No se peude vivir sin amar

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947 French title: Sous le volcan

Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.

After a disconcerting first billet about Under the Volcano, this is my attempt at writing a sensible one. I still have Pulque, mescal y tequila playing in my head as I try to collect my thoughts. I started reading that masterpiece without knowing anything about it, apart from the difficult masterpiece tag.

Under the Volcano is located in Mexico, precisely in small town named Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2. On that very day of 1939, M Laruelle recalls the drama that occurred the same day the year before. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in position in this little town. His wife left him the year before and on that day of November 2, 1938, she comes back to him. It is also the day that Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s half-brother returns to town too. Geoffrey expected Hugh, but not Yvonne. The novel relates that day, the day these four people with intertwined lives gather again and try to communicate and interact with one another.

The Consul is an alcoholic and his disease impacts the lives of the ones who love him. Yvonne loves him madly, would like to save him but is at loss what to do. She tried to leave to save herself or him.

Yet they had loved one another! But it was as though their love were wandering over some desolate cactus plain, far from here, lost, stumbling and falling, attacked by wild beasts, calling for help– dying, to sigh at last, with a kind of weary peace: Oaxaca.

Everything but the first chapter happens the same day. The narrative alternates between M Laruelle, the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh. Each of them ruminates about their life and the reader discovers about their past lives and their current predicaments and anguish. (What was life but a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn?)

The Consul is the main character. Laruelle is his childhood friend, Yvonne is his wife, Hugh is his half-brother. The chapters where the reader sees the event through the Consul’s eyes are the most difficult. Because he’s drunk and Lowry manages to put you into the mind of the drunkard like no other writer does. I felt a lot of sympathy for the Consul’s struggles.

The Consul felt with his right hand his left bicep under his coat. Strength—of a kind—but how to give oneself courage? That fine droll courage of Shelley’s; no, that was pride. And pride bade one go on, either go on and kill oneself, or “straighten out,” as so often before, by oneself, with the aid of thirty bottles of beer and staring at the ceiling. But this time it was very different. What if courage here implied admission of total defeat, admission that one couldn’t swim, admission indeed (though just for a second the thought was not too bad) into a sanatorium? No, to whatever end, it wasn’t merely a matter of being “got away”. No angels nor Yvonne nor Hugh could help him here. As for the demons, they were inside him as well as outside; quiet at the moment—taking their siesta perhaps—he was nonetheless surrounded by them and occupied; they were in possession.

He tries to keep up appearances but his vision of reality is blurred. The pages of his delirium tremens are amazing; you’re there, in his head, seeing the world through his blurred and confused mind. He wants to make a decision, but he needs a drink first. He hides bottles everywhere. He wants to resist but cannot. The booze comes first, whatever the situation, even if his life is at stake.

For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.

Hugh is also an interesting character. He’s a product of the 1930s, he’s probably read La condition humaine by Malraux He comes from a wealthy family, tries to be a songwriter, decides to be a sailor to piss his family off and much to his dismay, they don’t fight against it. He becomes a journalist, covering wars and especially the Spanish Civil War. He’s into a bolshevist or communist (whatever the right term is) movement and supports the Spanish Republicans. I suspect Lowry put a part of himself in Hugh, just as he put his experience with alcohol into the Consul.

Lowry excels at describing landscapes (as in the quote in my previous post) and at creating bonds between his characters and their surroundings.

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride–the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains, and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it is his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

The volcanoes are characters themselves, the landscape interacts with the humans living there. Does it come from his reading of Indian legends and cosmology? Like here, about a storm:

Up in the mountains two drunken gods standing far apart were still engaged in an endlessly indecisive and wildly game of bumblepuppy with a Burmese gong.

 Under the Volcano is also about politics. The story takes place in November 1938 and the political context of the 1930s is both present in the background and plays deus ex-machina. It’s set during the Battle of the Ebro, the decisive battle in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country after that. This war made people pick a side in other countries too and it weighed on local political contexts. It filters through the pages.

The poultry was a sad sight. All alike had submitted to their fate; hens, cocks, and turkeys, whether in their baskets, or still loose. With only an occasional flutter to show they were alive they crouched passively under the long seats, their emphatic spindly claws bound with cord. Two pullets lay, frightened and quivering, between the hand brake and the clutch, their wings linked with the levers. Poor things, they had signed their Munich agreement too. One of the turkeys even looked remarkably like Neville Chamberlain.

In addition to the Spanish Civil War, Lowry evokes the Jews and anti-Semitism and the situation in Germany. The political context in Mexico also plays a role. The communist ideas are spreading; Hugh is involved in political movements. I’m not qualified to discuss this and I actually missed most of the political references mentioned. I don’t know anything about the history of Mexico and I don’t remember much about the Spanish Civil War although I plan on reading about it later. (I have Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Geroges Bernanos on the shelf.) I decided not to research this aspect of Under the Volcano. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes not to understand all the political implications of the novel but a reader can enjoy it without that. The content is rich enough and the style is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me.

Under the Volcano is full of literary references, questions about the meaning of life.

Yes, indeed, how many patters of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?

You can find useful explanations about the references here. (Leroy, if you read this, thanks for the link)

Lowry’s language is his own and sometimes a strange pix-and-mix of English, French and Spanish. His sense of English grammar and use of vocabulary can drive MS Word’s spelling and grammar check tool go wild with green and red waves. I don’t speak Spanish but I discovered I’m not that bad at guessing the meaning of the sentences sown in the text. Thank God for seven years of learning Latin in school. I suppose it helps being French, especially for sentences like this one: The Consul decapitated a dusty coquelicot poppy growing by the side of the gutter with his stick. A coquelicot is a red poppy. The dialogues with Spanish native speakers attempting at English are funny.

