Monday, December 19, 2011

#11 - Under the Volcano

Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was a Cambridge-educated Englishman and quite a remarkable alcoholic. If drinking one’s life away were a school class, Lowry would have been picked out at age 8 and put into the Gifted and Talented program. This convoluted image comes to me because Mr. Lowry was famed for beginning to drink heavily at 12 and being full-blown by the age of 14.

At a tender age when this reviewer hadn’t quite yet gotten over the juvenile delights of Halloween candy and birthday cake, our prodigious author was already a serious devotee of Mr Walker's amber restorative.[1] Martin Amis has a good bit about this in an essay he wrote on Lowry.[2]
“While most schoolboys dreamt of becoming engine-drivers or cattle-punchers, little Malcolm dreamt of becoming an alcoholic. And the dream came true… Malcolm Lowry was shitfaced for thirty-five years.”
After marrying his first wife, Malcolm moved to Spain with her in 1936. There his alcoholism worsened, and eventually his wife left him for another man, sending him into a deep and destructive alcoholic depression. He never fully recovered from the alcoholism, although he did eventually sober up enough to write Under the Volcano, his only really notable work.

Semi-autobiographical novels being something of a vogue in 20th century English-language literature, you can probably guess already the plot summary I’m about to unfold.

Under the Volcano is the tale of a single day (the last) in the life of Geoffrey Firmin (called the Consul), a retired British diplomatic envoy in Mexico. The day is November 2, 1938. Having divorced him previously, Geoffrey’s wife Yvonne comes back to him for this single day to try to rekindle their relationship. Her efforts are thwarted by her own misgivings and by the Consul’s crippling passivity in the face of all but drink. Also complicating matters are the presence on the scene of the Consul’s brother Hugh and the Frenchman Jacques Laruelle, with both of whom Yvonne had affairs before the dissolution of the marriage.

Though I’ve said that the novel concerns a single day and a simple plot – alcoholic divorcé is offered chance at renewed relationship and redemption, misses his chance, and dies despairing – Lowry enriches (less charitably, complicates) the experience with a complex and allusive narrative technique, which shifts into flashbacks and digressions and ekphrases with abandon.

The book opens in much the same way as another tale of failed romance, dissolution and death I’ve read lately – The Good Soldier. Laruelle, the Frenchman, is sitting with a Mexican friend a year after the book’s events and reflecting on how sad it all was. This method got under my skin a little with Madox Ford – it seemed a little too passive, and strained my patience from time to time.

Just as Lowry is on the verge of hitting that same point, though, he has Laruelle get up and walk about the Mexican town that is our setting. This is a stroke of authorial genius, as it allows him to show the effects of this heavyweight emotional reflection on Laruelle, rather than just having him repeat incessarntly: “Oh how very sad this all is! This is the saddest story.” It also plays to one of Lowry’s great strengths, the complex and subtle portrayal of the Mexican scenery. As many reviewers before me have noted, Mexico in Lowry’s hands swings wildly between a tropical paradise and a wretched hellscape. Compare:
Did she remember Oaxaca! The roses and the great tree, was that, the dust and the buses to Etla and Nochitlan? … Or at night their cries of love, rising into the ancient fragrant Mayan air, heard only by ghosts? In Oaxaca they had found each other once.
The broken pink pillars, in the half-light, might have been waiting to fall down on him: the pool, covered with green scum… to close over his head. The shattered evil-smelling chapel, overgrown with weeds, the crumbling walls, splashed with urine, on which scorpions lurked – wrecked entablature, sad archivolt, slippery stones covered with excreta – this place, where love had once brooded, seemed part of a nightmare.
But even in these passages, notice how the pen of a subtle author works – how the love in the second passage ‘brooded’, and what sense that gives to the thought; or how the cries of love are overheard not by birds or Edenic animals, but ghosts.[3]

This is very good stuff. And it’s just one piece. The complex allusions to Kabbalah, to repetitive number symbology, to pre-Christian Mexican myth, and other esoterica are mind-boggling – and not slap-dash either, but organic parts of the whole. The constant internal conversations – not monologues, but evolving discussions – of the Consul are an authentic picture of a mind breaking down.

This review could easily run long, as I have developed a deep affection for this book and in me that can manifest as a desire to run through every part that I liked and show how clever the author is. I will hold myself to but one example, a remarkably packed little parenthetical from the second chapter. Yvonne has just entered the bar where she is going to find Geoffrey on the book’s fateful day. We’ve gone through a lengthy passage describing the sights, the smells, the sounds, and Yvonne’s reaction to each. And then –
While [the barman] might not understand what Geoffrey (who was, she noticed, wearing no socks) was talking about…
This is such a simple aside, but it packs a thunderclap. In 7 bracketed words, we learn of Yvonne’s attentiveness to Geoffrey and of Geoffrey’s somewhat disheveled appearance. And that’s only an initial reaction! As I pondered it a little deeper, it occurred to me precisely why he was not wearing socks – uncomfortably swollen ankles are a side-effect of alcohol consumption. And as I dug a little further still, I found one author who noted that this was a slight, but conscious, evocation of Oedipus! (The Greek name means, “swollen foot”. Lowry’s own wife, the model for Yvonne, had left him because she felt that what he was really looking for was a mother-figure, not a wife.)

All that in seven words. That is economy.

Does Under the Volcano belong on this list? Absolutely. As with Rushdie, Lowry has crafted a book that rewards – in fact, almost demands – careful reading and re-reading with pencil in hand. I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that there were commentary volumes unpacking this text. But this, of course, is insufficient for greatness – anyone with a word-processor and Wikipedia open can write in an artless allusive fashion without having much worth the saying. What sets Lowry apart is the emotive scenery, the subtle characterization, and a compelling vision of the Consul’s downfall – eyes half-open, half-shut in a kind of passive dementia.

I came to Under the Volcano almost totally fresh. I had heard of the title, but had no idea of the contents nor the author as I sat down to read it. (at #11, it is the highest-ranked book on our list to have that distinction.) As a one-hit-wonder, Lowry never established much of a popular reputation compared with other literary lushes (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Waugh). This is too bad. Although I do not think I’ve done quite a sufficient job of summing up precisely why, this is a wonderful book, and well worth the intellectual energies of a reader seeking something in one the dustier corners of the library 20th century greats. As one-hit wonders go, this is a hell of a hit.

Also, it mentions Dos Equis.

[1] RIP, Hitch. We’ve lost a sharp pen and a sharper eye.
[2] You can find it in The War Against Cliché, which is one of the better Amis essay collections.
[3] The intermingling of love and death is a refrain in Volcano. The only quote I had ever heard before from the book caps the theme in the last chapter: “How alike are the groans of love, to those of the dying.”

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