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Paradise Lost: Malcolm Lowry's 'Under the Volcano'

Paradise Lost: Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano



“Les vrais paradis vont les paradis qu'on a perdus.” - Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Vol. VI: Finding Time Again.

“Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies.” - Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano.


What exactly did Proust intend to say about paradise? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? Or that paradise is just another name for a favourite form of loss? His famous epigram can plausibly imply any of these things, and perhaps several of them simultaneously, but the propositions are not identical and it is not easy to choose between them. We can look at what Proust literally wrote, but that is not exactly the same thing as what he meant. Translating this sentence in its context, Ian Patterson proposes ‘the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost.’ This is idiomatic, removes the troubling plural, and 'only’ seems a reasonable touch of emphasis - but why should we delete the plural? And why does Patterson swap ‘the’ for ‘a’? How many paradises could we bear to lose? And how many chances do we get? Quoting the same sentence in the preface to his translation, Christopher Prendergast writes ‘all paradises are lost paradises.’ There is nothing wrong with either of these versions and there is no final court of appeal in the original French text. We may favour one version to another, but then we are just giving preference to one understanding over another - either (mostly) our own understanding, or (better) an understanding that we had not thought of before.

Scott-Moncrieff's translation of Proust's title as 'Remembrance of Things Past' also misses the point. The original means 'in search of lost time,' with a play on words suggestive of 'forgotten days' and 'time wasted,' and the voluminous length of Proust's novel is a logical consequence of his associative way of remembering. He made indirect use of the interior monologue in a manner reminiscent of Browning, but with the 'modern' understanding that the mind is essentially irrational. He created the phrase à tiroirs, a meandering sentence in which one clause after another is forced into the preceding, the lengthening group somehow shackled together in a single syntactical unit. As his earliest critics observed, he produced a kind of anti-prose that is hard to read and often difficult to understand. The prose style that had developed over the past five hundred years was a highly artificial genre that required the taming of expression in order to attain clarity. Whereas normal speech utterances are halting, frequently arrive in fragments and repeat themselves, put qualifiers after ideas and often leave them half expressed, written prose aims at articulating organised thought in complete and coherent units. The qualifiers of each idea often come before or during its exposition, as required by clarity, the sound of the words, or their rhythm. Proust's reader, however, is constantly pulled down, below the surface of speech, into the wayward flitting of thoughts, images, and memories. As with Proust, so with Malcolm Lowry, another writer intensely preoccupied with matters of salvation and damnation, who replaced Proust's drizzling, pastel streams of consciousness with the force of a torrential tropical rainstorm. Both authours were equally consumed by a profound and tragic sense of loss, but to dismiss Under the Volcano as the deluged and deluded ravings of a 'good bottle man' merely trivialises one of the most important novels of the twentieth-century.

Lowry (1909-57) was born in New Brighton on the Wirral, a jagged peninsula situated between the estuaries of the rivers Dee and Mersey on the rugged northwestern coast of England. His family were prosperous, proper, and disapproving cotton brokers who moved to a mock Tudor estate in Caldy in 1912. Situated on two acres, with a tennis court and small golf course, it was large enough to house a maid, cook, and nanny as well. Lowry, who always felt neglected by his mother and closest to his brother, was an excellent athlete who won the junior golf championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club as a teenager. Having been bullied savagely as a Cub scout, his domineering father sent him away at the age of fourteen to The Leys School in Cambridge, made famous by the novel Goodbye, Mr Chips) and where he first began drinking alcohol seriously. His strict Methodist parents expected him to attend Cambridge University before entering the family business, but Lowry first persuaded them to let him work as a deckhand on a tramp steamer to the Far East. They drove him to Liverpool docks and waved goodbye, while the local press watched as he set sail on the freighter S.S. Pyrrhus in May, 1927.

