(Here’s my review of Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano).
Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.
After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.
During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.
Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—
The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.
The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.
Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.
In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.
Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!” The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?
For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.
In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]
(Here’s my review of Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano).
(This pic seems like a good argument to read Under the Volcano, but here’s another one).
From “Malcolm Lowry: A Remininiscence,” the final chapter of David Markson’s Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano, a study of Under the Volcano:
His big books, however, would at the moment remain these: Moby-Dick, Blue Voyage, the Grieg, Madame Bovary, Conrad (particularly The Secret Agent), O’Neill, Kafka, much of Poe, Rimbaud, and of course Joyce and Shakespeare. The Enormous Room is a favorite, as is Nightwood. Kierkegaard and Swedenborg are the philosophers most mentioned, and in another area William James and Ouspensky. Also Strindberg, Gogol, Tolstoy.
Lifting a Maupassant from the shelf (nothing has been said of the man before this): “He is a better writer than you think.”
Yet another Markson book with a hideous cover. The cover for Markson’s study of Lowry’s Under the Volcano is truly terrible though: it looks like a fucking diet book or something. Great work, Barnes & Noble! Obviously I’ll shed the dust jacket; here’s what’s underneath:
Much better. Anyway, what really counts is what’s inside, of course. I could probably have used this last year when I was reading Under the Volcano, but I feel I handled it okay. I’m more interested in Markson, and even more interested in Markson’s relationship with Lowry, chronicled in a brief chapter in the back that I’ve already read and will report on in more detail in the future.
I go to the bookstore once a week, whether I need books or not, which I really don’t. This week, I picked up a book I’ve already read, Lowry’s late-modernist classic Under the Volcano, simply because I hate the cover of the version I have (a bland movie tie-in). Anyway, I’ve been prowling for a version that includes an introduction by William Vollmann, but I saw this midcentury paperback with a nice minimal vibe and had to snap it up (also, it was a dollar, and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”):
I’m not a huge Paul Auster fan, but I do like artist David Mazzucchelli’s work (especially his novel Asterios Polyp), so when I saw a crisp used copy of the graphic novelization of City of Glass (with an intro by Art Spiegelman), I had to snap it up:
A splash page of a stark empty room which I’m sure is meaningful in some way:
Also, couldn’t help pick up a used copy of Gaddis’s late novel Carpenter’s Gothic, even though I know there’s no way I’ll get to it anytime soon.
David Markson talked with Joseph Tabbi about (among many other things) his friendship with Malcolm Lowry, his love for William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and how James Joyce teaches us to read. Read the entire interview at the Dalkey Archive:
JT: You mention your critical study of “Volcano.” But you did a master’s thesis on it at Columbia much earlier?
DM: While we were in touch, but before I’d actually met him, yes. In 1951.
JT: Which means it was only four years after the novel had been published. Isn’t that rare, an academic paper on an entirely “new” writer with no body of criticism to verify his status?
DM: As a matter of fact I had to wander around the English department knocking on doors looking for someone to approve the project. I remember Lionel Trilling’s dismissal in particular: “What is all this drunkenness all about?” My whole object was to explain just that, obviously, but I decided to find less of a current to buck. Finally William York Tindall gave me a go-ahead.
JT: That brings up a question of a different sort, however. “Volcano” is scarcely your everyday traditional novel. What sort of training or background did you have that let you feel able to confront the challenge of interpreting something that difficult?
DM: To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I had any real idea what I was getting into, or if any of us do, the first time we’re seduced by a book of that sort. Though Joyce certainly teaches us, for starters. By which I mean that we all learn quickly with “Ulysses” that we cannot simply read the novel itself but have to lean on some of the critical crutches.
JT: But you had no crutches at all?
DM: Oh, well, but there are always clues in the text itself—this reference to that which leads to patterns you begin to trace out. On one level I impressed the hell out of myself, surprised at what I did know. And evidently I impressed a few other creatures as well, since I kept hearing that the thesis was being stolen from by students all over the place. The again when I sat down years later to turn that early stuff into a full length book I was almost embarrassed at how little I’d seen after all.
JT: Not long after that original Lowry thesis you were proselytizing fairly extensively for “The Recognitions” too?
DM: I suppose you become addicted to a certain kind of writing. There’s little enough of it extant, God knows. I’m not sure how much actual “proselytizing” I did for Gaddis, however. Except of course for practically button-holing friends on street corners.
JT: But I understand you were very directly responsible for the first reissue of the book, also?
DM: Evidently I was. It’s a funny story, actually. I was living in Mexico, and someone—well, old Aiken, in fact—gave my address to Aaron Asher, who was the editor of Meridian Books at the time. I picked him and his wife Linda up at their hotel and brought them out to where Elaine and I were living—outside Mexico City—for dinner and then spent approximately three solid hours talking nonstop about Gaddis. Finally Aaron threw up his hands in despair, telling me, “Please, please, I promise I’ll read the darned thing as soon as I get home! But now tell us something about where to go and what to see in Mexico, for heaven’s sake!”
JT: And then he did publish it. Did Gaddis himself know about the impetus?
DM: That’s fairly funny too, as it happens. “The Recognitions” came out in 1955. I’d read it twice when it did, and then wrote Gaddis a letter. It’s perhaps the only other letter I’ve written to an author I didn’t know, but it was completely different from the one I wrote to Lowry. In this case I’d just been infuriated by the rotten reviews and simply wanted to tell the man the hell with them all, that there were some few of us out there who did see what he’s accomplished. I didn’t get an answer, though I eventually heard secondhand that Gaddis had been too depressed at the time to send one. Or that he’d ultimately decided it was too late. But then sometime in 1961, not long after the Asher incident, I did hear. Six years after the fact, this was, a long letter beginning with something like, “Dear David Markson, if I can presume to answer yours of June whatever, 1955!” Which went on to say that Asher was in fact about to do a first reprint.