You were so perfectamente borracho last night I think you must have killèd yourself with drinking. I think even to send a boy after you this morning to knock your door, and find if drinking have not killèd you already.

It’s an untamed flow, a new way of disposing of words. Lowry can write proustian two-pages digressions between brackets. His sentences are long, full of strings of adjectives, propositions. I don’t have the words to describe it, suffice to say it’s different from any other writer. Was he influenced by Virginia Woolf? I’ll leave the analysis of his astounding style to specialists.

On a personal level, several coincidences pulled me toward Under the Volcano. Details kept on bringing back fond memories. M. Laruelle comes from Moselle, like me. I bought my copy during an extraordinary trip to New York with colleagues; I was in a bookstore while they were queuing at Abercrombie and they thought I was nuts to prefer books to shirtless salesmen. I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia, so I loved the descriptions of the region by Hugh and Yvonne when she imagines living there with Geoffrey. And last, but not least, Huston, who directed the film Under the Volcano also directed The Roots of Heaven.

I hope I did better in this billet than in the previous one. Let’s face it, Under the Volcano is a difficult read but please, try it.

PS: I have a special message for the writer Emilie de Turckheim and to the question she left in the comments of my billet Promising French women writers, they say. She wrote “Take Under the Volcano, read it as if you were reading a foreign language, and tell me if it wasn’t worth disturbing the dust on your shelf !”  You are so right. It was more than worth it.

  1. March 17, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    I haven’t read this yet but own a copy. I know people who list this as a favourite book and others who hated it. At least they all had strong feelings about it.

    Are you tempted to see the film?

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    • March 17, 2013 at 10:25 pm

      You can’t have mild feelings about this book. It is truly extremely well-written but I understand that some don’t like it.
      I’m tempted to watch the film, yes. I tried to imagine the actors I’d cast for it but I’m not decided yet.

      Like

      • March 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm

        I can still remember scenes from it. Albert Finney was great but then he always is.

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        • March 18, 2013 at 9:54 pm

          It can be a beautiful film if the outside scenes are well done

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  2. March 17, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Great commentary on this book Emma.

    I really like the quote about love lost in the desert.

    I have not read Lowry but based upon the quotes I really like his writing style.

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    • March 17, 2013 at 10:28 pm

      Thanks Brian. I have tons of quotes.
      There’s a chapter when Hugh and Yvonne ride together and the description of the landscape is vivid. I thought the book very cinematographic, I was picturing the volcanoes and all in my mind.

      Like

  3. March 18, 2013 at 10:31 am

    You are right that this is known as a difficult book. I tried it many years ago and gave up on it so I am not as persevering as you are. The personal connections you had with the book were an added bonus for you – I am sure. I found your review very helpful in understanding what the book is about but I am not sure I shall add it to my reading list at the moment!

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    • March 18, 2013 at 9:55 pm

      It’s worth another try. It’s the kind of book you need to read at an appropriate moment and at the same time, either you fall for his style or you can easily be put off.

      Like

  4. March 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Not an easy book to review. I loved it but reading your review makes me aware it’s a bit blurred by now. The imagery and symbolism stayed with me. I don’t remember politics. I remember I loved how he tried to show us a drunk. Does it not go through an episode of délirium tremens (no clue which is the English word) at one point? I loved the symbolism, there was something about the wheel of life, the dead… I should re-read it.

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    • March 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm

      No, it’s not easy to review.
      The description of drunkeness are excellent. He doesn’t show it as a weakness but as an illness. That’s probably why his vision of alcohol is different from other books about drunkards. OK, Zola considers it an illness or fate due to genetics. But here, he shows the addiction, the pull toward the bottle.

      There’s an episode of delirium tremens. Only someone who has really lived through it could describe it that perfectly. You really see the workings of his mind and you can only feel compassion for him.

      I probably missed most of the symbolism but it’s such a multi-layered book that I don’t mind. I caught what I could. I still don’t know if reading it in English was the right choice.

      I’d love to read your thoughts about it.

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  5. leroyhunter
    March 19, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Reviewing this slithery beast is not a task I’d relish, but you’ve done a fine job here Emma. It’s a dense book, impenetrable in some of the symbolism and linkages. I’m constantly being reminded of things I’ve forgotten about it (in this case, the political element). Glad you got so much out of it. Lots of personal connections – that can make a book feel richer.

    Like

    • March 19, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      I guess I managed to put together coherent thoughts, then.
      It’s a book that deserve several readings at different times in one’s life.

      Like

  6. March 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    The language is marvellous, as is the billet, but when at the end you said it was a difficult read I have to admit I wasn’t surprised.

    Still, it sounds the sort of rewarding challenge that in some moods I would definitely enjoy, so onto the list it goes (I did rather expect it to after the last quote).

    I tend to think, per Guy’s comment, that it’s always a good sign when a book has many who hate it and many who love it, since it suggests that at least it’s not boring. Books by people like Ayn Rand or L Ron Hubbard being the obvious exception.

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    • March 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      I’m glad you like the billet, that one was a challenge to write.
      I think you’d like this book and I’d love to read your review of it.
      It will stay with me for the beauty of the language even if I know that I didn’t feel all of it as English is not my native tongue. You’ll get more of it than me.

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