Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry was my selection for discussion at our November 2009 meeting. I post here a few of my own comments and impressions of the book.
Why did I pick this book for us to discuss?
When I was in graduate school in my twenties back in the 1970’s, I had little time to read works of fiction because I was too busy reading technical scientific articles and books. However, about once a year I would take a week or so of vacation time in which I would leave thoughts of science totally behind and engage in other activities such as reading a novel or two. I would typically ask one of the professors I was working with to give me a recommendation of what they would read if they only had time to read one novel. This system provided me with some great reading experiences, short on quantity but rich in quality. Some of the books I remember reading during that period of my life are James Joyce’ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, J. P. Donleavy’s The Onion Eaters, and Ken Keesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. However, the novel that made the strongest impression on me was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I considered it, at that time, to be the most amazing piece of fiction I had ever read. Forty years have passed since then, and I wondered if the book would still seem as good if I were to reread it now.
The Basic Storyline
The basic storyline is simple, and told pretty much in a linear fashion. Most of the story takes place during the Day of the Dead festival in Quauhnahuac Mexico starting the morning of November 1, 1938 and ending on the morning of November 2, 1938. The exception is Chapter 1 in which two of the characters get together during the Day of the Dead Festival one year later in 1939 and reminisce about what had happened one year earlier. This first chapter ends with an image of a Ferris wheel turning backwards, which rewinds time to the prior year as we launch into Chapter 2 and the remainder of the book.
However, there is a context to the events that unfold that spans a longer period of time, and this sequencing of events over the longer period of time is not told in linear order. It is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book through dialogue or through internal thoughts of the characters. The reader must construct this larger context. I show below in the form of a Table my own construction of the sequencing of some of the major events that pertain to the story. I did not take a lot of time to work this out, and there might be errors (if so, feel free to add corrections to the comments section of this posting), but I think the list shown in the Table gives an overview of the main events in approximate chronological order.
Note that each chapter of the book is written from the point of view (POV) of a single character. For example, Chapter 2 is written from the POV of Yvonne, and everything we learn in that chapter is something that was either seen or heard by Yvonne, and whenever we go “inside the head” of someone in this chapter to reveal mental thoughts, it is Yvonne’s head that we are in. Similarly, each of the other chapters of the book is written from the POV of one single character. In the Table below I indicate which character provides the POV for each chapter.
START OF TABLE LISTING MAIN EVENTS
|Early years of Geoffrey Firman, British Consol to Quauhnahuac|
|1896||42 years earlier||Geofrey born in India|
|Mother dies when just a child in Kashmir, India|
|Father remarries, has another child, Geoffrey’s half brother, Hugh|
|Father disappears, leaving Geoffrey, Hugh, and stepmother in Srinagar|
|Child Geoffrey and toddler Hugh sail back to England to live with guardians|
|1911||27 years earlier (15 years old)||Geoffrey meets M. Jacques Lauruelle, while staying with English poet Taskerson family. They spend their days walking and drinking. Geoffrey, the old bean, is a sad soul.|
|Early years of Yvonne Firman|
|1908||30 years earlier||Yvonne born|
|1914||24 years earlier (6 years old)||Yvonne’s mother dies|
|1921||17 years earlier (13 years old)||Yvonne becomes actress in serials to support family because father is an alcoholic|
