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.]

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