Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano

I really tried to like this book. I tried to focus as best I could on it as I read it, and if I felt my mind wandering too much I set it aside to come back to fresh later or the next day. I reminded myself of the consensus opinion of people who know far more than I do about such things, as represented by William T. Vollman who wrote the Afterword in the edition I have, that it is “self-evident” that “Under the Volcano is one of the great books.” Or as Sherrill Grace puts it in another essay included in this edition, “Under the Volcano has acquired the reputation of an English language masterpiece, along with Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury or the works of Samuel Beckett.” But alas, I was just never more than modestly into this novel.

A large part of what kept me from enjoying Under the Volcano is the writing style, which I gather is precisely one of the main things that makes it so great. I just found many of the sentences unappealingly convoluted, where I had to go back over them multiple times, seeking to figure out (only sometimes successfully), “OK, does this subject go with this verb 32 words later? Is this clause between commas modifying this part that came long before it near the start of the sentence, which in turn is modifying this later part of the sentence that seems at least vaguely related? And what the heck is this clause that seems to have been thrown in randomly and to not relate to anything?” I’m pretty sure this kind of thing is what more sophisticated readers recognize as beautiful prose.

This is also a book that strikes me as being heavy on symbolism, and I nearly always regard symbolism as pointless literary masturbation. That is, I assume nothing here is accidental, that a passing reference to a rabbit had to be to a rabbit and not a chipmunk or a lizard, that this ship had to be named this, that this storm had to arise at this point of the story, that the story takes place on the Day of the Dead holiday rather than another day, etc., all for whatever symbolic purposes.

Which all gives grad students plenty of allusions to puzzle through, but I’m not convinced makes something a better book (though I know it makes people say it’s a better book).

Moving on, from the supplementary material in this edition, I found out that Under the Volcano is an example—certainly quite common in literature—of writing that is, broadly speaking, autobiographical. Not in the sense of the main story having been experienced by the author in most or all of its particulars, but more in the sense of the author writing about what he knows from experience. So, for instance, the book takes place in Mexico, and also references various other locations including British Columbia and England, all of which are places Lowry lived or spent significant time. One of the characters runs away to sea in his youth and must endure ordeals far different from anything he had experienced up to that point, which is something Lowry did in real life.

Most notably, the protagonist is a hardcore alcoholic, which Lowry was as well.

There’s little conventional “action” in the novel; it’s more about emotions and relationships and such. I mean, I guess you can step back from it and say a decent amount happens, but it’s spread out over hundreds of pages, making the “notable events per page” rate very low.

The story occurs over the course of a single day. Or at least what I suppose we could call the main body of the story does; there are also flashbacks and internal monologues of memories and such that expand that timeframe substantially.

The novel takes place in 1938. The protagonist is Geoffrey Firmin, most often referred to as “the Consul.” I had to look up what a “consul” was to be sure; I figured it was vaguely akin to an ambassador, you know, like someone connected to a “consulate.”

A consul is someone in a foreign country who represents or assists anyone in the area who is from his or her country. So Firmin, for instance, is an Englishman stationed in a small town in Mexico, so any British people who are in or around this town can use him as a resource if they’re in trouble with the law, trying to start a business, fear they’re being cheated by the locals, whatever.

At least that’s what I gather a generic consul would do; it’s not clear Firmin does any of that, or is even formally still a consul—perhaps people refer to him as one based on his previously having held that office. He never goes to “work” (though since the story takes place on just one day, and a holiday at that, I suppose that doesn’t mean much). Britain has recently cut off diplomatic relations with Mexico. There is no indication that there are many, if any, other British people here in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. And he’s generally too drunk to function in any job anyway.

I think it’s just one of those sinecures that upper class people get. That’s one of the things you notice about the book, that the main characters are the sort whose net worth—mostly inherited, I gather—is sufficient that they really don’t have to work to support themselves. They may not be fabulously wealthy (though I suppose compared to the common Mexicans they’re surrounded by they are), but they’re well off enough that they can hang out and do nothing and live the “idle rich” lifestyle if they wish, or pick and choose where they want to live, where they want to travel, what adventures and causes they want to pursue, etc. If they do have some sort of job or career it’s because they want to rather than because they have to.

