Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry: still good after all these years

Under The VolcanoUnder The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one-of-a-kind landmark of 20th-century literature stands up to multiple readings.

I have a somewhat more intimate relationship with Under the Volcano than most readers, due to the circumstances of my growing up. In 1961, when I was age two, our young family moved in to a waterfront cottage in the then remote community of Cove Cliff in North Vancouver, and my parents became friends with Harvey and Dorothy Burt, who lived two doors down. It would come out that Harvey and Dorothy had been close friends of Malcolm and Margerie Lowry, and indeed had rented a squatter’s shack close to theirs at Dollarton beach in 1951, only a couple of kilometers away. For Harvey and Dorothy this was a love shack, for they were married to other people and were engaged in an illicit affair. The four became a bohemian cadre at Dollarton, drinking and talking about literature and art. The Lowrys left Dollarton and Canada in 1954. In 1957, when Malcolm died by asphyxiating in his own vomit in the village of Ripe, England, Harvey was the only one of his friends or family to attend the inquest.

Dorothy Burt was a passionate lover of literature, and a great fan of Under the Volcano. It was no doubt because of her that we came to have a paperback copy of the book at our house. I first read it in 1978, when I was 19. My response was something between being mystified and bowled over. On the one hand, it was strange to read a book in which so little seems to happen; on the other, it was a fascinating labyrinth of striking and sometimes grotesque imagery, and also a poetic work shot through with ideas and symbolism. I had had a major awakening to literature in 1977 by reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I felt that Lowry’s book was another stepping stone on this engrossing path, even if I could not make out much of it.

The work does bear comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses in being an experience in depth of a single day. The day in question for Volcano is November 1, 1938: the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Indeed, Lowry’s day is shorter, running barely 12 hours of clock time, ending at only about 7 p.m. In brief, the story concerns Geoffrey Firmin, 42-year-old British consul to the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac (now Cuernavaca), a loner and an alcoholic. Two people unexpectedly arrive to join him this day: his younger half brother Hugh, who hopes to join a ship carrying supplies to the partisans in Spain, and his ex-wife Yvonne, an American actress with whom he split up the previous year, and with whom he has dreamed of reconciling. Geoffrey is making a show of trying to quit drinking, but it soon becomes plain that it is only a show; like his creator, Lowry, Geoffrey is a hard-bitten drinker who doesn’t, in his heart of hearts, really want to quit.

There are interactions between these three characters, and also with Jacques Laruelle, a French filmmaker and boyhood friend of Geoffrey’s, and Dr. Vigil, a local physician who is sympathetic to the consul’s plight. There is also a bus ride which is interrupted by the appearance of an Indian lying unconscious on the road (I don’t think this is too spoilerish)—an episode that Lowry first wrote as a short story in the 1930s. But the physical action in the book is slight, and mostly quite true to life (Lowry had spent much time in Mexico); Lowry’s interest is in the inner world of Geoffrey, and, to a lesser extent, Yvonne and Hugh, who also have chapters devoted to their points of view. One of the great strengths of this book is its detailed and authoritative portrait of the mental workings of an alcoholic who is also a genius. For Geoffrey is a would-be author himself, and an educated and well-read man, but he lives from drink to drink, and spends time titrating his nerves with alcohol to keep the DTs at bay and to make existence bearable for another few minutes. He is paranoid and suffers with a persecution mania. He is not a well man.

But Yvonne, a lovely 32-year-old woman, still loves him and yearns for their reunion, so there appears to be hope for Geoffrey. They both want to be together, so what’s stopping them? There are issues of guilt and forgiveness—and of course the demon tequila, and, beyond that, mescal.

I had already read the novel twice when I bought a copy of my own in May 1990. I got the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which includes, as an introduction, a famous exchange of letters between Lowry and the publisher Jonathan Cape in London. Cape wrote to Lowry in November 1945 offering to publish Volcano on condition that Lowry made changes according to suggestions made by Cape’s reader. Lowry responded with a 40-page letter defending the manuscript as it was, and going through it chapter by chapter to demonstrate how all the elements were organically chosen and interlinked. The letter is not a work of complaint; it is fun and self-deprecating, and it provides tremendous insight into the author’s intentions and the systems of imagery within the work—for there are several. If you have not read the novel yet, I would recommend reading the letter after reading the book, for it contains spoilers aplenty.

So I read the novel again in 1990, and have not reread it again till now. What are my impressions this time, on a fourth reading at age 61, an age that Lowry never even approached, dying at 47? I am still impressed with the book, although slightly less so than on previous readings. Sometimes I found the writing self-indulgent and undisciplined; and Lowry is not so powerful a stylist as, say, Joyce. This time I became tired of all the Mexicans speaking faulty English to Geoffrey, which seems to be intended mostly for comic effect, as well as providing some symbolic double entendres. Now it feels a bit like watching “funny foreigners” in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s. In reality, everyone would have been speaking Spanish, including Geoffrey. There is also having to put up with the endless rationalizations and self-seriousness of the addict, his absurd feelings of triumph for resisting a drink for an extra few seconds, or whatever.

But I have just opened my copy of the book at random to page 165, and I promised myself to type whatever I found there. Here is a bit of the action:

‘But wait a minute.’ Hugh looked up at the sky of New Spain. It was a day like a good Joe Venuti record. He listened to the faint steady droning of the telegraph poles and the wires above them that sang in his heart with his pint-and-a-half of beer. At this moment the best and easiest and most simple thing in the world seemed to be the happiness of these two people in a new country. . . .

There’s a taste drawn at random. I think we can say that Lowry can write.

Golly, I meant to talk about more here. For the real importance of this book lies not so much in its characters and their situation, as in how it all seems to stand for the situation of humanity on the threshold of World War II. And, deeper than that, there is something of the powerful poetic motif of what Robert Graves called the White Goddess—the great theme of his 1948 book of that title (it came out the year after Under the Volcano). According to Graves, all European poetry, from most ancient times, is underlain by the myth of the Great Goddess and her two lovers: the reigning priest-king, and the younger man who will kill him and replace him. Here I will just say that the Great Goddess appears here in the form of the volcanic Earth, and also as Yvonne, and there is a question of whether Hugh will replace Geoffrey in relationship with her. This theme also lies deep under Ulysses, in my opinion.

But that’s all material for another place. For now it’s enough to say that Under the Volcano is a major literary work with lots going on in it, possibly even more than its author consciously realized—and he realized plenty. Would I read it a fifth time? Quite possibly. Yes, quite possibly.

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