Charles Olson/Conrad Aiken (Books Acquired, 6.09.2012)

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Charles Olson’s Selected Writing (New Directions): In all seriousness, why don’t more publishers go for simple covers like this one? Love it.

A scribbling:

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Also, had to pick up something by Conrad Aiken after reading about his influence on Malcolm Lowry:

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David Markson’s Malcolm Lowry Study (Book Acquired, 6.05.2012)

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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:

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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.

Denis Johnson, Malcolm Lowry, Ben Marcus (Books Acquired, 4.18.2012)

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I went to the bookstore to pick up a graduation present and then spent too much time wandering the stacks. While looking for Mat Johnson’s Pym, I found a first printing paperback of Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon and had to have it—haven’t read it yet, and it makes a nice sister for my copy of Angels—but honestly, I’m just in love with these 1980s Vintage Contemporary editions with awful, awful covers.

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Malcolm Lowry’s last novel, the posthumously published October Ferry to Gabriola. Kind of a hideous cover.

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 I was looking for something by David Markson (no dice) when I came across The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus; I’ve been meaning to check out Marcus’s stuff, and a few minutes with the volume sold me—short vignettes, sort of like Lydia Davis or DFW or Dennis Cooper or William Burroughs (but probably not; I’m just using these as a short hand reference).

Book Shelves #13, 3.25.2012

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Book shelves series #13, thirteenth Sunday of 2012: Four by the late great Russell Hoban. A few Philip K. Dick volumes, although it’s worth pointing out that most of the good stuff I’ve owned by him has been loaned out and never returned and/or exists in ratty coverless mass market editions. PK Dick transitions to William Burroughs to JG Ballard (another writer who I used to own other books by before they were dispersed . . .). Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is a thoroughly obscure volume in a Ballardian/Burroughsian vein; it deserves a reprint. Gardner, Brodkey, Gass, Kosinski. I’ve owned Raymond Carver’s Cathedral since high school, or maybe freshman year of college. It’s all the Carver that any library needs. Lish comma Gordon. Two by Malcolm Lowry. Two by Barry Hannah. Four from Sam Lipsyte.

The Carver and Kosinski volumes are part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries line that all feature awful, hyper-literal covers. I have about a dozen such volumes and I’m planning a piece on them in the future. Observe:

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Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry

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 this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]

 

Books Removed from Stack, 10.07.2011

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Summer wanes into fall; time to clean out the stack of books in my nightstand. Most volumes were permitted to stay, but I’m going to go ahead and find shelf space for these fellows.

The Lowry book, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place collects short stories and other writings. It’s a muddled, unfinished affair, and I muddled through not very much of it, leaving it unfinished.

F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman is full of insight and keen writing, but its voluminous scope and long essays kept making me wonder why I wasn’t just reading Hawthorne and Melville themselves. No knock on lit crit, but it seems wiser to spend reading time on the originals.

Speaking of Melville—I gave his incest novel Pierre another (third?) serious shot this summer, influenced by the Matthiessen, I guess. No go. Got distracted. It’s long.

I did finish Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban, a baffling schizophrenic novel that has thwarted every attempt of mine to review it. Here’s a review: it’s a strange, funny novel, a cult novel without a big enough cult.

I read several of the essays in A Symposium (ones by Beckett and William Carlos Williams), as well as the letters it includes (attacking Finnegans Wake) and Sylvia Beach’s reluctant intro. An interesting book but sometimes dry. Its inclusion, along with Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake remind me of the brave week I spent trying to get a handle on Joyce’s language vortex. For whatever reason, I left the Wake in the stack. A dare? A dare.

On the Feeling of Being In-between Books

Like most bibliophiles, I have a big ole stack of books — multiple stacks, really — lying around the house; that is, I have unshelved books in little intermediary piles that I am either always reading or planning to read “next,” which is to say, sometime in the near future. I’ve written before about books I’m always reading (and re-reading), so I’ll set that aside for the moment; also, there are those books of a somewhat fragmentary nature that I like to read slowly (fodder for a future post, perhaps) — but let’s set those aside as well, because they are not what I’m speaking of here.

I found a few years ago that the best way to finish a book, especially a challenging book, but really any novel worth reading, is to simply give it as much undivided attention as you can — to do your best to not let all those other books jump the queue. And for the most part, I’m pretty good at doing this.

So well anyway.

I finished Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet the night before last. I’ve had the book for a while, and though I had desired to read it, I hadn’t had the feeling of wanting to commit to this particular book; so, what I’m doing now, gentle reader, is distinguishing between these two things. We, that is bibliophiles, we all desire to read certain books (lots of certain books, no doubt), but that’s not the same as the feeling of wanting to commit to the particular book. Because generally a bibliophile knows that a great book, or at least a book worth reading, requires a certain level of commitment.

