My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here is how a fairly rudimentary Wikipedia page describes Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, which takes place all in a day, 2 November 1938 in Mexico (i.e., All Souls’ Day, just after el Día de los muertos):
Geoffrey Firmin is the alcoholic Consul living in Quauhnahuac. He is actually an ex-consul, recently resigned due to diplomatic strains between the UK and Mexico in the aftermath of President Lázaro Cárdenas’s 1938 nationalization of the country’s oil reserves. He wants to write a book, but his alcoholism affects all areas of his life, particularly his relationship with his ex-wife Yvonne. She has returned to Mexico after a long absence in order to rekindle their relationship. Hugh Firmin is Geoffrey’s half-brother. He visits Mexico to report on fascist activity for the London Globe, and he feels incredibly guilty for not acting in the Spanish Civil War. There are frequent allusions to an earlier affair between Hugh and Yvonne, which adds to the tension between the three main protagonists.
Under the Volcano is, then, a book about the problems of leftist commitment and intellectual purpose, but also one written in a stream-of-consciousness, mythic-method style that burrows into the characters’ interiors and finds there the symbolic materials of universal anthropology: in other words, a novel combining the content of the ’30s with the form of the ’20s. And the tone, above all, of the ’40s, for what Under the Volcano ultimately laments is the potential destruction of the human person by the forces of total control, repression, destruction—just as those other great, terrible novels of the early post-war period did: Camus’s The Plague, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Beckett’s Molloy, Ellison’s Invisible Man.
But Lowry’s is a more lively and colorful book than these stark ’40s masterpieces: redolent of bodies, of mescal and convolvulus. It is horse- and rain-scented. It remembers a human sensorium experienced only as grotesquerie, if at all, in the other novels I’ve named, and it remembers too a vocabulary of civilizational and religious synthesis under threat by the totalitarian age. Here is the Consul’s bookshelf, as seen by Hugh:
Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie, Serpent and Siva Worship in Central America, there were two long shelves of this, together with the rusty leather bindings and frayed edges of the numerous cabbalistic and alchemical books, though some of them looked fairly new, like the Goetia of the Lemegaton of Solomon the King, probably they were treasures, but the rest were a heterogenous collection: Gogol, the Mahabarata, Blake, Tolstoy, Pontoppidan, the Upanishads, a Mermaid Marston, Bishop Berkeley, Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Vice Versa, Shakespeare, a complete Taskerson [a fictional poet in the novel], All Quiet on the Western Front, the Clicking of Cuthbert, the Rig Veda–God knows Peter Rabbit; “Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,” the Consul liked to say….
The latter is an apt and scary thought: Beatrix Potter’s little book is a post-Darwinian proto-Freudian modernist fable of casting off civilizational restraint.
There are artistic problems in Under the Volcano. Browsing in Lowry’s letters, I see that he believed that works of art should strive for unity; he often goes so far as to invoke Aristotle in his justifications of his novel. Under the Volcano, though, never quite comes together. It treats a phenomenological account of alcoholism in Mexico as an existential allegory for the collapse of humane values when power overwhelms intellect and morality. Not to boil Lowry’s various modernist stew down to a simplistic moral, but I take this exclamation of the Consul’s to the humanitarian Hugh as the novel’s thematic core:
“And you say first, Spaniard exploits Indian, then, when he had children, he exploited the halfbreed, then the pure-blooded Mexican Spaniard, the criollo, then the mestizo exploits everybody, foreigners, Indians, and all. Then the Germans and Americans exploited him: now the final chapter, the exploitation of everybody by everybody else—”
But is alcoholism really a persuasive vehicle for this tenor? I am reminded of critiques of the contemporary so-called neuronovels, which motivate their characters through mental disorders with physiological causes. As Marco Roth observes, if everybody sometimes feels as if they have Capgras Syndrome, then why should the novelist speak of Capgras Syndrome at all, given that everybody does not have it? So too with Lowry’s uneasy mix of autobiography and mythico-historical allegory: alcoholism may be tyrannical, but it seems too contingent to figure oppression in general. And the novel is aware of this flaw in its design, since one of the secondary characters, a filmmaker, complains thusly, in basically Aristotelian mode, to the Consul:
“Even the suffering you do endure is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious. It lacks the very basis you require of it for its tragic nature. You deceive yourself.”
But the grandeur of this novel’s conclusion overcomes all its flaws. Lowry, who has borrowed a mythic method from Eliot, has also gotten drunk on the torrid long-sentence intensities of Conrad and Faulkner, the allusive wordplay of Joyce:
Old De Quincey: the knocking on the gate in Macbeth. Knock knock: who’s there? Cat. Cat who? Catastrophe. Catastrophe who? Catastrophysicist. What, is it you, my little popo-cat? Just wait an eternity till Jacques and I have finished murdering sleep! Katabasis to cat abysses. Cathartes atratus….
Katabasis is the key term there, and this novel qualifies. It is another 20th-century attempt to wrench long-form prose out of its fixation upon middle-class middle-mindedness, not because it advocates for something else, but very simply because most of the world and most of history is made of something else.
Read it for its landscapes, and for its long arguments between nihilism and humanism. It settles for nihilism at the level of plot—it has the bitterest last sentence in novelistic history, outdoing Madame Bovary and even the aforementioned Nineteen Eighty-Four—but before arriving at that impasse it places a ragged clue in its labyrinth:
“Ne se puede vivir sin amar,” they would say, which would explain everything, and he repeated this aloud.