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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry Book Review

Updated on July 12, 2011

Faced with Existence Under the Volcano

The back cover of Under the Volcano describes the book as "An entire lifetime in the course of a single day–a day which is to be the last in the tragic life of alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin." This is a fine descript of this book, which is replete with flashback memories, all culminating at the story's end.


The first chapter is long and chock full of images, the musings of M. Laruelle, who had left his home 5 years previously to begin (or renew) another chapter in his life. His life is one of leisure, though not a happy life. He thinks of women, Mexico, his work, and his past -ever his past. And a woman, whose arrival will add to the tale, even if in further looking back.


Malcolm Lowry, the author, presents ancient volcano calderas that are dusty and wide, Mayan dolls, 2 Indians having a discussion, in a word, an entire world in a far away town. It is both realistic and yet also a bit artistically contrived, as though a series of scenes from a movie. There are a multitude of smaller background stories that go along with the main plot, with story stacked upon story -somewhat as Hesse did in tales like Steppenwolf. You can't read this tale without being exposed to another thirty or a hundred additional yarns and histories. Some of them are rambling, though eventually pull back 'round to the main story, much as they should. These stories truly fatten up the story as a whole.


Under the Volcano is so packed with detail that one is forced to stay on the mental path of attentiveness, lest one fall off the trail and get lost in the story. At times it is as though this heavily bulked-up story was written either by a true genius and wordsmith, whereas other times it seems that Lowry is attempting to impress the reader (and critics?) unduly. For this reason, the title is apropos; the entire story, when in the present, at least, is set in the shadow of two hulking volcanoes, Ixta and Popocatepetl, absolutely smothering the protagonist.


However, the fleshiness of the novel is not always adverse. Often, it is very much to the reader's advantage (and Malcolm Lowry's reputation). For instance..."The dawn this morning at Acapulco -green and deep purple high above and gold scrolled back to reveal a river of lapis where the horn of Venus burned so fiercely she could imagine her dim shadow cast from its light on the air field..." (p. 44) This near-purple patch sentence goes on for another 5 lines before encountering a period (or full stop, as the Briton Lowry would have called it). Some other well made observations and lines:

"Tak: tok: help: the swimming pool ticked like a clock." (p. 70)

"She settled herself on the daybed...The daybed emitted a rending guitar crash of chords. The consul found his dark glasses and put them on..." (pp 72-73)

Alas, the dialogue can be stilted at times. For example, "Where I cannot reach you, ever on into the darkness of the sundering of the severance!" (p.50)

For this and other reasons, a wee bit of the good drink flowing through the veins is recommend while reading this -it'll make for a more interesting read -particularly as the different characters are forever drinking. In terms of all of this alcohol, bars, and even women of interest and an affable foreign setting, one is reminded tremendously of Hemingway -though only in terms of plot, not of writing style. Malcolm Lowry writes a sentence that is a hearty feast that leaves you feeling a glutton, stuffed, and even a bit bloated. Hemingway on the other hand, feeds you sparsely so that you're left a sannyasin, a mendicant wanting more, more, more of Hemingway. The same can only partially be said of Lowry's Under the Volcano.

Under the Volcano will undoubtedly be found tedious by many readers as this is such a bearishly language-driven novel, not the plot-driven book to which so many modern readers are accustomed. However, trudging through, one will certainly find many gems worthy of retaining.


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