The five months he spent at sea provided him with a wealth of stories that were incorporated into his first novel, Ultramarine (1933). Conceived as an hommage to his literary idol and mentor Conrad Aiken's Blue Voyage, it is an apprentice tale, written while he was still an undergraduate and depicting a young man's determination to gain the crew's acceptance on first sea voyage. In order to placate his parents, two years later Lowry enrolled at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge, but spent little time studying, graduating with a third class honours degree in English. During his first term, his roommate, Paul Fitte, who sought a homosexual relationship that Lowry rejected, killed himself. Lowry felt responsible for his death and was haunted by it for the rest of his life. Between academic terms, he travelled to the US to meet Aiken in person and visited Weimar Germany. He lived briefly in London after graduating, existing on the fringes of the vibrant 1930s literary scene and hanging out in the pubs of Fitzrovia with fellow dipsomaniac Dylan Thomas. He met his first wife, Jan Gabrial, in Spain and they were married in France in 1934. Theirs was a turbulent union, due both to his excessive drinking and her resentment of the advances made by several gay men who were attracted to him. The three obsessions which would dominate the rest of his career - literature, travel, and alcohol - were already firmly in place.

In 1936, after a brief separation, Lowry followed Jan to New York, where he checked into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital almost incoherent after an alcohol-induced breakdown - an experience which became the basis of his novella Lunar Caustic. When the authorities began to take notice of him, he swiftly decamped to Hollywood, where he tried screenwriting and started sketching out a short story called Under the Volcano. In a fateful and final attempt to salvage their marriage, Lowry and Jan moved to Mexico, arriving in Cuernevaca in November 1936, amidst the Day of the Dead festivities. Although he devoted intense energy to his writing, Lowry also continued to drink heavily and Jan, paid off by his father, left him for another man in 1937. Her departure accelerated Lowry's decline and he entered into another period of dark alcoholic excess isolated and alone in Oaxaca. Almost unable to work and with his lumbago growing steadily worse, he launched into a series of alcoholic fugues from which Aiken was afraid he would never return - “He would vanish for a night: he would vanish for two. His appearance became more and more disheveled, and if he kept his sense of humor, and his wonderful visionary gift of the gab, nevertheless it was with an increasing irritability, on the one hand, and an increasing indulgence in that fantastic mysticism of his, on the other.” Lowry was eventually deported from Mexico in the summer of 1938 and returned to Los Angeles, where he stayed at the Hotel Normandie, continued working on his novel, and met his second wife, the actress and writer Margerie Bonner. His father sent rent checks directly to the hotel manager.

In August 1938, Lowry moved to Vancouver in British Columbia. Margerie soon joined him, bringing with her the unfinished manuscript of Under the Volcano. They married just as WWII broke out and Lowry tried to enlist, but was rejected as unfit for service. The couple moved into a squatter's shack in Dollarton near the coastal community of Maplewood where an extensive correspondence with Canada's Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir (better known as the writer John Buchan) resulted in Lowry writing several articles for the Vancouver Province newspaper. In 1944, their beach hut was destroyed by fire and Lowry was injured in an effort to save his manuscripts. Despite this disaster, Margerie remained a positive influence on Lowry, skillfully editing his work and making sure he ate as well as he drank, while increasing doses of phenobarbitol, a narcotic sedative used mainly to treat epilepsy, helped him cope with the shakes. The couple visited Europe, America, and the Caribbean, but Lowry continued drinking heavily and attempted to strangle Margerie twice during their peripatetic travels. Not only was he consuming Herculean amounts of alcohol, but also mixing it with Sonoryl, a sedative prescribed for him by a Parisian doctor to help him sleep. When the Sonoryl ran out, he hit on Margerie's supply of Allonal, another barbiturate derivative with sedative, hypnotic, and anticonvulsant properties used primarily for the treatment of insomnia.

It is hardly surprising that Lowry's last years were physically torturous. In addition to eczema on his calves and shins, painful varicose veins in his legs extended from groin to ankle and neuropathy had discoloured them from the knees down. Suffering from a mental block that prevented him from holding a pen, he spent his days standing with his hands on top of his deck and dictating to Margerie, who also endured the arduous daily ritual of getting him dressed. The couple eventually returned to England in 1955, renting a cottage in the village of Ripe in Sussex, where Lowry died two years later, depressed, impoverished, and out of touch. The coroner's verdict was death by misadventure as a result of inhalation of his stomach contents, barbiturate poisoning, and excessive alcohol consumption. It has been suggested that it was a suicide, while inconsistencies in the accounts given by Margerie about what exactly happened on the night of his death have also given rise to a spurious suspicion of murder. Lowry is buried in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist in Ripe. Although he reputedly composed his own epitaph - "Here lies Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele" - it was never inscribed on his gravestone.

