Nautilus submarine

Book review: ‘Memo for Nemo’ by William Firebrace

Image credit: Gautier07/Dreamstime

A poetic history of underwater exploration and technology is one of a trio of new titles from a polymath with many more strings to his bow than just writing.

In my lifetime, I’ve been lucky enough to have met and befriended one true polymath. Before I reveal his name, however, let’s remind ourselves what that word actually means. According to online dictionaries, it describes an individual whose knowledge and skills span a substantial number of different subjects. The best known polymath in history was probably Leonardo da Vinci, whose multiple areas of expertise included painting, engineering, science, sculpture and architecture, to name just a few.

Among other historic polymaths (some of whom featured in a 2019 E&T article ’Great polymaths of history’) were, in no particular order, Benjamin Franklin, Aristotle, Lomonosov, Tesla, Newton and my favourite ones, Emmanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish theologian, engineer, scientist, biologist and philosopher, and Vladimir Nabokov, the writer, poet, chess player, musician, literary historian, entomologist and lepidopterist.

My own real-life polymath friend - now sadly deceased - was Sir Peter Ustinov - author, playwright, Oscar-winning actor, musicologist, theatre and film director, artist, journalist, keen motorist and unsurpassed raconteur.

Polymaths collectively constitute one of humankind’s greatest assets. Without them, we would probably still be living in caves. They have to be treasured, nurtured and carefully looked after. I am, therefore, profoundly grateful to MIT Press for introducing me to yet another one: our contemporary and my fellow Brit (and Londoner) William Firebrace, architect, writer, poet, artist, engineer, biologist, technology historian, journalist, blogger, critic, traveller and - according to Jonathan Meades - a ‘dragoman’ (multilingual travel guide), too.

MIT Press has just released Firebrace’s three latest books: ‘Memo for Nemo’ ($29.95, ISBN 9780262544085), ‘Marseille Mix’ ($29.95, ISBN 9780262544078) and ‘Zickzack’ ($29.95, ISBN 9780262544061).

They were preceded by just two other titles (both out of print and already on my wish list): ‘Star Theatre; The Story of the Planetarium’ and ‘Things Worth Seeing: A Guide to the City of W’; the latter being (according to an online synopsis) ‘an architectural novel’ about a visit to a fictional European city. As a long-time fan of Ian Nairn and Owen Hatherley, I can’t wait to lay my hands on it.

What are the latest three about and why was it a good idea to release them simultaneously - a rare occasion in the publishing world?

‘Marseille Mix’ is a lyrical, quirky and insightful guide to France’s largest seaport city, its buildings (including Le Corbusier’s famous ‘Vertical City’), history, planning, language and criminology. Thoroughly unputdownable, this gem of a travel book, which makes you want to pack up your suitcase post haste, transcends its genre. As does ‘Zickzack’, Firebrace’s similarly eccentric and beautifully executed travelogue about six different locations on the edges of the German-speaking world.

For E&T readers, however, I would recommend starting with ‘Memo for Nemo’, the pioneering genre of which I would describe as a poetic history of underwater exploration and technology, no less. The book’s recurrent reference point, as you may have guessed, is Jules Verne’s novel ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and the story of the submarine Nautilus and its Captain Nemo - himself a polymath (albeit a fictional one), with the multiple talents of inventor, explorer, oceanologist, gastronome, musician, bibliophile, terrorist and dreamer.

From the Nautilus, Firebrace smoothly – in his inimitable poetic style – teleports his mesmerised reader via aquariums, bathyspheres (a 1930s unpowered spherical deep-sea submersible) and early underwater photography to the unmanned submersible capsules and nuclear-powered submarines of today.

“With the invention of the nuclear-powered vessel, the whole nature of submarine life changed. The submarine became more comfortable for the crew and more dangerous for everyone else”, Firebrace states, with his characteristic dry wit, and goes on to illustrate the point with the heart-rending description of the Kursk nuclear submarine, “the star of the Russian Navy”, and its tragic sinking in the Barents Sea in year 2000:

“The Russian Oscar Class submarine, the Kursk, was the most advanced attack submarine of its type, equipped with torpedoes rather than missiles, 154m long and 24m in beam, equivalent to a five-storey building. It provided accommodation that might have put the Nautilus to shame: no 12,000-volume library or marine museum, but state rooms for officers, a gymnasium, a solarium, swimming pools, a sauna, an aviary and an aquarium... the facilities exceeding anything on offer in any US submarine of the time.” 

All of those proved insufficient to fend off disaster: “...the Kursk sank on exercise in the Barents Sea after a torpedo propelled by highly concentrated hydrogen peroxides exploded within the hull.”

That tragedy is still regarded by many as the beginning of the end of Putin’s dictatorial rule, which at the moment of writing seems balanced unsteadily on its very last legs.

The above passage is characteristic of the book’s structure: whichever side of underwater technology Firebrace touches on, he considers it not only from an engineering angle, but also from the cultural, read literary and artistic perspective, bringing into his narrative such cultural icons as Herman Melville, Jules Vernes, Arthur Conan Doyle, Orson Welles, Jacques Cousteau and even Dennis Wheatley, “purveyor of tales of erotic Satanism set among the British upper class” and the author of ‘They Found Atlantis’, published in 1936 in the aftermath of a 923m bathysphere descent off the coast of Bermuda.

I could quote endlessly from this truly fascinating book, as well as from the other two volumes of the brilliant Firebrace ‘trio’. The release of all three books simultaneously is an undisputed tour de force for MIT Press, making up for Firebrace’s relative obscurity. Until now that is.

The world must know its polymaths and celebrate them, not only after their demise, but while they are still with us – bursting with life, creative energy and new ideas.

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