The debt owed by literary fiction to alcoholism and to alcohol more generally is too great to measure. Dozens of the twentieth century’s finest works were written by authors who were variously sozzled, sloshed, bladdered, or baked, and many others chart characters just as pissed, wrecked, tanked, or shitfaced. An interesting feature of some of this oeuvre is that the alcoholic author has very often been able to create cogent and coherent novels which offer no indication of his habit. See, for instance, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald (“too much champagne is just right”), or most of John Cheever’s output. Even Hemingway did not begin to drink in earnest until his writing career had more or less ended. Others wrote novels at least partly about drinking or some other compromise of the faculties but maintained a degree of detachment which might not necessarily betray the autobiographical element, such as Hans Fallada’s The Drinker, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, or several of Patrick Hamilton’s works. There is also the category of addiction novels written by the relatively sober, such as Martin Amis’ Money, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, or John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Under the Volcano (1947) is a novel synonymous with the alcohol genre and the decade it took Malcolm Lowry to write it underlines the strong impression that he rather envisaged that this would be his only published work of note and he intended to make it count.
A good question to ask of novels of this sort might be whether the words appear before us on the page because or in spite of alcohol. In the case of Under the Volcano, there is a case to be made for both — affirmative because it is a novel about an alcoholic and through which alcohol seeps through almost every sentence, but also in the negative because a few biographical details about Lowry leave one with the strong impression that he ought to be have been incapable of so much of a note to his wife, never mind a novel of greater than average length. At the peak of his alcoholism, he was reportedly imbibing three liters of red white augmented by two liters of rum a day. Current British government health advice suggests, albeit apparently arbitrarily, that taking on more than a 700 milliliter bottle of rum or similar spirit a week might give cause for introspection. Except for occasional short periods of imposed sobriety in prison or hospital, Lowry was drunk for about thirty years. He was also everything that goes with alcoholism: duplicitous, insecure, shady, self-aggrandizing, and violent. He claimed that a playground scar on his knee was caused by crossfire in the Chinese Civil War. He tried on several occasions to murder his wife, Marjerie, whose similarly enthusiastic embrace of the bottle secured the couple the nickname “Alcoholics Synonymous.” He once sank a bottle of olive oil in one gulp in the mistaken belief that it was hair tonic. He would drink anything: aftershave, white spirit, toilet cleaner. Mishap followed the Lowrys everywhere — lost passports, expired visas, unpaid fines. He once cut himself in the bath and bled heavily whilst Marjerie tried in vain to contact the hospital on an out of order phone. Instead, she rushed to the building’s elevator and got stuck between levels. Whilst on a relaxing walk in the countryside Malcolm fell and broke his leg; whilst running for help Marjerie was mauled by a dog. Friends kept packed suitcases by the door in case the Lowrys arrived so they could say they were awfully sorry, but were just about to head out on holiday.
Save for huge quantities of unfinished work and two other novels said to be forgettable in the extreme, pretty much of all this mayhem amounted to Under the Volcano, which is every bit as chaotic as might be inferred from Lowry’s history. Geoffrey Firmin is Her Majesty’s Consul General in the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac. His wife, Yvonne, has left him; his consulate has closed. The novel’s scope, as its opening makes plain, is the final twelve hours of his miserable life. We first encounter him at 7:00 a.m. in an otherwise empty bar. He has evidently had a heavy night.
Still in his dress clothes, which weren’t particularly dishevelled, the Consul, a lock of fair hair falling over his eyes and one hand clasped in his short pointed beard, was sitting sideways with one foot on the rail of an adjacent stool at the small right-handed counter, half leaning over it and talking apparently to himself.
Observing this scene at the doorway is Yvonne, who has travelled to Mexico to try and rekindle the marriage. Whilst Geoffrey agonizes over her, she frolics with Hugh Firmin, Geoffrey’s brother, himself weighed down by the feeling that he should be helping supply weapons to the Spanish Republicans as they suffer the military catastrophe of the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938, in which they suffered thousands of fatalities at barely any cost at all to the Fascists, going some way to securing General Franco’s victory. Most of the novel, however, frees us of such grounded realities. “I propose to disintegrate as I please,” Geoffrey tells us, and the novel’s best passages are those dedicated to tracing this extreme alcoholic decline. The majority, though, is dense, digressive, obtuse, allusive and difficult:
But he could feel, now, too, trying the prelude, the preparatory nostalgic phrases on his wife’s senses, the image of his possession, like that jewelled gate the desperate neophyte, Yesod-bound, projects for the thousandth time on the heavens to permit passage of his astral body, fading, and slowly, inexorably, that of a cantina, when in dead silence and peace it first opens in the morning, taking its place.
Comfortably half the novel is devoted to prose of this order. This produces the effect of it feeling like a much longer novel than its actual length, whilst simultaneously suggesting that it should have been much shorter. Hemingway said that it was important to write drunk and edit sober. Lowry, by the looks of it, followed this instruction half way. He was driven to write a forty page letter to his publisher in response to a plea for more fastidious editing, in which he immodestly asked “is it too much to say that all these chords, struck and resolved while no reader can possibly apprehend them on first or even fourth reading, consciously, nevertheless vastly contribute unconsciously to the final weight of the book?” Though this is redolent of Vladimir Nabokov’s view that “curiously enough, one cannot read a book, one can only re-read it,” the perseverance Lowry demands is a big ask. Under the Volcano is, one suspects, in the category of novels which might include Gravity’s Rainbow, Finnegans Wake, and Ulysees, which perhaps goes unfinished at least as often as it is re-read.
It may seem reductive to ask a novel to behave itself, but such is the effect of a compelling character study buried under reams and reams of digression, verbosity, non-sequiturs, rambling obscurities ,and ephemera. At least it does what all literature should seek to do, however, and provoke a reaction. Not least, its final line is devastating. Nevertheless, it is most of all a product of Lowry’s own indulgence and need to get something definitive done with his life. The letter he wrote to his publisher also said:
The novel can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don’t skip. It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera – or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining, and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie.
By Lowry’s own metric, then, Under the Volcano is anything one would like it to be and the reader is left to do the work. There is little to help ease the task. Graham Greene was more substantial, not to mention reachable, in The Heart of the Matter and others on the blend of the exotic and banal found in life overseas. Many writers have found the humor in drunkenness, but Lowry offers no such relief. Ultimately the most interesting thing about Under the Volcano is not Geoffrey Firmin, or Yvonne, or Hugh, or the Spanish Civil War, or Quauhnahuac, but Malcolm Lowry. The interplay between his life and this novel is where its appeals lies. But how relevant should an author’s life be to the novels he produces? Probably not at all relevant. As Northrop Frye said, the only evidence we have of Shakespeare’s existence, apart from the poems and plays, is the portrait of a bit of an idiot. Conversely, Under the Volcano is Malcolm Lowry. Without him, it is nothing.