Djewesbury's Reviews > Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
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's review
Apr 10, 09

Read in April, 2009

A strange and unsettling book. The British Consul in the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac, Geoffrey Firmin, is drinking himself towards a nasty death on the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938, accompanied by his ex-wife, returned that morning after a year away, and his half-brother, who's about to depart to fight the Fascists in Spain. The ending of the book is never really in question, except for the precise details, so what Lowry concentrates on is the detail of the unravelling of individual lives, trying to understand what it is that binds us to one another and ultimately drives us apart. It's a very dark book, with a particularly bleak portrayal of human emotion and motivation, and no small personal understanding from Lowry of the mind of the alcoholic, but there's also some kind of oblique redemption offered, in that both the Consul and his brother Hugh are put forward by Lowry as elements of the same character; so perhaps in the death of one we are permitted to see the liberation or progression of the other.

Lowry took a decade to write this book, which is thick with textual reference and allusion (he suggested in correspondence that the events of the book may usefully be understood as the misremembered, florid imaginings - a kind of unreliable, overly detailed cinematic flashback - of the Consul's former friend and cuckold, Jacques Laruelle, a film director who, in the opening chapter, thinks back on the Consul's violent demise from exactly a year on). Despite warnings that it was a dense read and slow to start, however, I found I read it quickly - perhaps it's best to assimilate the main action of the novel first and then return to its baroque intricacies on a second read (ideally returning to the first page immediately after the last). There's much pre-figuring and thematising which isn't apparent to the reader just embarking on the book, but which becomes obviously significant upon returning to it. Lowry drew heavily on Melville, Goethe's and Marlowe's versions of Faust / Faustus, Shelley, Donne, Conrad Aiken and Dante, so whilst the plot may seem reminiscent of Graham Greene the style certainly isn't. In particular the jarring way in which Lowry, in those chapters narrated from the Consul's point of view, narrates his disorientation after a momentary blackout, trying to remember where he is, and what he's doing, is wonderfully effective.

I'd been meaning to read this book for some time. It's an important part of the pattern of modernist fiction of the mid-twentieth century, a fiercely experimental novel which deserves to be better known and more widely read.

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