Lowry failed to publish much during his lifetime, but left behind an extensive collection of unfinished manuscripts. Of his two completed novels, Under the Volcano - which depicts a series of complex and destructive relationships set against a rich evocation of mid-century Mexico - is now widely accepted as his magnum opus, reaching number eleven on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. The poet and scholar Yannis Livadas considers it "not just a major contemporary work, it is a kind of its own, one of those unparalleled books that offered glamor and monumentality in literary modernism. The book and the writer functioned, likewise, as a nexus with a fatal tragedy.” The novel exemplifies Lowry's method of composition, which involved drawing heavily upon autobiographical material and imbuing it with complex and allusive layers of symbolism, while his tragic personal life echoed that of his writing. Many of his key works were lost, mislaid, forgotten, or destroyed by fire, with Lowry admitting in a letter how that particular infernal element seemed to “follow him around.” His only period of partial recovery was the brief time he lived in the beach shack, with daily swims in the ice-cold inlet and Margerie acting out the role of long-suffering earth mother he both needed and devoutly desired. Photographs of Lowry near the end of his life reveal a bloated shell, bleary-eyed and hollowed out by alcohol.

Despite (or perhaps due to) all of his self-inflicted tribulations, Under the Volcano remains one of the most powerful explorations of doomed romance, alcoholic addiction, and spiritual desperation ever written. It is a highly complex modernist work that inspired a film adaptation by John Houston starring Albert Finney (both good bottle men), a jazz suite, and even a cabaret. Few writers have achieved such a range of bravura effects that manage to plumb the depths of despair while simultaneously scaling such rarefied heights of anguished honesty. Set during Mexico's ritual celebration of the Day of the Dead in 1938, the title actually refers to the two volcanoes that dominate not only the Central Mexican landscape, but also its literary imagination, the still-active Popocatepetl and dormant Iztaccihuatl - twin tutelary gods that loom ominously over the town of Quauhnahuac, more commonly known as Cuernavaca. It evokes intensely suppressed emotions and volatile situations prone to unexpected eruption.

The main narrative trajectory follows the final twenty-four hours in the life of a British Consul with a murky past called Geoffrey Firmin, a surname connotative of both inner turmoil and a process of powerful fermentation. A chronic alcoholic, the character is clearly based on Lowry himself, who similarly lacked the conventional kind of work ethic and social conformity expected by his family, and battled problems with drink and depression throughout his life. The Consul’s futile attempts to hold together a marriage, a career, and the promise and duty of his privileged upbringing against the backdrop of a looming World War end in complete catastrophe. The torturously turbulent anabasis relates the final year of his shambolic life, detailing the psychology of personal collapse as he tries to escape a disintegrating world that no longer makes any sense to him.

The novel's three opening epigraphs neatly encapsulate its major concerns. First Lowry cites the second long speech of the Chorus in Sophocles' Antigone, translated by of Sir Richard Jebb, a standard translation in his day. The words evoke not only the tragic inevitability of the Consul's death (like the tragic hero Polyneices, the son of Oedipus and Jocasta, he is to remain unburied, "dinner for birds and dogs"), but also the sense of wonder and loss felt at the destruction of “such a piece of work” as man. Lowry commented to Albert Erskine - "Epigraph: the tis in the Sophocles quotation is a little gamey: I suggest - When it is hard lodging under the clear sky. This quotation is from the translation in the two volumes entitled The Whole Greek Drama, edited partly by Eugene O'Neill's son. I hope one does not need permission to use it."

