Friday, September 9, 2011

418. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry

History: This book is a 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909–57). The novel as it is recognized today was finally finished in 1945 and immediately sent to many publishers. In late winter, while travelling in Mexico, Lowry learned the novel had been accepted by two publishing companies: Reynal & Hitchcock in the United States and Jonathan Cape in the United Kingdom. Following critical reports from readers, Cape had reservations about publishing and wrote to Lowry on 29 November 1945 asking him to make drastic cuts. Lowry's lengthy reply, dated 2 January 1946, was a passionate defense of the book in which he sensed he had created a work of lasting greatness: "Whether it sells or not seems to me either way a risk. But there is something about the destiny of the creation of the book that seems to tell me it just might go on selling a very long time." The letter includes a detailed summary of the book's key themes and how the author intended each of the 12 chapters to work, and has been included as an introduction in some editions.
There have been many editions of the book since 1947. In 1998 it was rated as number 11 on the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century compiled by the Modern Library. TIME included the novel in its list of "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present".
In 1940, Lowry hired an agent, Harold Matson, to find a publisher for the manuscript, but it was rejected many times. Although he continued refining it for years, this original 1940 version was later published in 1994 under the title The 1940 Under the Volcano.
In 1944, the manuscript was nearly lost in a fire at Lowry's shack in British Columbia. His second wife, Margerie, rescued the unfinished novel, but all of Lowry's other works in progress were lost in the blaze.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (the Aztec name of Cuernavaca), on the Day of the Dead.
Surrounded by the helpless presences of his ex-wife, his half-brother and acquaintances, he descends into a mescal-soaked purgatory, moving inexorably towards his tragic fate.
His self-destructiveness reflects a spiritual struggle born of willful abnegation and passivity, a depressed, existential acquiescence to the futility of positive action.
On the Day of the Dead, 1 November 1939, Jacques Laruelle, a French film director, and Dr. Arturo Vigil, a Mexican physician, chat and relax over drinks at the Hotel Casino de la Selva on the outskirts of Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca). They recall the events of a day, exactly one year earlier, but we learn few details other than that Vigil had had a horrible hangover and had been concerned about the health of "the Consul" with whom he had apparently been drinking.
Laruelle continues walking, avoiding his house and his unfinished packing. He turns instead toward town. To escape a sudden rainstorm, Laruelle takes refuge in a theatre showing Las Manos de Orlac.
A long unmailed letter Geoffrey had written to Yvonne in the spring of 1938 falls out of the book of plays. Laruelle reads it and we learn of Geoffrey and Yvonne's divorce, his hopes and dreams and despair. Laruelle burns the letter in the flame of a candle.
Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac after a year's absence and her divorce from the Consul. She finds him at the Hotel Bella Vista bar drinking whiskey and engaged in a rather one-sided conversation with the bartender, Fernando.
Yvonne is dazed from her journey and the Consul is dazed from drink. They converse briefly and impersonally, but Yvonne is filled with unspoken thoughts and feelings.
They walk to the Consul's house at 52 Calle Nicaragua, they pause for a moment at a photograph of a disintegrating rock and Yvonne mentally compares the condition of the rock to their relationship. The Consul slips into a small shop for a quick drink while Yvonne waits outside. A child's funeral moves along the street.
The Consul reveals that his brother, Hugh, is staying with him and explains how Hugh has been trying to wean him from alcohol. Yvonne appears somewhat stunned at this news and asks if Hugh is aware of their divorce. They arrive at the house and are followed onto the grounds by a "hideous pariah dog."
Geoffrey and Yvonne walk up the pot-holed drive to the porch of his house; they are uncomfortable together and the best conversation they can manage is small talk. His thoughts also reveal the deep contradictions and complexity of his feelings for Yvonne. The Consul leaves briefly to receive a telephone call and when he returns, he hears Yvonne in the bathroom.
Seizing this opportunity, the Consul heads for a nearby cantina. On his way up the Calle Nicaragua, he falls, faints, or passes out in the middle of the road. His thoughts revolve around the implication that sometime earlier Hugh and Yvonne had had an affair.
