Jules Verne
Le Volcan d'Or
Société Jules Verne, 1989
Paperback edition: Folio, 1995
ISBN 2-07-040672-5
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2000 by Gary McGath

At his death in 1905, Jules Verne left the manuscript of Le Volcan d'Or (The Volcano of Gold) unpublished. It was subsequently released in a greatly altered form by Verne's son Michel. In 1989 the Société Jules Verne released a lightly edited version of Verne's original novel for the first time.

I am hardly the best qualified person to review this book, since my reading knowledge of French is no more than adequate. However, I haven't been able to find any other English-language reviews of the book on the Web, so this may contribute something to an understanding of Verne's work.

Verne is best known to American readers as a science-fiction writer. He gave us a submarine far in advance of anything yet invented, a cannon that sent people from Florida to the moon, and a vehicle capable of tremendous speeds both on land and in the water. But Verne is best understood as a writer of travel adventures. In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg makes use of no technology ahead of its time, although the idea of making use of the latest developments to circle the world with unprecedented speed arguably qualifies it as science fiction. Five Weeks in a Balloon and Michael Strogoff are simply adventure stories.

Le Volcan d'Or makes a small step into science fiction, in that one of the characters devises an engineering scheme to hasten the eruption of a volcano; but it is basically the story of hunting for gold in the Klondike, with villains and natural forces creating difficulties.

The novel as Verne wrote it is complete but not polished. Words are missing; character names change; francs and dollars are intermixed without a pattern, sometime switching from one to the other in mid-sentence. Editing appears to have been limited to filling in omissions in brackets (never more than a word or two), making the names consistent, and providing a few footnotes.

At the opening of the novel in 1898, two cousins in Montreal, Summy Skim and Ben Raddle, are notified of their uncle's death. They learn that he had a gold claim in the Klondike, which he has left to them jointly. Summy would be content to accept a syndicate's $4000 offer for the claim, but Ben insists on going to check its value. When they arrive -- Summy complaining all the way about traveling into the cold -- they encounter the first of the many problems which will face them. Because of a surveying error, it is unclear whether the claim is actually in Alaska or in Canada, and the syndicate withdraws its offer. Undismayed, Ben sets up mining operations there; Summy, continuing in what will be a regular pattern, is persuaded to go along.

Next to their lot, Claim 129, is Claim 127, which is operated by a couple of ne'er-do-well Texans. While Summy is not an eager adventurer, he is something of a hothead, and challenges the Texan Hunter to a duel over a piece of quartz which may or may not contain any gold. The duel, however, is prevented by an earthquake which changes the local watershed, putting both of these claims under water.

Summy and Ben can't return home, though, because it is too late in the season, so they spend the winter in Dawson City. During this time Ben meets with a Frenchman who has nearly died of exposure, who tells Ben of a volcano of gold to the north, giving him exact directions before dying. Ben makes plans to go to this volcano, and Summy comes along, kicking and screaming as usual.

They arrive at the volcano, which does appear to have a substantial amount of gold in its crater. Unfortunately, it is beginning a new period of activity, so it is impossible to enter the crater. Ben devises the idea of diverting a stream into a fissure at the base of the volcano; he reasons that the water, on reaching the heated rocks and lava, will turn to steam, and the pressure will cause the volcano to erupt sooner than it would otherwise, hurling gold out where it can easily be gathered.

However, the Texans have also learned of this volcano, and arrive there with about fifty armed men while Ben is still engineering his scheme. This leads to a confrontation which resolves the novel; without actually giving away the ending, I'll mention that the penultimate chapter is titled "L'éruption" and say that things don't go quite as anyone had planned.

The novel is interesting, but is hardly one of Verne's most important works. Verne is at his best when he introduces fantastic elements in his stories; the volcano doesn't really count as fantastic. While exploring the passions of people who are driven by "gold fever," it has no real psychological depth. The interactions between Ben and Summy and their conflicts with the villains are entertaining but hardly profound. The scene in which the Frenchman Laurier tells Ben of the volcano, with his dying words, "Pour ma mère! Pour ma mère!" is embarrassingly melodramatic. On the other hand, the description of winter in the Klondike is often impressive, and there is a little of Captain Nemo in Ben's determination to go further and further in pursuit of gold. Ben, like other Verne characters, is motivated not so much by wealth as by a challenge which he can't turn down. And that is what really makes any Verne novel: someone's defiance of all odds in pursuit of a goal.

I will be mildly surprised if anyone actually buys Le Volcan d'Or as a result of reading this review. But I hope it will help to remind people that there is more to Verne than the few books of his which are readily available (often in bad translations) to American readers.

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