Klaus Mann, son of the famous German writer Thomas Mann, wrote this novel after he had to flee Germany and its ruling Nazi regime in 1933. It was the first novel to be written during the time of his exile.
The novel closely mirrors the events of the life of Klaus Mann. It is centered on Johanna, a young German woman who, just like Mann, had to escape the terror of her home country because of her involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance. So she flees to Finland, where she finds refuge at the family estate of her university friend Karin. The family, especially Karin and her brothers, hold conflicting views about the political issues of the time. Johanna’s presence then acts as a catalyst, setting off unforeseen changes in the family, which is battling with the political turmoil and crippling financial instability.
But it is not only the political tension that is changing the dynamics in the household. It’s also the complicated emotional bonds and romantic relations between the characters. Johanna falls for Karin’s brother Ragnar, she also has a brief affair with Karin herself.
The novel is as romantic as it is political and it seems that it’s only through the political forces that Ragnar and Johanna find together. Johanna struggles to choose between staying with Ragnar, whom she only has just met, and leaving Finland again to join the resistance in Paris, where her friends fight the Nazis. Ragnar fails to understand her struggle and wants her to stay, while Johanna, despite hating her home country, still feels responsibility and guilt about what’s happening in Germany.
I was extremely moved by this novel. The language very warm and emotional. Mann stays very close to his characters, Johanna especially. I felt like even though the subject matter is very dire and the decisions and troubles that the characters are facing are very extreme, Mann still manages to find beauty. Not only in the love story between Ragnar and Johanna, but also in his description of the Finish landscape. The novel concludes as a road trip, and through this trip, Mann finds a beautiful way to convey the essence of the characters. In the desolate north of Finland, were everything is stripped bare, emotions are also being purified. Mann uses similar language in describing the people and the landscape. Both are sublime but also rugged, unyielding and exposed to the elements.
Here is a short autobiographical chronicler of his time, which also features this quote of his:
“But this ill-fated, vexed, guilt-ridden people, do I not belong to them? I feel a share of the guilt.”