The Consul is refreshed by his offer of a long "emergency" drink of Irish whiskey. He returns to the house and to Yvonne lying half asleep in her old room. They talk of going away together, but Geoffrey finds excuses and avoids making a commitment. He describes their missed connection in Mexico City the night before Yvonne left him. They are momentarily drawn together and on the verge of a "romantic interlude," but the Consul breaks it off and abruptly leaves the room.
He drinks "fiercely" from the whiskey bottle and sitting alone on the porch, thinks of Yvonne and considers his situation. Then as the twin volcanoes come into view, the Consul falls asleep.
While the Consul naps, Hugh and Yvonne go for a walk. They rent horses from the stables of the Casino de la Selva and amble through the countryside accompanied by two foals and a dog that guards against snakes. Hugh is very attracted to Yvonne and is happy being with her.
As they ride, Hugh thinks of a friend, Juan Cerillo, worked to improve the lives of Mexican peasants. His recollections allude to events in Mexican history.
Finally, Hugh asks Yvonne whether she is or is not divorced from his brother, and whether she has or has not returned to him. She confirms their divorce but is ambivalent about her present situation.
The Consul awakes from a dream with a "horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull" and rushes to the garden where he has hidden a bottle of tequila. While his "familiar" voices alternately encourage and protest, he drinks. The voices cease. Sitting in the bathroom, the Consul hallucinates. He sees insects crawling everywhere and closing in on him.
As they walk into town, Hugh watches Yvonne with admiration and longing. They meet the mailman who empties his bag on the street in an unsuccessful search for a letter for the Consul. He leaves "disappointedly," then returns happily with the letter. It is a card from Yvonne that had been mailed just after their separation more than a year earlier. The Consul hands it to Hugh and tells him to read it: "Darling, why did I leave? Why did you let me? Expect to arrive in the U.S. tomorrow, California two days later. Hope to find a word from you there waiting. Love. Y."
Yvonne wants to go to the fiesta in Tomalin. She convinces The Consul and Hugh to go with her. They ride the bus to Tomalín over rough terrain and pot-holed road making it very difficult to talk. They ride with their own thoughts for company.
They pass a man, an Indian, lying at the side of the road and the driver stops the bus to investigate. The man appears to be dying and Hugh wants to examine him to see if he can be of assistance, but a Mexican passenger and the Consul stop him. The Consul explains that touching him may lead to legal complications. The pelado, however, removes the Indian's hat and reveals a severe head wound. A sum of money has been placed under the man's collar.
Everyone stands and talks about what may have happened and what could or should be done. Hugh and the Consul notice a horse, perhaps the Indian's, tied up to a hedge. It is branded with the number seven. The driver wants to leave, but Hugh returns to the dying man who reaches out him and mutters: "compañero."
Armed vigilantes suddenly arrive and push Hugh back onto the bus where he is restrained by the Consul. They resume the journey to Tomalín. Hugh is disturbed by the incident and, in his thoughts, he questions his own action and the behavior of the other passengers. He wonders if anyone or anything would have made a difference.
At the Arena Tomalín, Yvonne is upset with herself for having cried over their inability to help the dying man on the roadside. The action in the ring is lethargic, everyone appears rather bored. A second bull is brought in and, much to the consternation of the Consul, Hugh climbs into the ring and mounts it. The bull becomes very animated, and Hugh's admirable riding entertains the crowd. While Hugh is occupied, Yvonne pleads with Geoffrey to reunite with her and go away. He agrees - almost enthusiastically. They sit together holding hands and affirm their love for each other.
At the restaurant-bar Salón Ofélia, the Consul orders mescal. While Yvonne and Hugh prepare to swim in the pool, he drifts off into various memories. He becomes resentful They soon return, and gets into an argument with Hugh. He runs from the bar towards the forest and the path to the Farolito.
Yvonne and Hugh follow the Consul into the forest. They continue through the forest as a storm approaches. Yvonne observes the stars. They remind her of eternity.