The second is from a spiritual autobiography and homiletic narrative by John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, that relates his gradual awakening to religion. Lowry quote includes minor inaccuracies because his direct source was not Bunyan, but William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, in a chapter appropriately entitled 'The Sick Soul' (his copy has this precise quotation marked off in pencil). The passage, reflecting Bunyan's worst moments of doubt and torment, anticipates Lowry's recurring images of dogs and horses and neatly sums up the Consul's Faustian dilemma, his fatal inability even to desire the salvation offered to him. The toad anticipates the Consul's vision of himself and Yvonne in Tlaxcala - "happy as toads in a thunderstorm."

The third and final epigraph is from the second part of Goethe's Faust, a dramatic poem in two parts that deals with the attempt by Mephistopheles to effect the ruination of Faust's soul. Disillusioned by the world and philosophy, Faust enters into a compact with the Devil, agreeing to become his servant should he ever admit to being satisfied. Part I concerns Faust's ardent pursuit of Helen of Troy and their final separation, culminating in the seduction, death, and salvation of Margarete, while Part II is complex and obscurely symbolic. It shows the purified hero reclaiming a stretch of submerged land from the sea with the aid of the Devil. Finally, conscious of a good deed accomplished, the now blind Faust falls down dead. Mephistopheles tries to seize his soul and transport it to hell, but angels bear it away. The lines quoted by Lowry are uttered by an angel bearing his soul upward, epitomise the agonised struggle associated with the Faust figure, and imply that Lowry's Consul is equally worthy of such seraphic company. Lowry mentioned "the battering the human spirit takes (doubtless because it is overreaching itself) in its ascent towards its true purpose" and suggested that there is "a hint of redemption for the poor old Consul at the end, who realizes that he is after all part of humanity."

In contrast with the omniscient narrator of the 1940 version, the published novel focuses each chapter through the mind of one central figure, with no two sequential chapters employing the same character's consciousness. It is structured into twelve chapters, the first of which is set exactly a year after the events of the main narrative and opens with a conversation between Dr. Vigil, the town doctor, and his friend Jacques Laruelle, who asks the doctor to help the Consul with his drinking problem. Laruelle is a French film producer who relocated to Mexico, only to discover his childhood friend whom he met at a seaside resort shortly after the death of his parents. He remembers the Consul's family as heavy drinkers, beginning early in the day and continuing until they passed out each evening. Dr. Vigil insists the disease has progressed too far and suggests the Consul be encouraged to engage only in moderate drinking to calm his nerves, which become overwrought from withdrawal in a matter of hours. The following eleven chapters constitute a series of flashbacks that take place during the last day of the Consul's life. They transpire chronologically, starting early on the morning of All Souls Day (the culmination of the Mexican Day of the Dead) with the return of his estranged wife, Yvonne, who left him the previous year, and ending with his violent death later the same evening. This flashback structure relies on Nietzsche and Ouspensky’s concept of the circularity of time, opening in the present day, then spooling back to the same point a year earlier, and creating the depressing impression that the Consul is destined to repeat the same futile trajectory over and over again. It is symbolized by the fiesta's ferris wheel that looms over the town and is freighted with as much symbolic weight as it can bear - “it is Buddha's wheel of the law … it is eternity, it is the instrument of eternal recurrence, the eternal return, and it is the form of the book; or superficially it can be seen simply in an obvious movie sense as the wheel of time whirling backwards.”

A miasmic atmosphere of laborious difficulty overshadows the narrative like the thunderheads that obscure the "immense flanks" of Popocatepetl, in whose penumbra Yvonne, the doomed Consul, and his half-brother Hugh confront their fates. The ill-starred hero is certainly no fool, except along one line. He possesses sufficient charm and humour to beguile, and then to lose the love of is life, not by impercipience, but as a consequence of his dependency - and not once, but twice. First published in 1947 under the Jonathan Cape colophon, the novel encountered the resistance typical of unique books. It did well in the US, but was remaindered in England and Canada, selling only two copies between the end of 1947 and 1949. Its reputation grew steadily over the years following Lowry's death in 1957, but it remains a book that deeply divides critical opinion, not on account of what happens, which is fairly straightforward, but because of how it is presented. Tangled time schemes and a Faulknerian stream of consciousness are just two of the challenges with which Lowry tests his readers. Another potential obstacle is its extremely dense and allusive prose style, which readers find either intoxicating or infuriating. Lowry spent almost ten years writing and revising the text, imbricating an ever thicker "forest of symbols" - a phrase from Baudelaire that the Consul quotes in an early draft of the novel. Lowry, as his biographer Douglas Day noted drily, "had no gift for simplicity."

