Malcolm Lowry was a tragic figure. A hugely talented writer, yet an alcoholic of such self-destructive proportions that he died aged 47, a wreck of a man. Under The Volcano, his last (and only second) novel to be published within his lifetime, is a dark, terrifying, deeply moving and stylistically impressive text about death, regret, internationalism, travel, lust, loyalty and substance addiction.
Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist, is the disgraced British Consul of Quaunahuac, a small central Mexican town. He has drunk himself into a permanent stupor following his wife’s affair with a friend and her subsequent departure and divorce. The novel is set following her unexpected return a year later, but Firmin is unable to comprehend the possibility of the realised happiness he has fixated upon since she left. The consul instead lets his hunger for alcohol and his fear of being alone with his wife lead him, her, his much younger brother and the various alcoholics he knows from his time in the city’s cantinas to wobble in a muddling, angry, daze through the celebrations of the Day of the Dead.
I don’t believe I’ve read a book that deals so frankly and openly with addiction since Trainspotting. But in Trainspotting there is a joy to be found in heroin, a happiness, a peace, that Firmin chases in Under The Volcano but can never reach. The fact that this long novel takes place largely within a single day (though there are flashbacks and a year later Prologue), does mean that the reader cannot see progression with Firmin’s addiction, but one doubts his dependency could increase. He barely goes minutes without a drink throughout the whole text, despite wishing to sober up, despite wishing to refrain, wishing other people don’t know how much he has drunk, how drunk he is… Hiding his unsteadiness, attempting to replace sobriety with eloquence and literary elusions.
The book makes many references to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (my favourite play, fyi), comparing the destruction of the sold soul with Firmin’s own inevitable demise. It is classic tragedy in the sense that the protagonist has a fault he will admit to, but one he is unable to change. In fact, as the day goes on and he becomes drunker and drunker, his behaviour deteriorates to unexpected levels of stupid, selfish cruelty by the last third of the text.
Firmin’s wife and younger brother get on well, enjoy each other’s company and though there are implications of a romantic, or at least sexual, history between them, this is never fully explored. The jealousy Firmin feels towards the man his wife cheated on him with is referenced repeatedly, but when he offers Firmin company and alcohol, the lonely, desperate addict hides all irritation and rapidly accepts. He stashes alcohol throughout his property, he knows the name of every bar proprietor in the region, and he frequently adapts and alters his behaviour in a way that will facilitate the more immediate arrival of booze. He is driven by his thirst, by his hunger, by his depression, initially brought on by the loss of his wife. So driven by this need, Firmin is unable to act on the possibility of the second chance that she has travelled to him to seek. The reader meets him at the point where he drinks because he has to drink, no longer because his wife left him.
It is a deeply, deeply tragic text about missed opportunity, regret, mistakes and the destructive power of alcohol. It is tragic, too, that Lowry failed to heed his own message… The destruction he writes about is a destruction he could see within himself. Yet he was helpless to stop it. Helpless.
An absolutely beautiful book. Harrowing. I’ll be recommending this for months.
NB: Not an easy read – in terms of content or style – so the comparison with Trainspotting is distinctly not an “if you liked that, you’ll like this”. You might, though. There is both a sense of hope and lots of laughs in the more modern book (both of which are lacking here), and Trainspotting is also very readable, regardless of what people say about the dialect. Different books for different folks.