Under the Volcano. Malcolm Lowry. 1947 (Jonathan Cape, 1967)
Writing about one’s own addiction of any kind must be hard, obviously. Writing about one’s own addiction to alcohol and producing an engaging yet fair and realistic portrayal must be damn near impossible. Given the timeless street-cred and general ubiquity of booze how can anyone peel away the glamorous façade of fun times and bohemian hangovers and not come across as anything but preachy, boring and sexless? John Leland wrote of On the Road that ‘we’re no longer shocked’ by depictions, however graphic, of drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps we cannot be shocked outright but the best writers of addiction novels, often addicts themselves, have always sought to convey that outright shock is not how addiction works. Addiction, as they depict it, is not an event, or even a series of events, but the permeation of a cyclical disease. The best of the best, Kerouac, Bukowski et al, rather infuse addiction into every pore of their books, sometimes hovering in the background, on occasion dominating the foreground, interacting with every character and every scene and every sentence. At the halfway point of Under the Volcano it’s perfectly clear that Malcolm Lowry inarguably belongs in this esteemed company.
Our plot follows the British consul Geoffrey Firmin as he attempts to deal with the travails of divorce and existential ennui by drinking himself oblivious against the majestic backdrop of the twin volcanoes which tower over the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. We don’t meet Geoffrey himself until p.43 but through Lowry’s deft manipulation of the landscape we are prey to the spectral penumbra cast by his demons right from the outset. Every second the author dwells on the alien terrain of Mexico, and M. Laruelle’s leisurely, introductory ramble gives him the perfect platform to do just this, the more we are gripped by an odd atmosphere of unique tension and have some tiny understanding of how Geoffrey’s existence must feel. It is endless, arid, without hope or time. Even the abundance of beauty and majesty becomes something sinister and antagonistic. And, like Geoffrey, this Quahnahuac feels trapped by an inescapable fixation with its past. From Maximillian’s palace to the Calle Nicaragua every aspect appears to have seen its glory days pass by. Even the dormant volcanoes no longer have the fire of old. Of course, alcohol is everywhere in a very real and material sense as well, be it in the countless cantinas, the bottle in the car of a passing tourist, or the grand Ceveceria in the park. Explicitly and implicitly we are in Geoffrey’s head just as much as we are in our corporeal Mexican pueblo.
Perhaps this accounts to a large extent for the novel’s only real imperfections. When we are with Geoffrey the narrative is in equal measures gripping and disorientating. We are never sure, as he can never be sure, of what his next action will be or down which tangent his physical and mental deficiencies will lead. He is in constant conflict with the world around him and as such there is rarely a dull moment. The accounts of Hugh, Yvonne and Jacques are far more coherent, better structured and keep a steadier pace, logically so given their greater lucidity. These chapters can be both hugely entertaining and exquisitely written, without even beginning to unpick the fantastic allusions, Faustian and otherwise, peppered throughout the book. Yvonne’s ride with Hugh to the aforementioned Ceveceria is a fantastic case in point, wonderfully illustrating the former’s wry-yet-playful humour playing off against the latter’s bubbling unease at coming events. They are rarely, if ever, dull and provide so much of the backstory, without which Geoffrey would be a far more monochromatic character. Still, we cannot escape the fact that Geoff’s absence weighs on every scene and as our secondary characters chart their courses according to him and are magnetically drawn back into his orbit, so we the reader wish to be drawn back also. It’s really up to the reader to decide whether this is a limitation, a feat of literary engineering at its finest or both.
I can’t recall too many more captivating figures than Geoffrey Firmin and I could happily spend the rest of the novel sat on the stool next to him as he props up the bar at another dusty cantina and regales the barman with deep philosophies, non-sequiturs and half-formed thoughts. Yet at no point are we invited to join Geoffrey in his most solitary of pursuits. He remains at a distance from us, that rarest of men who we can neither laugh with nor at, though we care for him deeply. An abrasive, often rude, selfish man at such a remove should not invoke such compassion yet Geoffrey does just that because we see in him a naively innocent confusion at life and a mulish determination to muddle through along the known paths which is universally relatable. That is why, as the Day of the Dead approaches we hope, as perhaps even Geoffrey does not, for his salvation and redemption be that in life or through death. Both paths seem so totally barred to our protagonist that we cannot imagine anything other than the nightmarish status quo for him. At the midpoint of Under the Volcano it’s an exhilarating prospect to see how Lowry leads us through to the mire to the end which seems as impossible as it is inevitable.
1/2 Way Rating: 8/10 Final Rating: 9/10