Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry

I had been meaning to read Under the Volcano earlier this fall, but was continually distracted by other reads. Thankfully, over the holidays I was finally able to sit down and crack open the novel.  Though warning of Under the Volcano‘s  intricate struture came from biblioklept’s review, I was completely unaware of the masterpiece that was coming to me.

In Under the Volcano we follow the alcoholic, ex-British consulate Geoffrey Firmin (aptly known as “The Consul”), his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh, the man behind their separation. Set in Quantehetec (the Aztec name for Cuernavaca), the three are stuck in a love triangle over the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Bent on saving her marriage and rescuing the Consul from his alcoholism, Yvonne returns to Quantehetec that morning. Finding the Consul finishing off the previous evening in a local bar, Yvonne does her best to forget the past and win back her husband’s affection. Though when Hugh arrives, the tension weighs on Geoffrey stronger than any drink and disrupts the reunion. To distract himself from dwelling in past, the Consul drunkenly guides Hugh and Yvonne through local villages.

As the day pours on, the Consul’s thoughts become increasingly seized by drink- most of stops happen to be cantinas. A war between life and death wages in the Consul’s soul of returning to his wife or contenting himself with alcohol. While Yvonne wishes to help her husband with his struggle, Hugh’s hatred of living in his brother’s shadow leaves him indifferent. In fact, if the Consul were out the picture, Yvonne may turn to him.

So the question stands: Will the Consul be able to save himself from the alcohol?

This is the most basic plot of Under the Volcano I can sum up. The novel is composed of an immense amount of literary allusion, non-linear timeline, vivid South American imagery, comedy, the character of M. Laurelle, and Modernist poetry that would be a diservice to condense into summery. We can see here, from a description of Hugh’s rebellious upbringing when he exiled himself from his home to work on a sea boat, what Lowry is made of:

“He shuddered again, for he might not have gone after all, he might have been forcibly prevented by certain husky forgotten relatives, never before reckoned with, who’d come as if springing out of the ground to his aunt’s aid, had it not been, of all people, for Geoff, who wired back sportingly from Rabat to their father’s sister: Nonsense. Consider Hugh’s proposed trip best possible thing for him. Strongly urge you give him every freedom.– A potent point, one considered: since now his trip had been deprived neatly not only of its heroic aspect but of any possible flavour of rebellion as wel. For in spite of the fact that he now receiving every assistance from the very people he mysteriously imagined himself running away from, even after broadcasting his plans to the world, he still could not bear for one moment to think he was not ‘running away to sea’. And for this Hugh had never wholly forgiven the Consul.”

Written in 1940, published ’47, Under the Volcano is certainly a thoughtfully dense peer into the life of the enigmatic author. Lowry convolutes the novel’s timeline by shifting character’s and events each chapter. (It’s as tedious as it sounds.) Marked by a literary rock-and-roll lifestyle, Lowry was truly a mess. Known only to be sober for “1 to 2 hours of the day”, the author’s dire state certainly seeped into Under the Volcano.

Chasing his first wife Jan Gabriel to Mexico, Lowry found inspiration for his novel. When Gabriel eventually disappeared, Lowry gradually began to drink himself to death until his family forced him to a Los Angeles hotel. There he would meet his second wife and the reason Under the Volcano exist, Margie Bonner. Bonner would bring Lowry’s left behind manuscript from Los Angeles to Vancouver, where the couple moved. She edited and assisted Lowry in finishing the novel.

“Instead of the narrative method, we may now use the mythical method”, T.S. Eliot writes in his 1923 essay to The Dial concerning Joyce’s Modernist style in Ulysses. As you can tell from the exerpts in this review,  Lowry certainly embraces this mythical principle to the highest in the acclaimed novel. Though,  the author’s lack of “simplicity” certainly becomes more comprehensible after immersing yourself in his rhythm. We can see here, in one of the first conversations Yvonne and the Consul have after her return, the grandiose of Lowry’s Modernist style, as well as his sing-song prose:

“‘-She might have said yes for once,’a voice said in the Consul’s ear at this moment with incredible rapidity, ‘for now of course poor old chap you want horribly to get drunk all over again don’t you the whole trouble being as we see it that Yvonne’s long-dreamed-of coming alas but put away the anguish my boy there’s nothing in it’, the voice gabbled on, ‘has in itself created the most important situation in your life save one namely the far more important situation it in turn creates of your having to have five hundred drinks in order to deal with it’, the voice he recognized of a pleasant and impertinent familiar , perhaps horned, prodigal of disguise, a specialist in casuistry, and who added severely, ‘but are you the man to weaken and have a drink at this critical hour Geoffrey Firmin you are not you will fight it have already fought down this temptation have you not you have not then I must remind you did you not last night refuse drink after drink and finally after a nice little sleep even sober up altogether you didn’t you did you didn’t you did we know afterwards you did you were only drinking enough to correct your tremor a masterly self-controlled she does not and cannot appreciate” 

“I’d not want to read that novel without knowing the man”, says Lowry’s first publisher in the Academy Award nominated documentary about the author. (The documentary is excessively dark, but informational.) Nevertheless, Lowry’s publisher is correct. Whether it be recognition of beauty, mental fights against or in support of alcohol,  or long diatribes on the horrors of Fascism, Lowry makes no illusion that he is part of his characters.

Under the Volcano is most rewarding for the effort you exert on it. It’s charm comes from it’s limitless interpretations.  It is by far the most difficult novel I’ve read. I encourage reading Malcolm Lowry’s fantastic novel, but strongly suggest refraining looking up anymore on Lowry than mentioned above. It will definitely add a bit more suspense to the novel.

Even though I may have only scratched the service of Under the Volcano, it has certainly encouraged me to crack the binding again sooner or later:

“Constables: one could see oneself, or pretend to, as a small lone figure carrying the burden of those ancestors, their weakness and wildness (which could be invented where it was lacking) in one’s blood, a victim of dark forces-everybody was, it was inescapable!-misunderstood and tragic, yet at least with a will of your own! But what was the use of a will if you had no faith? This indeed, was also Yvonne Griffaton’s problem. This was what was she too was seeking, and had been all the time, in the face of everything, for some faith-as if one could find it like a new hat or a house for rent!-yes, even what she was now on the point of finding, and losing, a faith in a cause, was better than none.”

*Taken from the documentary

**Also, I recently reviewed John Huston’s 1984 film adaption of the novel. You can see it here.

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8 thoughts on “Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry

  1. One of my favourite books, definitely. The drunkenness and the prose that accompanies it were definitely what caught my eye the first time I read it, but going back to it last year I was really struck by the Consul’s role as a foreigner, the signs that read “Is this your garden?” and the slow-buildings of fascism in the cantinas (while he only wants mescal).

  2. Pingback: To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf « Living with Literature

    • Joseph,

      My apologies for finally getting to this. Great review. Reading your thoughts on Lowry’s prose is reminding me of the tedium that certainly fills Under the Volcano. In retrospect, I agree: the book should be hated — but that is hard to do.

      Let me know if you ever want to guest post on Living with Lit!

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