out from Under the Volcano

6 June 2006, 5:01 am

Malcolm Lowry’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece Under the Volcano has joined the swelling list of books I had to return to the library and check out again in order to finish, largely because I kept setting it aside in favor of other reading material that was more fun.

Under the Volcano haunted me for years before I read it — friends would bring up the novel (or the 1984 John Huston film version with Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset). I’d read something somewhere that presumed I’d read it. The Bears even included a song inspired by it on their reunion album. (I do love The Bears, but it’s hardly one of their finest numbers.) I was familiar with its plot/theme — man drinks self to death (more or less) — in the same vague osmotic way that I knew the rough shape of Citizen Kane long before I saw it.

Since it’s an acknowledged Big Important Novel, I feel ill-qualified to write about it in any serious way. I certainly didn’t think the bulk of it was without merit. There were many turns of phrase and witty insights I admired. It was certainly vivid enough to instill in me a powerful desire to not drink while I was reading it.

But it didn’t really grab me until I neared its denouement. The final fifty pages or so are filled with mounting dread as the avenues by which the novel’s central tragedy could be averted are gradually eliminated, and the end becomes, by slow degrees, ever more inevitable. The interior mental landscape of the Consul, Geoffrey Firman and the exterior landscape of Quauhnahuac mirror each other throughout the novel (along a varying continuum from subtle to heavy-handed) and the final transformation of both into an earthly hell was genuinely horrifying.

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