Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

Popocatepetl volcano from Mexico City

I’ve just finished reading Under the Volcano, and I have to say it’s one of the most immersive fictional treatments of alcoholism I’ve ever read. It’s also quite stylistically tricky (which is why it took me nearly a week to read it, despite it only being about 375 pages). That said, it also keeps cropping up on Best-Novels-of-the-20th-Century and Best-Novels-Ever-Ever-Ever lists, so I figured it had to have something going for it, and bought it at the Gloucester Green bookstall intending to find out what that was.

An excellent strategy for reading this, by the way, is to use Chris Ackerley’s online and illustrated Companion to Under the Volcano. Think of it as a bunch of hypertextual footnotes–the one thing that most editors of Lowry’s novel, contemporary as it is, generally eschew. I didn’t discover Ackerley’s compendium before reading, but I suspect that when I read again with the Companion, a lot of things will be more clear.

Despite being tricky, Under the Volcano is strangely gratifying for a number of reasons, one of which is that the craziness of the prose works to mirror the degeneration that alcoholism produces in the brain. The main character is an ex-British Consul in Mexico named Geoffrey Firmin. His estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after spending a year away, and his half-brother Hugh arrives in town on the same day–the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday for the remembrance of family members and loved ones who have died. Over the course of the day, Firmin (aided and abetted by his staggeringly intense alcoholism) destroys his last chances of reuniting with his wife, who loves him and whom he loves, and ends up being killed (not really a spoiler, since the first chapter makes it quite clear) in an altercation with Fascist thugs at a bar. So it doesn’t end happily. But there are some intensely wonderful descriptions of the effect of booze: Firmin feels “the fire of the tequila run down his spine like lightning striking a tree which thereupon, miraculously, blossoms.”

The most depressing element of the book, however, is Firmin’s sheer helplessness in the face of his addiction. A dozen times, he comes so close to salvation, and a dozen times his efforts self-destruct:

“Nevertheless the desire remained–like an echo of Yvonne’s own–to find her, to find her now, to reverse their doom, it was a desire amounting almost to a resolution…Raise your head, Geoffrey Firmin, breathe your prayer of thankfulness, act before it is too late. But the weight of a great hand seemed to be pressing his head down. The desire passed. At the same time, as though a cloud had come over the sun, the aspect of the fair completely altered for him [;] the Consul needed a drink…”

A key to the self-inflicted misery of the whole thing lies in one of the epigraphs, which comes from John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding:

“Now I blessed the condition of the dog and toad…for I knew they had no soul to perish under the everlasting weight of Hell or Sin, as mine was like to do. Nay, and though I saw this, felt this, and was broken to pieces with it, yet that which added to my sorrow was, that I could not find with all my soul that I did desire deliverance.”

It’s a brilliant assessment of the insidious grasp of addiction upon the mind: we can know that we should change, we can know what we should want, and still find that we cannot–physically cannot–want it with all our hearts. It’s Firmin’s tragedy, in the end. He loves his wife, but the real love of his life is mescal.

The Mexican Day of the Dead adds to the surreal atmosphere, as does a style which jumps back and forth between tenses, memory and action within the space of the same sentence. It’s difficult to quote too much of it, because the effect of Under the Volcano is best grasped when you read paragraphs of the stuff. Suffice to say that the stream-of-consciousness [I hate that phrase but it’s convenient] frequently produces a feeling of drunkenness in the reader herself–like when you’ve had just one too many and your focus doesn’t move as quickly as your vision does, so that moving your head is like dragging the room, slowly and blurrily, past your eyeballs. And every so often, some small detail leaps out at you:

“Do you realize that while you’re battling against death, or whatever you imagine you’re doing, while what is mystical in you is being released…do you realize what extraordinary allowances are being made for you by the world which has to cope with you?”

And that’s the virtue of Under the Volcano: it may make Geoffrey Firmin sympathetic, a romantic hero even, but its ultimate purpose is to enforce an awareness of the extraordinary allowances addicts demand. The tragedy is that the world mostly isn’t prepared to make those allowances, and the addict mostly isn’t equipped to give up demanding them. Under the Volcano is difficult and abstruse at times, but it also rewards the reader, ultimately, with that revelation–which makes the whole thing worthwhile.

[PS: I read this with the aid of the most awesome things I’ve encountered for some time: mini Post-it flags. They are the best: instead of underlining something and then forgetting which page it’s on, you can underline something and then stick the flag on the edge of the page. Pure brilliance. Get them.]


On owning books

When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.
When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.

