Captain Nemo, the brooding cultured misanthrope of the deeps, who combined the romantic qualities of Heathcliff and Byron with the ruthlessness of Macbeth. (James Mason played him to perfection in the excellent movie, and Kirk Douglas was brilliant as the champion harpooner, Ned Land.) What drove Nemo restlessly round the oceans of the world, with his great library, his art treasures, and his grand piano? I longed to know.

I moved on to Verne's scientific romances and wager novels, and am still discovering new ones, as he was very prolific. I don't know why I liked his adventures so much as they are very male, set in a world of avant-garde technology and old-fashioned gentlemen's clubs, about which I knew next to nothing. He doesn't do women, but I didn't even notice their absence. I voyaged beneath the waves, I followed him to the centre of the earth and to the North Pole, I went down with him into the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky. But Captain Nemo remained my hero, and I was overjoyed to rediscover him recently during another binge of Verne reading last summer.

By a happy coincidence, I embarked on Verne's 'The Mysterious Island' during the volcanic ash-cloud drama of last year. This inventive tale describes the adventures of a group of balloon-wrecked refugees from the American Civil War, who land on a new, unknown and massively active volcanic island and make a life for themselves. The reader discovers that a secret but benign presence lurks in a deep basaltic cavern nearby, and eventually, joy of joys, this reveals itself to be none other than Nemo himself. We learn, at last, his name and his history, as he makes a deathbed confession to the castaways before sinking entombed alone in Nautilus beneath the waters. I won't give away his identity, but it's worth waiting for.

Margaret Drabble's collected stories, 'A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman', are published by Penguin Classics