Sunday, November 01, 2020

Under the Volcano (1947)

I'm aware how appreciated and respected Malcolm Lowry's novel is. It's not only high on the Modern Library list of best 20th-century novels (#11), and Larry McAffery's too (#14), but I've also personally heard good word of mouth on it from friends. But, lord, it's not an easy one for me. I gave up on it early 10 or 15 years ago and then got through it on a second attempt recently. I love the swooning, surging language, and the use of Mexico and the volcanoes is effective too. I'm more ambivalent about the swirling way the plot unfolds. On the whole it requires study aids. For example, it's not only set on a single day but also, according to Wikipedia, a specific date in history—November 2, 1938 (82 years ago tomorrow, for those keeping track)—which I don't believe is ever actually mentioned in the novel, nor particularly means anything of itself, other than being the last day of the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico (and the birthdate of Pat Buchanan). Whoever figured it out had to spend time parsing the clues, for which I'm grateful as it does clear up much of the talk about the Spanish Civil War, Nazis, and so on. I only wish I had checked in with Wikipedia sooner than the 90% point I reached when I did. Under the Volcano is a lot of work, in other words, and I'm not convinced it's worth it, though another reading could well open it up. But, lord, another reading. Geoffrey Firmin is our main man, which is not evident until midway through the second chapter (and these chapters are long). His quasi-estranged wife Yvonne is important too, and his younger brother Hugh. Yvonne has been unfaithful in the past (we glean slowly) but with whom is never entirely clear. Hugh seems likely. Some vivid scenes come swimming up out of this, such as a bullfight and strange incidents on a bus. There is a wonderful miasma of doom over it all. It ranges into Spanish language often and I was grateful for kindle translations. There's also French and German as well (again grateful). In that way it reminded me a little of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. On one level it's an annoying kind of cosmopolitanism, yet it's also an accurate recounting of experience in a place like Mexico on a day like November 2, 1938. I was often put off by the excessive drinking too, I must admit. In the early chapters Firmin, known as "the Consul" for his minor political position, thinks he is drinking strychnine (shades of the movie The Master!), and all through drinks mescal. In fact, Yvonne, Hugh, and a lot of others are worried about his drinking. Am I giving something away if I mention things never get better for Firmin or anyone? Actually, that's part of the study guide too.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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