In every book I buy, I write my name and street address. This is relatively new for me; I only started doing it as an undergraduate, when I was living close to a lot of other people who also had books–but it really had very little to do with the fear that our libraries would get confused. I have lost many things (including, once and in a manner no one has ever understood, a clarinet), but never a book. More likely, the reason lies in the fact that I also no longer lived in one stable and narrowly-defined place. Bouncing from a room in college to a house on the Cowley Road, and then St Clements, by way of various relatives’ houses scattered through the south of England, I started writing my name and new addresses in my books as a way of anchoring both myself and them. In space and time, this is where you were and when, the inscriptions on the inside of the front covers say. This is where you bought us (Hebden Bridge for Our Mutual Friend, One Tree Books in Petersfield for To the Lighthouse), this is who gave us to you (‘from Mum and Dad after Finals’, in David Sedaris’s new essay collection; ‘from N.’ in the Vintage copy of Grimm’s Tales), this is where and who you were when you picked us up to begin with (Zadie Smith’s NW for this summer’s choir tour to Italy, for instance, or a strong memory of reading Cloud Atlas on the train away from Oxford at the end of my first term.) My name and address and sometimes a detail or two on the inside front cover provide a kind of map. In future years, my children (or the children of my friends to whom I function as a beloved mad auntie–there are worse fates) will see in those inscriptions the record of my life before I knew them.

This does, however, require a certain premise, which is that those books are mine. You cannot, after all, make an heirloom of something that doesn’t belong to you. My love of books has a corollary, which not everyone shares. I love to read them–that is the main thing and the important thing–but I also love to own them.

By this I do not mean that I love to collect them. People who like rare or shiny or pretty or valuable or otherwise aesthetically distinguished copies of books have their own preferences, which I respect but don’t share. I like a battered paperback. I like a book you can take on the train, in a handbag, to the doctor’s. Beautiful books, for me, obscure the real purpose of the written word, which is to be everywhere in your life, even–no, especially–the places where beauty doesn’t last, or at least not unless backed up by some serious substance.

By “I love to own books”, I mean that I love to own books. Buying them, possessing them, knowing that they’re mine and I don’t have to give them back to anyone. I can write in them if I like (and I do–mimsy puritanism about not annotating is simply misguided); I can bend the spines if I like. I can take them with me or give them away. They’re my books.

This is partly, I think, because I’m used to owning books, and I’m used to owning books because my parents used to give me a book a week–one every Friday–from the age of two until I left home. Believe me, I am thoroughly aware of the privilege that I’ve just revealed. Buying books is expensive. My family isn’t penurious, but we’re not well-to-do either, and frankly, I think at times there were some half-secret councils about the wisdom of continuing the book purchases. Luckily for me, my parents clearly concluded that it was worth it. I know that a lot of people cannot afford to buy their books, or at least not from first-hand retailers. I’m now one of those people. My disposable income is limited and I can’t justify £8 on a book when that sum could also be put towards two or three days’ worth of dinner.

Solutions: 1) Libraries. I will come right out and say that my personal experience of public libraries has never been good. In Charlottesville they function as impromptu homeless shelters, since they’re the only public space you can legitimately occupy without having to pay for something. This makes them valuable community centers, but nevertheless a bit weird, especially when you are a thirteen-year-old girl and have just been surprised by a large snoring man in camouflage jacket sitting in the young adult section. Public libraries are chronically underfunded, their staff are generally pinch-lipped and irritable, and the chairs rarely, if ever, invite you to make yourself comfortable. This could be remedied by pouring more money into them, and I think that needs to happen–especially as people like Caitlin Moran give us an excellent idea of what a lifeline public libraries can be in communities full of intelligent, bored, understimulated, economically disadvantaged kids.

I’ve joined the Oxfordshire county library system. It’s infuriating–most of the books I want are on loan across the county, if they’re stocked at all–but worth persisting with.

2) Secondhand shops. I’m actually going to stop myself from buying anything else until I’ve read through at least 3/4 of the books I’ve already bought. But if I really need a fix, I hit an Oxfam or the book stall at Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays. The books are £2 or £3, which, problematically, means I can get a lot more of them at once, but which also means that individually speaking, they’re less of a drain on the wallet.

3) Borrowing from friends. This gives the comforting illusion that the book is yours, while still enabling you not to buy anything. Also, book-sharing is actually intensely enjoyable, even though I disparaged it a little at the beginning of this post. There’s almost nothing that produces a sense of happy companionship, that wonderful this-is-why-we’re-friends feeling, better than enthusiasm for a shared book. Book-sharing may be the best bet for continuing to read books without actually acquiring them.

4) Reading surreptitiously in bookshops. Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t. When your favorite author releases a new book in hardback and you know you have got to read it, do you a) sell your soul to the devil to raise the cash, b) steal it and inevitably get in serious trouble, or c) find a comfy place in the bookshop and read the whole thing through in a few sittings? Duh. I did this with Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Best. Decision.

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