|Father dies, goes to live with uncle, attends U Hawaii, majors in astronomy|
|Marries and then divorces playboy Cliff Wright|
|1932||6 years earlier (24 years old)||Yvonne has a child, also named Geoffrey, but the child dies. Returns to Hollywood,|
|Events shortly before main story|
|1935||3 years earlier||M. Jacques Laruelle, film director, drives from LA to Quauhnahuac where he now lives.|
|In same year, Consol and Yvonne marry in Grenada, Spain|
|Yvonne and Hugh start an affair (date uncertain)|
|1936||18 months earlier||Consol and Yvonne arrive in Quauhnahuac where he will be working as British Consul|
|Shortly thereafter, Jacques stumbles upon Consol and Yvonne embracing at Maximillian Place and recognizes his old childhood friend from their days at the Taskersons.|
|Consol and Yvonne visit Oaxaca in happier times (date uncertain)|
|1937||one year earlier||Jacques and Yvonne start an affair in his apartment, while waiting on Consol who, as usual is somewhere drunk.|
|11 months earlier||Consol and Yvonne leave Quauhnahuac in plymouth car for Mexico City, staying in Hotel Canada|
|Yvonne leaves Consol in Mexico City. Depressed, he drinks mescal in Hotel Canada.|
|Sometime later, Consol travels to Oaxaca in deep depression. Stays in Hotel Francia; drinks at Inferno 4am each morning.|
|Around this same time Consol writes long unsent letter to Yvonne while sitting in Hotel Bella Vista. Leaves unsent letter folded in pages of Elizabethan Plays book.|
|6 months earlier||Consol loans Elizabethan Plays book to Jacques|
|1 week earlier||Hugh shows up at Quauhnahuac and is staying with Consol|
|Hugh trying to stop Consol from drinking, using Strychnine that was prescribed by Dr. Guzman.|
|1 day earlier||Yvonne sails into Acapulco Harbor with butterflies.|
|Consol meets and gets drunk with Dr. Vigil at Red Cross Ball|
|Events on Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2, 1938)|
|Chap 2||Yvonne POV||Yvonne arrives in Quauhnahuac, finds Consol drinking in Hotel Bella Vista|
|Consol and Yvonne walk towards home, see photo of La Despidida, see Jacques house|
|Chap 3||Consol POV||Yvonne goes into bathroom, Consol sneaks out to go drinking, but passes out|
|returns home, takes breakfast to Yvonne who is now in bed|
|tries to seduce Yvonne, but impotent, starts drinking seriously, passes out|
|Chap 4||Hugh POV||Hugh arrives and he and Yvonne go for horse ride while Consol passed out at home|
|Chap 5||Consol POV||Consol wakes up goes out in garden in search of Tequila, first hear voices of familiars|
|comical interaction with Mr Quincey, sign in neighbor yard: do you like this garden…|
|Consol sees Hugh and Yvonne standing on porch, passes out and wakens in bathroom|
|Chap 6||Hugh POV||Consol, Yvonne, Hugh set out to go to Tomalin. Meet Jacques on way.|
|Postman delivers lost postcard from Yvonne to Consol, “Why did I leave you?”|
|Chap 7||Consol POV||At Jacques house, writing on wall says “no se puede vivir amar”.|
|Consol hides postcard under Jacques’ pillow.|
|Hugh and Yvonne leave. Later Consol and Jacques leave to go drinking at Paris.|
|Jacues leaves Paris. Consol, alone, also leaves and is followed by children, rides loopy the loop.|
|Chap 8||Hugh POV||Yvonne, Consol, and Hugh on bus ride to Tomalin. Indian lying on side of road. Pelado on bus.|
|Chap 9||Yvonne POV||Yvonne, Consol, and Hugh in bull ring in Tomalin.|
|Chap 10||Consol POV||Consol, Yvonne, and Hugh go to Salon Ofelia in Tomalin.|
|Consul drunk on mescal, sits in toilet overhearing conversation between Hugh and Yvonne.|
|Consol runs off towards Parian so he can drink mescal in peace in Favolito.|
|Chap 11||Yvonne POV||Hugh and Yvonne walk towards Parian looking for Consol. They take a different fork in road|
|than he did. Yvonne hears shots fired. Horse comes running up trail and runs into her.|
|Yvonne dies, soul escapes to stars.|
|Chap 12||Consol POV||Drinking mescal in Favolito in Parian. Has sex with whore. Accused of being spider.|
|Consol is shot, falls into ravine and dies, dolente dolore, dead dog thrown into ravine after him.|
|Events that follow|
|1 day later||Jacques gets call from Hugh, discovers postcard under pillow.|
|Jacques learns a lot about Hugh. He had not liked Hugh when they met, but when|
