Modern Library Revue: #11 Under the Volcano

September 17, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 9 4 min read

coverLike its protagonists Yvonne and Geoffrey, Under the Volano and I were just reunited after a long separation. I read other books, it’s true; I cheated with this novel’s close friends and relatives. But I had my own problems, and Under the Volcano makes itself hard to love. It’s brilliant and tedious, winsome and unbearable, moving and maddening and sad.

I feel close to Under the Volcano because I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. Together we drank the hair of the dog while reflecting on life’s failures; together we threw away our minds. Specifically, the thesis was about Under the Volcano and The Divine Comedy. While Dante urged me to strive up, up, up toward heaven’s crooning saints and brightly-lit pinwheels, Malcolm Lowry lit my cigarette and told me it’s always nighttime inside the bar. It was a confusing period in my life.

When I left school, thesis haphazardly completed, I was sick of Lowry and his monumental fuck-ups and his wasted life and his ragged, mostly unreadable oeuvre. I never wanted to think about him again.

I came back because I wanted to remember what it was that had so arrested me about Under the Volcano six years ago. My recollection of the novel was blurry, obscured by memories of the college years. So I reread it and understood that this is a book you must come back to again and again.

That’s true in the literal sense; when you read the last page you are compelled to start from the beginning; the novel is a wheel. But go back to it months and years later. The real power of this novel is in its inevitability. There is something especially sad and bitter about the jaded heartbreak of the foregone conclusion.

Moreso than most novels, Under the Volcano is veritably handcuffed to its author. Malcolm Lowry’s general failure at life management and his frequent misfortunes are nearly impossible to set aside while thinking about this novel. The man’s alcoholism was legendary. I remember reading that he underwent a ghastly detox technique wherein he sat in a small room lit with only a red lightbulb while doctors injected him with a powerful sick-making compound for days. After a week, he escaped and went on a two-day bender, during which he drank everything.

Apart from the staggering drinking problem, Lowry’s possessions and manuscripts tended to get lost or catch on fire. Then, when he finally managed to squeeze out a real masterpiece, it got a withering “Briefly Noted” in The New Yorker: “…for all his earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”

Under the Volcano was the only output of Lowry’s where he was able to step outside of himself for the sustained period of time necessary for creation. The novel could only be about a person ruined by alcohol, because alcohol was the major disaster of Lowry’s own life.  Under the Volcano has the curious effect of quite vividly and painfully transmitting the alcoholic’s grinding, ever-present need to drink.

Perhaps this says more about my own variety of temperament, but I found myself putting down the book to Google whether there was a mezcaleria in my neighborhood (pero no). Even while reading in horror about the Consul (Geoffrey) unable to put socks on his alcohol-sodden, neuritic feet, I was gripped by his craving for fiery booze and five hundred cigarettes.

In his Consul, Lowry also managed to write the frenetic, mostly incoherent scholar of arcane texts that Lowry himself patently was. The Consul is obsessed with Kabbala, among other things; his fevered interest, his drinking, and his references’ very opacity render him unable to finish, or start, the definitive text he alleges to have been working on for years. Lowry, with his fetish for certain large and complex texts and systems of belief (e.g., Dante, Buddhism), was similarly unable to extricate himself from his head and his sources to write consistently good work.

Lowry’s self-awareness, much in evidence as he labored over this novel, is the more heart-rending given his own untimely and ignoble end, choking on his vomit from overdose (which was, according to various people, an accident, a pseudo-suicide, or a maybe-murder).

The New Yorker‘s brief note notwithstanding, Under the Volcano‘s power is not strictly in the unavoidable comparisons between its protagonist and its author. Quite apart from its autobiographical significance, it is beautifully constructed and written, although the prose can be frustrating, and the whole experience is disorienting (like being drunk, then really drunk, then sober, then drunker than before). Its difficulty is also its success, I feel more than ever after this recent reading.

I love the opening pages of the novel, the retrospective Laurelle and the farcical Dr. Vigil, the inversion of Dante’s sober and silver-tonged Virgil: “I sended a boy down to see if he would come for a few minutes and knock my door, I would appreciate it to him, if not, please write me a note, if drinking have not killed him already.” I love how sensory the novel is, the things it allows you to see and smell and feel, even the aching limbs and the clamoring hangover that follow an all-night bender.

Among other things, it’s a novel of place, with Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca) a character unto itself. As with Dante, geography is important to Lowry, and as with Dante, the geography is sometimes confusing; it seems to defy the laws of physics. The place teems with ravines and hills and roads that, no matter where one goes, seem to lead (titularly) to the volcano.

coverSweeping statements are dangerous, but I’m feeling bold this evening; I’m drinking paisano-flavored Carlo Rossi. So here goes: In my little universe, Under the Volcano and Lolita are the alpha and the omega of twentieth century literature in English. I don’t mean necessarily that we need employ the bogus notion of “best,” simply that between them they exemplify the artistic possibilities of literature. Between them, they define things that literature sets out to do and does.

At the level where theme and style converge, Under the Volcano is the great hangover of the Western Hemisphere of the forties, worn out from its newly concluded horrors. Lolita is its bright, shiny, hopelessly corrupt new dawn. The novels’ respective styles, influences, and preoccupations between them cover a lot of ground. Even their authors neatly occupy two important provinces of the literary lion: Nabokov the eerily prolific, the presentable, the consummate virtuoso; Lowry the wreck, the shit-show, the consummate artistic temperament.

The Formalist quibbler will argue that Lowry should remain outside his text, that it must stand on its own merits. I think the novel has plenty of formal merits, but I still reject this position. How can I not think about Malcolm Lowry? He steps off the page of this novel and says, “Please understand me.” Like Dr. Vigil says of the Consul, “Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies.” That’s real prescience; that’s heartbreaking.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Nabokov the eerily prolific, the presentable, the consummate virtuoso; Lowry the wreck, the shit-show, the consummate artistic temperament.

  2. I have to admit, I’m a little bit afraid to read this book.

    After logging almost three years sober, the idea of reading a book that will pour me a shot is a bit frightening. But it sounds really good.

    I am torn.

  3. I got Under the Volcano after reading a recommendation from Michael Dirda, but the first few pages frightened me off. I don’t remember why. But this review has encouraged me to give it another shot. As it were.

  4. I just finished “Volcano” for the second time. Like the writer, it has always been one of my favorite books, but it has always been hard to explain why I held it so close. Kiesling’s last quote and comment clarify it perfectly.

  5. This is the stuff to give the troops: great job, Lydia.

    Funny how the book seems generally neglected in England: one of their boys produced a modernist landmark, a genuine 20th century take-on-all-comers effort, yet it’s barely read (from what I can see) and hardly ever referenced.

    What did it seem like to me? In parts, it’s a nightmare, a pantomime, a dream, a bitter recollection, a ghastly never-ending binge of ideas and corruption. Wonderful. I knew the moment I finished it that I’d have to go back, but your advice about giving it a bit of time seems spot-on.

    PS, as before, love this series.

  6. Thanks for these great comments, everyone. Mike, huge congratulations on the sobriety. I don’t know what to tell you here…even though the book makes alcoholism out to be the great misery that it is, the alcoholic’s need to drink it relates is pretty infectious, especially (I’m guessing) if it’s a familiar feeling to the reader. Maybe there is an AA message board about books that have the power to lead the recovering astray?

  7. This is among my favorite colorful and boozy novels. Lydia’s assessment of Lowry’s and Nabokov’s podium places in the twentieth century are spot on. I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps Ada shares more frustration, more arcana, more color, but also proves half impenetrable. Great revue!

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.