I picked Amulet out of the stack after reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I don’t know why. There was no intellectual impulse in the choice, although a connection might easily be made between the two novels, both set in Mexico; indeed, Bolaño opens The Savage Detectives with a quote from Under the Volcano, and the heroine of Amulet shows up in The Savage Detectives — so there is some connection. But again, the decision to read Amulet next, instead of, say, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time or any of the other dozens of books cluttering up Biblioklept International Headquarters, was, or at least I believe was, more a matter of intuition and feeling than intellect.

So, as I mentioned, I finished Amulet the other night, and, during the course of reading that novel, another dead literary darling’s novel came out, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Which I’ve been greatly anticipating. Which I’ve been very much desiring to read. Which I have absolutely no desire to commit to reading now, which is to say in that moment between books. Which is strange, I suppose, but perhaps easy to account for on several fronts. First, every day seems to bring some new, fully realized review of The Pale King to the internet, or some piece about Wallace’s “legacy” and The Pale King, or, even worse, some coverage about coverage of The Pale King (which, yes, I realize this post is now threatening to become). Another reason that might account for the fact that I have no feeling to commit to reading The Pale King now may be that it is Wallace’s last novel; maybe I want to wait a bit, give myself a bit of distance from the internet buzz, let anticipation build again. Divorce myself from the idea of having to read the book — especially in the context of Biblioklept, a maybe-literary blog.

To go back to my earlier point, the point of all of this (if this rambling can be said to have a point) is that I realize that I rarely choose to read the “next” book in an intellectual way — that is, the choice is almost always intuitive, born from some feeling that I don’t know how to name, except to say that it’s the feeling that I have when I’m in-between books. It’s a wonderful feeling, exhilarating and freeing and full of possibility, as corny as that sounds, but also a kind of anxiety, a feeling paradoxically tempered by the temporal messiness of being a reader, which is to say being a human, as if the limited time we have to read dampens — and thus defines — the edges of this particular exhilaration. I love the feeling because it opens a seemingly illimitable range of possibilities — the possibilities of new books, new narratives — even as the choice forecloses the possibility of another choice. Etymologically, the word “decide” means “to cut off.” But enough dithering. Time to riffle through the stack.

Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry

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, and 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.

Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry is a 1976 documentary by directors Donald Brittain and John Kramer. Featuring Richard Burton reading from Lowry’s work. (Via).

“How Drunkly Sober Un-drunk” — A Passage from Malcolm Lowry’s Novel Under the Volcano

A passage from Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano

The Consul dropped his eyes at last. How many bottles since then? In how many glasses, how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses—towering, like the smoke from the train that day—built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill from the Generalife Gardens, the bottles breaking, bottles of Oporto, tinto, bianco, bottles of Pernod, Oxygénée, absinthe, bottles smashing, bottles cast aside, falling with a thud on the ground in parks, under benches, beds, cinema seats, hidden in drawers at Consulates, bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean, bottles floating in the ocean, dead Scotchmen on the Atlantic highlands—and now he saw them, smelt them, all, from the very beginning-bottles, bottles, bottles, and glasses, glasses, glasses, of bitter, of Dubonnet, of Falstaff, Rye, Johnny Walker, Vieux Whisky, blanc Canadien, the aperitifs, the digestifs, the demis, the dobles, the noch ein Herr Obers, the et glas Araks, the tusen taks, the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal… The Consul sat very still. His conscience sounded muffled with the roar of water. It whacked and whined round the wooden frame-house with the spasmodic breeze, massed, with the thunderclouds over the trees, seen through the windows, its factions. How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity? How could he go back and look now, scrabble among the broken glass, under the eternal bars, under the oceans?

Stop! Look! Listen! How drunk, or how drunkly sober un-drunk, can you calculate you are now, at any rate?

“Twenty-nine Clouds” — A Passage on Aging from Malcolm Lowry’s Novel Under the Volcano

A passage about aging from Malcolm Lowry’s devastating novel Under the Volcano

Twenty-nine clouds. At twenty-nine a man was in his thirtieth year. And he was twenty-nine. And now at last, though the feeling had perhaps been growing on him all morning, he knew what it felt like, the intolerable impact of this knowledge that might have come at twenty-two, but had not, that ought at least to have come at twenty-five, but still somehow had not, this knowledge, hitherto associated only with people tottering on the brink of the grave and A. E. Housman, that one could not be young forever — that indeed, in the twinkling of an eye, one was not young any longer. For in less than four years, passing so swiftly to-day’s cigarette seemed smoked yesterday, one would be thirty-three, in seven more, forty; in forty-seven, eighty. Sixty-seven years seemed a comfortingly long time but then he would be a hundred. I am not a prodigy any longer. I have no excuse any longer to behave in this irresponsible fashion. I am not such a dashing fellow after all. On the other hand: I am a prodigy. I am young. I am a dashing fellow. Am I not? You are a liar, said the trees tossing in the garden. You are a traitor, rattled the plantain leaves. And a coward too, put in some fitful sounds of music that might have meant that in the zolaco the fair was beginning.

David Markson on Drinking with Malcolm Lowry and Dylan Thomas