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Under The Volcano – Malcolm Lowry

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Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics

Having never read David Foster Wallace, it is probably unfair of me to begin a review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano with a comment on his work, however, I once had the pleasure of a conversation with a girl, a customer in an establishment I used to work, who upon discussing the various authors she enjoyed groaned at the name of David Foster Wallace. Other than a yet incomplete reading of Everything and More, (it’s about maths), I had no insight, so her groan only prompted a question. Was David Foster Wallace not an American literary hero, a compatriot of this girl, a cultural icon she should revere? “He’s afraid of silence,” she said. She grew dramatic: “Enough,” she said. “I get it. Cut out the footnotes and endless references. I can read between the lines. Trust me, you don’t need to fill in every blank.”

It was only upon emerging from Under The Volcano that I thought of this girls comment. In fact, until I’d finished reading it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. As a somewhat autobiographical story with alchoholism at its core, and told with frequent streams of consciousness, it should come as no surprise that silence is a virtue largely ignored, however, that’s not to describe a work where the manic need to share each detail, or to illuminate the multiple and varied meanings are apparent on every page, when the opposite is very much the case, but that the reader is drowned in words, the page is consumed by words, by twists and turns of mind, by erratic juxtapositions, by declarations of love and sudden melodramatic loss, by literary allusions and quasi religious symbolism. Indeed, an oceanic setting might have offered a more apt metaphor, but that the protagonist might have felt obliged to imbibe.

Being the type of reader who prefers to read the story before the introduction, I turned to the beginning of my Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under The Volcano, only after reading the novel itself. A letter, from Malcolm Lowry to the publisher Jonathan Cape, which in great detail, and with some considerable humour, outlines the symbolic and practical value of the various parts of the novel, offers considerable insight to the reader, and confirmation to the more erudite. I’m glad I read it last.

Concerning Geoffrey Firmin, a.k.a. the Consul, the story winds through the Day of the Dead in Mexico 1938, the last day of his life. His half-brother, Hugh, has arrived, as has his ex-wife, Yvonne, who deeply in love with him, tries to both rescue him and salvage their relationship. But the Consul does not want to be rescued. Instead, as the day unfolds, he gets high on mescal, sobers himself with strychnine (yes, that would be rat poison), and returns to the mescal again in a continuous series, whilst his mind whirls in loops and his wife discusses their life with his half-brother. If only she can convince him to leave with her.

‘Darling…’ They would arrive at their destination by train, a train that wandered through an evening land of fields beside water, an arm of the Pacific – … – and far across the water, the little house, waiting –

One of the features of this novel, at least to this reader, is the ease with which one can become lost, swimming about in the ether of one mind or another, so that it is difficult to just grab a hold and be carried along. Dense, and at times ponderous, it staggers forward and then reverses, presents a scenic tour through the past and then returns to the drunken fugue of the Consuls life. It was only when Yvonne became the narrator, about two thirds of the way through, that the story became anchored. It is the relationship of Yvonne, with not only the Consul, but Hugh, that offers a sense of perspective, for having seen the world through Hugh’s eyes, (his desires, his sorrows, his discontent), it suddenly seems possible that Hugh and the Consul are different aspects of the very same man. In fact, there are four main characters in the book, and it is possible to interpret all four as differing aspects of the one character. This is confirmed in the introductory letter, but also by any biographical reading of Malcolm Lowry’s life. For a brief moment, I entertained the possibility that the book was actually about Yvonne, before it did an about face and returned to the Consul.

But the book is not about her, nor in truth about Geoffrey Firmin, or indeed Malcolm Lowry for that matter, but about the great cauldron of loneliness in which humans often burn. It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt Aetna, the Consul notes, whilst he burns away the last of his life, his mind consumed, his horror set.

It may be no surprise if I say that Under The Volcano is a masterpiece, but I feel obliged to say it nonetheless. The mind is a creature of fears and desires, and often times they’re petty. It runs in loops, and twirls about in a maddening dance, till we’re dizzy and lost and the world about us is clouded, so that we’re unable to fathom the depth, let alone which way to the surface. Some choose to engage in intellectual endeavour, so creating a better class of loop, a more textured nuanced cloud that in and of itself is interesting and offers a path of exploration, (the labyrinths of Borges spring to mind). Other’s pray with rhythmic chant, and for moments, and even long moments, see that swirling cloud dissipate so that they know where they are, and their depth, and can see the surface above. Some intrepid folk spend their lives in meditation, watching the mind, becoming aware, and effectively ending that mindless cycle of fear and desire. In many cultures these people are the holy men, the Fakirs, the Sadhu or Sadhvi, the Arhat or Buddha. These are the people who have achieved silence. Many invest themselves in the people they love, or their careers, or something such, the act of dedication anchoring them against the steady whirl. But for many other lost souls, it is to chemicals they turn, be they alcohol, cocaine, heroine, or just plain old adrenaline as the horse races towards the line. But most of these choices are ephemeral, and for some the glimpse so fleeting that they become fundamentalist cranks or possessive and obsessed, or, as in the case of the Consul, raving drunks.

It was like a piece on a piano, it was like that little bit in seven flats, on the black keys – it was what, more or less, he now remembered, he’d gone to the excusado in the first place in order to remember, to bring off pat – it was perhaps also like Hugh’s quotation from Matthew Arnold on Marcus Aurelius, like that little piece one had learned, so laboriously, years ago, only to forget whenever one particularly wanted to play it, until one day one got drunk in such a way that one’s fingers themselves recalled the combination and, miraculously, perfectly, unlocked the wealth of melody; only here Tolstoy had supplied no melody.

Writers have long written of the addictive personality, (Burroughs, Fallada and Welsh, to name but three) but none that I am aware of so capture the state of the drunken mind. In the degeneracy, I saw Checkov and Friel, at times, as though the Consul symbolised the ending of an era; and in the romance, I could see a black and white Hollywood classic, reeling away. It has been criticised for romanticising alcoholism, but that is one of the tragic strengths of the book. An alchoholic is at heart a romantic – they desire and they fear. But with all that aside, it was the sheer expert craftsmanship, the wordplay, the supreme editing (and his wife Margerie gets the credit there), the drunken melody, that makes it work. Otherwise it would flounder. It is a book that with silence is understood.

That very night, had it been? – with a heart like a cold brazier standing by a railway platform among meadowsweet wet with dew: they are beautiful and terrifying, these shadows of cars that sweep down fences, and sweep zebra-like across the grass path in the avenue of dark oaks under the moon: a single shadow, like an umbrella on rails, traveling down a picket fence; portents of doom, of heart failing… Gone. Eaten up in reverse by night.

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