100 Best Novels Guardian list, 20 Books of summer, 20th century Literature, Book review, Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, 1947

At the heart of Lowry’s dark complex masterpiece, ‘Under the Volcano’, is his portrait of the physical, mental and psychological collapse induced by alcoholism. Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul to a small Mexican town sitting in the shadow of two volcanoes (thus ‘Under the Volcanoes’ surely?) spends the last day of his life disastrously staggering from drink to drink, accompanied by his half brother Hugh and his divorced but still attached wife, Yvonne. They have a drink, go on a bus, have another drink, attend a bull-riding event, have another drink, and so on. Some absurd scenes, for example where Firmin falls flat on his face in the road, or where he is chastised for being sick on his neighbour’s garden, would be funny if they were not at the same time so tragic. Much of the novel is narrated from Firmin’s point of view; as he is drunk all the time, this inevitably means the narrative is confused, rambling, chaotic and often surreal, as he fades in and out of different extremes of consciousness, including complete blackouts, hearing voices, and delusions, with always the need for another drink lurking in the background of his thoughts.UnderTheVolcano

Like many readers, I found this a difficult novel, difficult in some very specific ways. Yes, the language is at times convoluted and obscure; the point of view narration often makes it hard to understand what is happening, particularly when we see the world through the drunken haze that permanently suffuses the central character. Little happens, and the few events that do occur are suffused with an air of unreality. Writing in the Guardian, Chris Power said “An atmosphere of difficulty cloaks the book like the thunderheads that hide the “immense flanks” of Popocatepetl,”

Just to give a flavour of this difficulty, here is a typical sentence, taken almost completely at random:

“It was a powerful silent car, of American build, sinking deeply on its springs, its engine scarcely audible, and the sound of the horse’s hooves rang out plainly, receding now, slanting up the ill-lit Calle Nicaragua, past the Consul’s house, where there would be a light in the window M.Laurelle didn’t want to see – for long after Adam had left the garden the light in Adam’s house had burned on – and the gate was ,mended, past the school on the left, and the spot where he had met Yvonne with Hugh and Geoffrey that day – and he imagined the rider as not pausing even at Laurelle’s own house, where his trunks lay mountainous and still only half packed, but galloping recklessly round the corner into the Calle Tierra del Fuego and on, his eyes wild as those soon to look on death through the town – and this too, he thought suddenly, this maniacal vision of senseless frenzy, but controlled, not quite uncontrolled, somehow almost admirable, this too, obscurely, was the Consul….”

I think I am right in saying that is a whole sentence. I can follow the train of thought, just, and can appreciate what Lowry is doing, presenting Laurelle’s stream of consciousness, but there’s no doubt it makes this a tough read – if it hadn’t been for the obligations of this review there is no way I would have finished this novel.

A few other points. It is hard not to see the novel as a meta-narrative, a heavily stylised autobiographical portrait – Wikipedia tells me that the first version of the novel was developed while Lowry lived in Mexico, “frequently drunk and out of control while his first marriage was breaking up”, which comes as no surprise, and which is an accurate summary of the novel itself. Lowry/Firmin knows his alcoholism is destructive, in fact killing him, but is powerless to resist.

The novel is rich in symbolism, some of it done in a heavy-handed manner –  Lowry may as well at certain points in the novel have written in the margins “Look, I am using this figure, situation or event as a symbol to represent something else, something more abstract, such as the futility of life”. As an example, here Yvonne, the Consul’s recently divorced wife, considers a bull-riding arena:

“Yes, it struck her now that this whole business of the bull was like a life; the important birth, the fair chance, the tentative, then assured, then half-despairing circulations of the ring, an obstacle negotiated – a feat improperly recognized – boredom, resignation, collapse: then another, more convulsive birth, a new start”

Later, Yvonne, Firmin, and Hugh encounter an old man, carrying quite literally an unbearable burden:

“Bent double, groaning with the weight, an old lame Indian was carrying on his back, by means of a strap looped over his forehead, another poor Indian, yet older and more decrepit than himself. He carried the older man and his crutches, trembling in every limb under this weight of the past, he carried both their burdens.”

What can this represent, I wonder?

Yvonne is particularly prone to pointing out the symbols she bumps into as she wanders around with Hugh and Geoffrey, looking for entertainment:

“They were the cars at the fair that were whirling around her; no, they were the planets, while the sun stood, burning and spinning and guttering in the centre; here they came again, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto; but they were not planets, for it was not the merry-go-round at all, but the Ferris wheel, they were constellations, in the hub of which, like a great cold eye, burned Polaris, and round and round it here they went…they were in a dark wood, she heard the wind and the rain rushing through the forest and saw the tremors of lightning shuddering through the heavens and the horse—great God, the horse—and would this scene repeat itself endlessly and forever?—the horse, rearing, poised over her, petrified in midair, …the carrousel, but the carrousel had stopped and she was in a ravine down which a million horses were thundering towards her, and she must escape, through the friendly forest to their house, their little home by the sea.”

As well as heavy handed symbolism, the foreshadowing here is equally clunky. Despite these structural reservations, I have to admit that Lowry is a confident writer, particularly strong in his use of different voices. His use of imagery is also striking – little red birds in the garden are like “animated rosebuds”, and elsewhere he writes about “the cold bath of confession”, and being “rather like someone lying in a bath after all the water has run out, witless, almost dead”. Later, the “huge domes of an observatory, haloed in gold”, stand out “in black silhouette like roman helmets”.

The novel is suffused with literary allusions, to Keats, Cervantes, Virgil, Marlowe, Rousseau and De Quincey, amongst many others, and the “look at me I am being clever” manner of this can be wearying.

Finally, I wrote a few weeks back about the tendency of authors to end their novels by killing of their main characters. ‘Under the Volcano’ joins this club, although given the tragic nature of their relationship, and the inevitability of the outcome, to have not killed off the Consul and his ex-wife would have been the more surprising choice.

I can admire Lowry’s artistry in constructing this complex narrative, and I am pleased I finally managed to finish it, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.