|3 days later||Hugh catches ship at Vera Cruz, “it was as though Jacques had lost a son”|
|Chap 1||1 year later||Jacques and Dr. Vigil meet for drinks at Hotel Casino de la Selva in Quauhnahuac on Day of Dead.|
|They reminisce about what events that happened one year earlier mean. “But she came back.”|
|Jaques walks to train station, then to ruin of Maximillian. Eventually ends up at movie theater.|
|Owner of movie theater gives him Elizabethan Plays that he had apparently lost there earlier.|
|Jacues finds letter Consol had written to Yvonne inside book. Burns it.|
|Next day Jacques will be leaving to go to Vera Cruz (same place Hugh went), and then, God willing, to Paris.|
|preface has three quotes:|
|one from Sophacles, “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man…|
|one from John Bunyan, “Now I blessed the condition of the dog…|
|one from Goethe, “Whosoever unceasingly strives upward…|
|Book closes with quote seen several places in book, first in neighbor’s yard, translated roughly as|
|Do you like this garden? Is it yours? Do not let your children destroy it!|
|Or, as the consol translates it in the book while in a drunken state: We evict those who destroy it!|
END OF TABLE LISTING MAIN EVENTS
Some Background information about the Author, Malcolm Lowry
A good recent source of information about the life and death of Malcolm Lowry can be found in the article in the New Yorker in 2007: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/17/071217fa_fact_max
And a more recent short piece about the book appeared in the New Yorker in August of this year:
An excellent documentary about Lowry was made in 1976, that can be viewed online:
and is also available as a special feature on the second disk of the two-disk criterion collection release of John Huston’s film of the book.
Summarizing the information about Lowry very briefly, he was an alcoholic who spent much of his life drunk. He also suffered from serious mental disorders that were serious enough to cause him to spend time in mental hospitals on more than one occasion. It is not clear whether the mental illness was caused by the long periods of alcoholism (a common symptom in the late stages of delirium tremens), or whether the alcoholism was a reaction to an underlying mental illness. Most likely some of both. Regardless, it is obvious that in addition to whatever else he was, his novel provides convincing evidence that he was also a genius.
Is the book a “masterpiece”? (Literary Critics reaction)
In a word, yes. The book shows up on numerous top-ten lists of novels prepared by academics, and it was ranked #11 on the list of the most important works of fiction published in the 20th Century by the Modern Library Board:
Typical of the reaction of many academics and literary critics is the response of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982. He stated that Under the Volcano was the novel he had re-read more than any other in his life. (I have more to say about this in the next section on my personal reaction).
Even though I am officially retired, I continue to teach part time at the University of Washington. Just out of curiosity I visited the online card catalogue and did a quick search for items pertaining to Under the Volcano. I discovered over 50 academic books published about Under the Volcano! And doctoral dissertations about Under the Volcano run into the hundreds! And the influence of the book continues up until the present. Dozens of papers being presented at academic conferences within the last few years relate to the book.
Regardless of whether one loves, hates, or is indifferent to the book personally, I don’t think there can be any serious argument about whether or not the book is a masterpiece as judged by the reaction to it by academics and literary critics.
Is the book a “masterpiece”? (My personal reaction)
As I stated at the beginning of this commentary, when I first read the book in my early 20s, I thought it was the most amazing novel I had ever encountered. My reaction now that I have reread the book in my 60s is only slightly muted. I would include this book on my personal top-ten list of the best novels I have read during my lifetime.
