Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

I won’t pretend to have read every word of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, but I’ve spent the evening with it, and a fascinating novel it is. Lowry presses a relentless vision on us, through the alcoholic miasma and hallucinogenic existence of Geoffrey Firmin, and it’s certainly not a comfortable (or easy) read, but it undoubtedly forces the reader to think. Set during Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the novel leads inexorably towards a literal death that is, if not foretold, then at least inevitable. And that word ‘inevitable’ is significant: I initially wrote ‘unsurprising’, but that is insufficient. In the context of the novel and, more importantly, in the context of its symbolism, the death is indeed inevitable although, at that symbolic level, this is a difficult admission for me.

The destructive tendency of Firmin, the central character, is powerfully drawn, and his alcoholic disintegration is entirely plausible. I know first hand that, for such people, the choice whether or not to drink becomes less and less tangible, more abstract, less rooted in reality, until finally it becomes no choice at all. It is at this point they proclaim most loudly that they are free to choose, and denial takes the place of reality. This state may serve for years, and it is a state of honest denial, but eventually there is a moment with all alcoholics when they know what they have done, what they are doing and what they are going to do. They experience the loneliness of a single grain of sand floating in the ocean. It is as though, in that instant, they take themselves out of time and see themselves, just once, as others see them. It only lasts a moment and then it is gone, but in that moment, without being bidden, the one, the final question is raised and without hesitation the decision is made: death or not. For Firmin, like Papa Hemingway, like countless others before and after, the answer is not not.

Firmin gradually comes to repress all belief and negate all experience. He finds himself in a solitary maelstrom, spinning forever in the void where contact with humanity should have been. His own consciousness no longer maps with that of those around him and the wider his hallucinations cast, the narrower his true world becomes. By the end, he is no longer really alive in any valid sense: a living death is all that remains. His real death comes as a relief, both for him and for the reader.

I suppose the question is how much of all this is symbolic of the hell of existence? Lowry did compare Under The Volcano to Dante’s inferno, after all, and throughout Firmin’s alcoholic musings, there are hints of evil at play – whether or not, for example, he was responsible for the murder of prisoners of war during the First World War – so we have, on a concrete level, a living hell which is replicated and amplified by the alcoholic hell in which Firmin has lost himself. And at the same time, Firmin definitely has a mystical side – albeit chemically enhanced much of the time – which suggests the possibility of paradise. And so Lowry presents us with the human condition: our entrapment in an earthly hell, with the prospect of heaven tantalisingly, impossibly out of reach. So much, so familiar. This is territory I’ve been exploring recently in the works of McCarthy and Hermann Hesse and others, and which I’ve been trying to reason against: hell is Earth.

I suppose, since Lowry is symbolising our teetering position at the interchange of heaven and hell as the choice between alcoholic death and human life, he is at least leaving the mechanics of transcendence with us, rather than the robotic fatalism of McCarthy or Hesse, and for that I’m grateful. Choice is ours, but that choice is not easy: there is more at play, as McCarthy and Hesse demonstrate, than just our free will but it is Lowry who shows us that the deus ex machina is not supernatural, but entirely chemical: and that chemical is not alcohol, but something hidden in the human brain. We all have it in us to self-destruct. In our honest denial, most of us are not aware of the fact, but fact it remains, and imperceptibly, perhaps, our choices diminish into nothingness.


Donigan said...

Many years ago -- about 30, I think -- I did read and relish all of Under the Volcano, and it has stuck with me throughout the years; your description of it here is nearly perfect. Just wanted you to know.

Lowry is not quite in the class of Musil and Mann, my two favorites writers' writers, but he is close enough.

Sad how he wasted away in some cabin up in BC Canada. Or prophetic.

Rose Hunter said...

Donigan directed me here - great review. I read this book many years ago and it stuck with me as well. I like your descriptions of the alcoholic as a grain of sand & seeing "themselves just once, as other see them...." Lovely passage.

I like your blog. I'll keep reading....

Tom Conoboy said...

Donigan/Rose, thanks very much for your comments.

It's a powerful book. I'm still thinking about it. It's one of those books that as you read it you're aware it's good, and that something's going on, but you have to go away and keep reflecting on it for it to make sense. The mark of a great book, I think.

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