Although Lowry's approach is closer to Melville and Conrad than Joyce, he animates his corner of Mexico in a manner similar to the Dublin of Ulysses, not so much by describing it, but rather by building an alternate reality from language. The staggering complexity of the novel's construction is indicated in a 1951 letter to his German translator in which Lowry describes the minor character of Weber, an American gunrunner, as "not very important, in one way, and yet he has to be there, bracing something far down within the substructure of the whole." He then explains, over four crammed pages, just how Weber fits into what Michael Schmidt calls a "root system of symbolic connections and counter-references." Lowry's schematic control of his novel does not mean he was always in command at the level of the sentence, however. A common and legitimate complaint is that Under the Volcano is in parts overwritten, but such passages are rare anomalies amid a composition of arresting power, passion, and perfervid beauty. In a 1950 letter Lowry said of the writing process that "after a while it began to make a noise like music, when it made the wrong noise I altered it - when it seemed to make the right one, finally, I kept it." This approach resulted in a convoluted text that, as the journalist D.T. Max notes, "risks everything at every moment."

Not only is the novel particularly rich in symbolism, it is also replete with references to other writers and literary works. This intertextual strategy is influenced by both Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses, while also incorporating aspects of Greek mythology, the Mahabharata, and the Kabbalah; Paracelsus, Marvell, Shelley, Coleridge, and Blake; as well as references to Baudelaire, Proust, and Shakespeare. Looming above them all, and asserting the book's explicitly Faustian aspect, are Goethe's Faust, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and Dante's Divine Comedy. Marlowe's version of the Faustus myth is Lowry's single most important source, with the Consul being likened to a black magician by his half-brother Hugh, who also embodies aspects of Lowry's career. The Consul himself frequently associates himself with Faustus as a similar suffering soul who cannot ask for salvation and runs toward hell, parodying Marlowe's line about Helen of Troy when looking at a fighting cock in a bar - "Was this the face that launched five hundred ships, and betrayed Christ into being in the Western Hemisphere?" Lowry was also fascinated by both the occult and numerology, and the novel's division into twelve chapters is significant. As he explained in an infamous thirty-two page epistle to Cape, the number of chapters was significant, since there are twelve hours in a day (and most of the novel happens in a single day), and twelve months in a year (one year elapses between chapter one and the end of chapter twelve). According to Lowry, the number twelve is also of symbolic importance in the Kabbalah, since it represents "man's spiritual aspirations." "I have to have my twelve", Lowry wrote, hearing in it "a clock slowly striking midnight for Faust."

Another motif is the literary game based on the sortes virgilianae - a form of divination by bibliomancy in which advice or predictions of the future are sought by randomly selecting a passage from Virgil's Aeneid - but with Shakespeare replacing Virgil. The Consul, who "had delighted in the absurd game," utilises Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine in a similar manner in chapter seven. Lowry had witnessed performances of Cocteau's dramatic version of the Oedipus tragedy twice in Paris in 1934. The infernal machine is the universe itself, an ingeniously contrived clock-like mechanism in which every part and every minute function to promote a single diabolical purpose - “the mathematical destruction of human life.” When Lowry wrote to Cape that Under the Volcano “can even be regarded as a sort of machine: it works, too, believe me, as I have found out,” it was clearly Cocteau's creation he had in mind. He conceived his novel as the representation of the destruction of a human life, both beautifully and tragically configured. The machine's mainspring is time. Exactly a year later Laruelle plays the game again, this time using the Consul's copy of Eight Famous Elizabethan Plays. After two lines (another from Doctor Faustus, and a passage from Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday), the book opens again on the last page of Doctor Faustus. The four lines Laruelle reads are particularly appropriate to the Consul's fate - "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, ... Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall."