The Consul, as I alluded to above, is a drunk. Clearly alcohol has come to dominate his life. It drove away the great love of his life, his wife Yvonne.

The book opens with the information that the Consul has been killed. Everything after the first chapter—all that material that occurs on the Day of the Dead in 1938—is then a flashback.

At the start of the story proper, in Chapter 2, the Consul’s younger half-brother Hugh is staying with him. Yvonne comes back because she still loves the Consul and wants to give their marriage another chance. (She wrote many letters to him after her departure, but he did not read or answer any of them, because emotionally he couldn’t handle trying to do so, not to mention plenty of them never were delivered; he gets another stack of them late in the novel.)

The Consul is thrilled she’s back, and terrified and out of sorts due to the enormity of this development, all of which he responds to—as he responds to everything—with excessive drinking. Both Yvonne and Hugh—and various other characters—are aware what horrible shape the Consul is in due to his alcoholism and very much want him to stop, though it’s notable that they don’t really do much about the problem besides lamenting it. That is, throughout the novel, throughout this day, they all drink just as a socially normal thing—in private homes, in the bars that seem to constitute about 75% of the businesses in and around this Mexican town, wherever—and no one intervenes to try to prevent the Consul from drinking.

The book is primarily about the Consul and his plight, but along the way we do get a certain amount of background on the other two main characters, as well as a lesser amount about a film director they know named Jacques who is staying in the area (he is the one reflecting on the life and death of the Consul in the first chapter).

Yvonne achieved some success as a film actress when she was younger, and may or may not attempt a comeback at some point. Hugh, though realistic and self-deprecating in some respects, has an idealistic side and is a sort of restless type who pursues causes and feels guilty he’s not doing even more for them. He has traveled the world as a journalist. He participated (on the Loyalist side of course) in the Spanish Civil War, and intends to go back to it.

Hugh, and Jacques for that matter, have had some sexual involvement with Yvonne in the past, and there’s some tension in the air about that and any such connections or indiscretions that might happen in the future. I admit, though, that I only caught a minority of the details about this, due to (what I experienced as) the obscure writing.

Virtually the whole book is about these main three characters interacting on this day: hanging out at the Consul’s house, wandering around town, visiting Jacques, taking a short trip, etc. Mostly they are together, though they do separate here and there, including near the end when the Consul freaks out and runs away.

One thing that did engage and impress me to an extent is the way Lowry presents alcoholism from the inside (as evidently he was quite qualified to do). We’re taken inside the Consul’s consciousness. We experience him battling his various delusions—uncertainty over what’s real and what’s not, fuzziness on the passage of time, uncertainty over what he’s actually said aloud rather than merely thought, confusion over how he got where he is when he returns to some semblance of coherence, etc. We experience him beating up on himself, manifesting some temporary confidence, doubting himself and what is destined to happen with Yvonne, etc.

Especially we experience his constant self-negotiation concerning his drinking: that it’s a step in the right direction that he’s drinking this kind of liquor and foregoing that, delaying taking his next drink for a certain period of time, resisting the temptation to sneak off and drink alone, only having this next drink because he’s at that point of drunkenness where it’ll paradoxically make him more alert and able to function, etc. It’s like he’s sensitive to every last nuance of his drinking, and he’s working his way through it with the spirit of an experimental scientist.

But though there are elements that held my interest, on the whole Under the Volcano just never connected with me the way I’d hoped. In the end it’s just more than I needed to read about a pathetic, useless drunk who basically did nothing with his life, despite having far more opportunities than the average person does due to his money and the inexplicable love of a woman, not to mention support from other friends and family. (So in that way this is really not autobiographical, since however much the alcoholic Lowry might have been a loser and a fuck-up, he also managed to become a highly successful writer—so not a completely useless, wasted life.)