Thursday, July 18, 2019

Malcolm Lowry

It's not often that you read a book which walks such a fine line between failure and success. But Under the Volcano, Malcom Lowry's celebrated novel of inebriation and despair, does just that: fluctuate between stylistic genius and narrative incomprehensibility. 

The start of Volcano is promising enough: Lowry establishes his central characters -- including the troubled British consul, Geoffrey Firmin -- using a style all his own: histories overlap, time bends. But the story holds together: Firmin emerges as a character of interest, his descent into divorce and alcoholism a topic worthy of exploration. 

What comes next, however, is an experiment in narration so extreme as to make the more difficult passages of a Faulkner novel, for instance, appear elementary. If Lowry's goal in Volcano was to capture the essence of inebriation alone, then he's done so: Firmin's story becomes so opaque, so misguided, that it reaches the point of becoming unintelligible. 

And this, for me, served to frustrate: Lowry provides just enough clarity around his four main characters to spark interest in their tangled relationships, but he does little to help untangle that knot. The middle section of this novel, especially, is a real challenge, not least because Lowry is unwilling to use Firmin's alcoholism as a vehicle for change. Instead, Firmin drinks, and in so doing, sacrifices any hope at redemption. 

It's true, of course, that alcoholism can do this: it can lead to nothingness. But I wondered why Lowry committed so much to Firmin's drinking when, in the end, it doesn't advance any sort of narrative arc: in fact, it does the opposite -- it serves to stall, and compound the Firmin's associated tragedy.  

There are beautiful passages in this novel, and for that, Lowry is to be praised: for he did achieve some sort of transcendence in his doggedly poetic style. But a novel needs to tell a story, and no matter how experimental, it needs to progress. Ultimately, Under the Volcano seems less a book about Geoffrey Firmin and more one about that single topic which Lowry manages to render in three dimensions: Mexico. 


  1. I love this book and I'm not sure it has no narrative arc - I would say the arc is Firmin's disintegrating relationship with his wife and with normal life. But, leaving the question of arc aside, would you consider the idea that what Lowry is doing is meticulously conjuring the sense of being an alcoholic? The narrative conveys for the reader the wild blur that is Firmin's usual (almost permanently intoxicated) experience, providing occasional splashes of intense and vivid perception, but very little coherence. I found it beautiful and the character of Firmin and is hopeless ramshackle downward trajectory very moving. He seemed like a man caught in a riptide

  2. his hopeless - h missing

    I guess i should say a riptide of self destruction.

    As you can tell, this book really moved me and seemed to do what really great novels can - take you into an understanding of a way of living that you could never truly imagine on your own

  3. A late friend of mine, a scholar who wrote about writers and addiction, said this in a note to one of his essays:

    Under the Volcano is the only novel to receive, I think, anything like serious critical attention with regard to the alcoholism theme; see Hill and Gilmore. Day’s biography, Malcolm Lowry, is, to my mind, even more harrowing and tragic than the novel.”

    “Hill and Gilmore” are these:

    Gilmore, Thomas B. “The Place of Hallucinations in Under the Volcano.” Contemporary Literature 23 (1982): 285-305.
    Hill, Art. “The Alcoholic on Alcoholism.” Canadian Literature 62 (1974): 33-48.

    Hill’s essay can be found in the .pdf version of the Autumn 1974 issue of Canadian Literature (scroll down to page 33) here.

    By the way, my friend’s book containing essays on writers and addiction was reviewed by Frank:

    “The Writer and Addiction”: The relationship between literature and alcoholism

    1. Thank you, Dave. I don't know what it is about this novel that moves me so much as I am generally cowardly about tragedy and run a mile at the idea of reading anything really sad.