Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

I don’t think I ‘d ever even heard of this novel before seeing it named by many people in response to an article in The Guardian asking for the best post-war British novel. First published in 1948 though taking him over ten years to write, it is set in and around the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, based on Cuernavaca where Lowry lived with his first wife. I expect that Under the Volcano has often been compared to Ulysses since it covers one day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin—usually referred to by his title, the Consul, though he has recently resigned—and that day’s experiences seem to embody not only the Consul’s entire life, but the lives of an entire generation, perhaps western civilisation itself.

The Consul is an alcoholic and most of the stream-of-consciousness narrative takes place within his mind. On this day, 2 November, the Day of the Dead, the Consul emerges from a night of drinking with a new acquaintance, a local doctor named Vigil, to find that his estranged wife, Yvonne, whose loss he has grieved and used to justify his continued drinking, has unexpectedly returned. A phrase that recurs to the Consul often is No se puede vivir sin amar, which I believe means one cannot live without love. He has long believed that if only Yvonne would return, he could master his craving for alcohol and build a good life with her.

However, complicating her return is not only his continued drinking, but also the presence of the Consul’s younger brother, Hugh, who has just quit his job as a journalist and plans to embark that very evening to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Apparently there has been some improper relationship between Hugh and Yvonne in the past which precipitated her departure.

This is a book I appreciated more than enjoyed. I found it hard to warm up to the characters and have to say I didn’t care what happened to them. However, I was overwhelmed by the intense physicality of the descriptions of the Consul’s garden and road, the town, the cantinas, the countryside. The area is split in two by a great ravine and dwarfed by two volcanoes. I also recognise Lowry’s immense achievement in constructing this book, the way apparently random scenes and details fall together, the use of repetition and “found” phrases, such as the signs plastered on the walls advertising the Peter Lorre film Las Manos de Orlac, which I remember being terrified by the first time I saw it.

In many ways I liked this book better than Ulysses. It is more true to the world as I know it, with the breakdown of order, the fracturing of experience, the mistrust of memory. I also liked the way both the Consul and Yvonne long for Canada as their imagined paradise. The Consul owns an island in British Columbia, and the two imagine—without being able to communicate their visions to each other—how much better life would be there, away from the snares and entanglements of Mexico.

I’ve been talking in the blog about Soseki and the way his novels (written from 1909 to 1915) reflect the shift in Japanese culture from the formal order of the past to the individualisation and chaos of the present. With Lowry’s novel, we are plunged in the maelstrom, the chaos of one man’s mind as he struggles to order his memories and perceptions against the beloved and nefarious effects of mescal and tequila and whisky. We are thrust into this chaos without—as Stephen Spender points out in his introduction—even the cultural framework that Joyce provides. The only thing these characters have to sustain themselves is his or her own individual past.

Lowry’s book reminds me of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy which I blogged about last week, where each character is isolated in his or her experience, even as they knock at the door to paradise. The paradises in these two books are lost ones and, since Proust’s books had just been translated into English, perhaps Lowry had Proust’s words in mind as he started writing this book. Under the Volcano is a difficult book to read, but well worth the effort.

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