However, my reasons for liking the book are somewhat different now than they were when I was a young adult. In my 20s, part of the appeal of the book was its romantic quality; romantic in the sense of Byron, or Goethe. Although I did not do it, I am sure I was at least tempted by the romantic lure of driving to Mexico, finding the pulquerias featured in the novel, and spending days, weeks, or months drinking mescal at 4am. The book quickly gained a cult following of young people who did (perhaps still do) just that after reading the book. It is interesting that Goethe, referenced frequently in Under the Volcano, himself published a book romanticizing suicide, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which garnered a similar cult following in his time. Now that I am older (arguably wiser) the book no longer has that kind of romantic appeal for me.
The primary reason I now judge the book to be a masterpiece has to do with the many levels of interpretation that lie in superposition. That is why it has been able to spawn over 50 published books about it. None of the individual levels of interpretation is, in itself, sufficient to evoke a label of masterpiece. For example, it is a story about an alcoholic. However, as Steven Spender states in his introduction to the book, asserting that it is a book about drunkenness is akin to asserting that King Lear is a book about senility. At its most basic level, it is a simple story about what happens to a man, his wife, his half-brother, and his friend from childhood during a short period of time in a particular place at a particular time. But it is also a timeless novel about existential choices and the consequences of those choices. And it is a religious allegory that can be evaluated through the filters of numerous religious traditions. The strong metaphor of a garden, used throughout the book, provides allusion to the religious myths of the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, that same metaphor of a garden can, and has been, applied to environmental issues and what humans are doing to the planet. It can be read as a moral investigation into the evils of drunkenness, but it can simultaneously be read as a love poem espousing the virtues of drunkenness. It is a tragedy. It is a comedy. It is a socio-political essay about the fascism that was rising in Europe, particularly in Spain, in the 1930s, and the spread of its influences to North America. It is a polemic about the futility of trying to change the world. It is a heroic tale of someone who did try to save the world. It is a psychoanalytic study of psycho-social sexual relationships, including relationships that are homosexual and incestuous. It is prose poetry written in the language of stream of consciousness. I could go on, but I think I have (perhaps over)-made my point.
But what makes it a masterpiece, is not any one of these levels of interpretation, but rather the ways all of these interpretations are weaved into one seamless novel. Lowry himself, in a quote that Neil read to our book club group during our discussion, described the book as being like a machine composed of lots of moving parts, cogs and wheels and gears, that when they are put together to make a single machine, it just somehow works. That metaphor captures the essence of why I think the book is a masterpiece pretty well.
And it is these multiple levels of interpretation, all simultaneously intertwined, that make the book amenable to multiple readings. I referenced earlier the response of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who stated that Under the Volcano was the novel he had re-read more than any other in his life. There are few works of literature that warrant those kinds of repeated readings, and those that do, I would call masterpieces. I have now read the novel 3 times, once when I was in my 20s, once quickly earlier this year to decide if I wanted to make it my selection for our book club, and once more with a “deep reading” (a la Birkerts) the week prior to our discussion of the book. After these three readings, I still have a desire to read it again, and I cannot off the top of my head think of any other novel I have read that I would consider reading more than three times.
For me, the book is reminiscent of the great operas. Of the hundreds of operas that have been composed over the centuries, there are many that have a powerful libretto, many others that have exceptionally powerful musical scores, many others that have spectacular staging and drama. But there are only a relatively small number of great operas that are labeled as masterpieces, and these are the ones where the libretto, music, and dramatic content coalesce in such a way that the whole is greater than the individual parts. It is these masterpieces that form the canon of great operas, the ones that are shown repeatedly in opera houses because they warrant repeated viewings. I think of Wagner’s Parsifal, an opera that lasts over 5 hours. At the end of the opera the chimes resonate through the opera house as the curtain falls. I come out of my trance, hardly aware of where I have been for the past few hours, and the primary emotion I feel at that moment is a desire that I wish I could go back to the beginning and watch it again. Similarly, at the end of a long period reading the last few chapter of Under the Volcano, I hear Dolente … Dolore, and I have the same emotional feeling. I wish I could go back to the beginning and read it again.