Yvonne and Hugh reach the Hotel y Restaurant El Popo, where she imagines seeing the Consul. They read a menu on which the Consul had left an IOU and had written a fragmented draft of a poem.
As they return to the path and Yvonne hears what sounds like pistol shots from the direction of Parián.
The terrain is very rough and at one point Yvonne, who is some distance ahead of Hugh, must climb a ladder over a large log blocking the path. Amid the thunder and lightening, she hears ominous crashing noises approaching through the forest, and as she attempts to descend the ladder, Yvonne falls.
A stampeding horse, branded with the number seven, breaks through the brush and crashes into Yvonne, trampling her. As she dies, Yvonne sees her and Geoffrey's imaginary house by the sea being consumed in flames.
In the Farolito, the Consul rinks steadily. The barman, Diosdado, brings him a packet of letters from Yvonne that the Consul had left behind sometime earlier. He moves to a small side room and reads several passages filled with her anguish and pleading. His response is ambivalent.
A young prostitute leads him into another inner room. The Consul has sex with her then feels that now it is impossible for him to return to Yvonne.
Outside the Farolito, the Consul spots the horse, branded with the number seven, he had seen at the roadside beside the dying Indian. A policeman challenges him and forces him back into the cantina. Two additional policemen arrive and the Consul is questioned menacingly about his interest in the horse, his identity and purpose in Mexico.
The Consul recognizes that he is in danger, and despite warnings from concerned patrons in the bar, he is unable to act and continues drinking steadily. The situation deteriorates. The Consul tells the police his name is William Blackstone. They find the copy of Hugh's telegram in his jacket and accuse him of lying, of being a Jew, a spy, and an anarchist.
When the police take Yvonne's letters, the Consul is angered. He strikes at them and accuses them of killing the Indian. He demands the return of his "papers." The police take him outside and continue threatening him. As the Consul approaches the horse once again, one of the policemen draws his pistol. He shoots the consul three times.
Thunder crashes. The horse rears, breaks free and plunges into the forest.
The Consul falls to the ground remarking: "Christ, this is a dingy way to die." He imagines himself climbing Popocatepetl with Hugh and Yvonne, then feels himself falling …
Review: Under the Volcano chronicles the last day in the life of the British Consul to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. The surface story recounts how his ex-wife, Yvonne, and his half-brother, Hugh, try to pull him from the alcoholic funk he's fallen into, and in the course of the day, they visit several locations in and around Quauhnahuac.
The descriptive prose makes the setting come alive, and you're left with the feeling of actually seen some of these places. The mini parks, the ruins of Maximilian's Palace, the cinema, the backyard of the Consul's house, and the great volcano, Popocatepetel, which keeps appearing and disappearing, growing and shrinking, as they wander around the landscape - all these things become very real under Lowry's brilliant examination.
Inspired by Joyce, Lowry's book has several parallels with Ulysses. Except for the first chapter, it all takes place in a single day -- November 1, 1938 (the Mexican holiday called "The Day of the Dead.") There are three principal characters, two male, one female, who wander around the landscape, etc. However, Ulysses is an extremely difficult read, and all the interesting parts are below the surface; Under the Volcano is an easy read, and quite satisfactory without looking deeper.
A lot has been written about the deeper meanings of the book, of course, but the most obvious seems to be the allegory to Europe on the edge of war. In this view, the Consul represents the old Europe heading to its destruction despite the efforts of idealists to save it. Or perhaps more accurately, the senseless decline of the Consul to his death parallels the senseless descent of Europe into the destruction of World War II. Likewise as the day proceeds the bright hope of the morning darkens as the sun declines into the hopeless dark and storms that come with the night. And the very first chapter - the one set exactly one year later - is darkened by a tremendous storm -- a storm which seems to represent the European war then already in full career.
Opening Line: "Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, froming between them a number of valletys and plateaus."
Closing Line: "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine."
Quotes: "A black storm breaking out of season! That was what love was like, he thought, love which came too late."
"A sense of a shared, a mountain peace seemed to fall between them; it was false, it was a lie, but for a moment it was almost as though they were returning home from marketing in days past."
"Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass."
Rating: Excellent

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