Der Vulkan; The Volcano

[This page by Karina von Lindeiner-Stráský]

Der Vulkan. Roman unter Emigranten; The Volcano. Novel among Emigrants (1939)

Der Vulkan is one of few exile novels that attempt to find a stylistic answer to the feeling of displacement and the loss of orientation of life in exile. Aesthetically, it is one of Mann’s most remarkable texts.

The novel provides an exhausting (and sometimes confusing) panoramic view of the German exile movement. The first chapter alone introduces twenty-six characters, of which five can be considered protagonists. Their fates are told in innumerable episodes and storylines, which run parallel, join, or cross one another. Mann’s first diary entry regarding Der Vulkan gives a good overview of the many fates he planned to include into this text:

Mein nächster Roman. Große Komposition aus Emigranten-Schicksalen: ‘Die Verfolgten’, oder so. Laufen nebeneinander her, jedoch durch irgendeine Klammer miteinander verbunden. In vielen Städten: Paris, London, Prag, New York, Hollywood, Zürich, Amsterdam, Palma, Florenz, Nice, Sanary ... Salzburg ... Junger Prolet ... Kommunisten, Katholiken. Gründung einer neuen Partei. Pass-Schwierigkeiten. Geldnot. Sexualnot. Der Hass. Die Hoffnung. Das Heimweh. Kriegsangst (und Hoffnung…) Politik: Saar; Spanien, Olympiade. Verbindung zu Illegalen im Reich. Melancholie. Les sans-patrie....

[Source: Klaus Mann: Tagebücher 1936–1937, ed. by Joachim Heimannsberg, Peter Laemmle and Wilfried F. Schoeller (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995), pp. 69-70]

My next novel. A grand composition of the fates of emigrants: ‘The Persecuted’, or similar. Their stories will unfold in parallel, but linked together with each other by means of various connectors. In many cities: Paris, London, Prague, New York, Hollywood, Zurich, Amsterdam, Palma, Florence, Nice, Sanary, ... Salzburg […] a young proletarian […] communists, Catholics. A new party is founded. Passport difficulties. Financial problems. Sexual problems. Hatred. Hope. Homesickness. The fear of war (and the hope of war). Politics: the Saar, Spain, the Olympics. Connections with illegal activity in the Third Reich. Melancholy. People who have no home country…

Indeed, nearly all these motifs can be found in the finished novel. These multiple storylines and their multiple connections suggest that the author attempted to deal with the increasingly complex world of exile by presenting a grand panorama of many small exile worlds. The narrator functions in this novel in two ways: firstly, in the manner of a commenting and summarizing chronicler, he emphasizes the realistic elements of the story by showing consequences, discussing characters’ actions and generally by being omnipresent. Secondly, he acts as a kind of super-ego of several characters by slipping into their minds as well as addressing them directly to cheer them up or admonish them. This change of narrative perspective creates an interaction between the subjective level of the plots and the objective, more general topics of the novel. The characters’ individual stories, often told simultaneously and from multiple perspectives, are constantly presented as part of a general framework. Their actions and feelings act as comments on and criticisms of the general political situation that is narrated by the omniscient narrator (on this point see below, Nicole Schaenzler, p. 115). The narrator also presents essayistic insertions that comment directly on the political background of the stories and are separated from the plot by the use of the present tense and a highly stylised language, for example the use of biblical metaphors. These insertions create a strong appellative and decidedly emotional effect.

Most of the characters in Der Vulkan are artistic and intellectual emigrants. They are confronted with the question of how to use their talents to meet the daily organisational, but also the intellectual challenges of exile. Mann revisits and extends the questions he already addressed in Flucht in den Norden: The characters have to decide between personal happiness and the fight for the greater political good. Der Vulkan shows a few success stories (and in one case, the story of the two protagonists Marion von Kammer and Benjamin Abel, even a positive or at least optimistic ending on a personal as well as political level), but also several examples of decay and renunciation. The novel paints a realistic picture of many aspects of exile, including the difficulties in getting a passport, the personal and financial hardship, the uncertainty about the future, and the difficulty of staying positive in view of the Nazis’ increasing political success.

Mann called Der Vulkan his best novel. It is nowadays seen as the most famous and successful of Mann’s novels apart from Mephisto, and is considered an important testimonial of German literature in exile. However, the original publication of the novel was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War Two, which prevented the novel from gaining much attention and success among contemporaries.

Further Reading in German

Karina von Lindeiner, ‘Sammlung zur heiligsten Aufgabe’. Politische Künstler und Intellektuelle in Klaus Manns Exilwerk (Wurzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007)

Nicole Schaenzler, Klaus Mann als Erzähler: Studien zu seinen Romanen „Der fromme Tanz“ und „Der Vulkan“ (Paderborn: Igel, 1995)

Arwed Schmidt, Exilwelten der 30er Jahre. Untersuchungen zu Klaus Manns Emigrationsromanen ‘Flucht in den Norden’ und ‘Der Vulkan‘. Roman unter Emigranten’ (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003)