Many of Lowry's esoteric references and symbols relate to cabbalistic and mythological figures, as well as his literary models. The number seven is reiterated throughout the novel: in the first chapter, The Day of the Dead ends at 7 PM; Yvonne returns to the Consul at 7 AM; the day that takes up chapters two through twelve ends at 7 PM; and at the novel's close, the clock strikes seven times and a cock appears to confirm the Indian belief that "a cock crowing seven times announces death,” as well as the opening of the Seventh Seal, a reference to the Book of Revelation - "And when the Lamb had opened the Seventh Seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." In addition, the number seven is branded on the rump of an Apocalyptic horse that is encountered repeatedly and eventually tramples Yvonne to death. The text is also riddled with phrases and slogans taken from advertisements, graffiti, film posters, bottle labels, signposts, and tour guides in a metatextual manner reminiscent of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. The animal Firmin encounters most frequently is the figure on the label of bottles of Anis del Mono - a red monkey, brandishing a pitchfork, while grinning and wagging his barbed tail. The Consul's overgrown garden not only stands for his life, but also alludes to the Garden of Eden. The narrow, winding cleft of the barranca that snakes through the countryside, sentient and scheming, both symbolises and becomes his tomb beneath the ruined gardens that reek of rot and thwarted sensuality.

The various cantinas visited by the Consul are either named with absurd and ominous facetiousness ( Amor de les Amores, La Sepultura, Todos Contentos y yo Tambien, 'Everyone Happy and Me Too,' and the Salón Ofelia, run by a character called Cervantes), or savage irony (El Farolito, 'The Little Lighthouse,' which the Consul calls “the paradise of his despair”). The pharos or beacon that is supposed to represent the salvific Christ is instead a filthy and fatally dangerous dive, constructed not like a lighthouse, but a chthonic labyrinth - “composed of little rooms, each smaller and darker than the last, opening one into another, the last and darkest of all being no larger than a cell.” The Farolito represents a portal to the mythical underworld of Tartarus, which the Consul notes was located by ancient Romans directly under Mt. Etna. Since this is a displaced, modern myth, it is hardly surprising to find in its innermost, cloacal chamber not a minotaur, but an obscene dwarf, squatting in corner on a toilet seat “so short his trousered feet didn't reach the littered, befouled floor.”

Such background characters are reminiscent of the films that Buñuel and Eisenstein set in Mexico - noseless peons, legless beggars, exalted lunatics, haggard crones, and the brutal, mustachioed, militarised policemen. Dr. Vigil is not only two kinds of physician (advertising himself publicly as a specialist in childhood illness and nervous indisposition, and privately in men's rooms as a clinician for sexual disorders), but also a sporting gentleman, elegantly flipping his wrist as he whips out his cigarette lighter, and almost as great a boozer as the Consul. The only purely malevolent character is the mysterious Fructuoso Sanabria, the “Chief of Gardeners.” Lowry toyed with his name for some time before coming up with this ironic misnomer, which signifies 'fruitful well-being.' It is Sanabria who has presumably ordered the minatory signage in all the town's gardens and who ultimately decides the Consul fate in the final chapter. As intoxicated as the Consul is in the Farolito, he can still detect that Sanabria is in fact a Castilian who has bee dispatched to Mexico as part of Franco's aid to the right-wing revolutionaries. Sanabria is tall, slim, wears well-cut American tweeds, and has long beautiful hands. It is no accident that the Hugh's hands are also described as “beautiful” and that both Laruelle and Yvoonne are somewhat vain about theirs, while the Consul's hands are small and clumsy. This motif, with its connotation of Lady MacBeth'd constant guilt-ridden handwashing, is underscored by the repeated appearance of the film posters for 'The Hands of Orlac.' Originally a 1924 Austrian silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene, the director of such Expressionist films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it was remade in Hollywood by Karl Freund as Mad Love. This is the version referred to by Lowry under its Spanish title Las Manos de Orlac. Con Peter Lorre.

A pervasive atmosphere of fermented fervour is intrinsic to the way in which the book moves back and forth across the border separating the world and the Consul's increasingly paranoid apprehension of it. Chapters ten and twelve both begin with the word 'mescal,' a highly alcoholic drink derived from the agave cactus, one of the most sacred plants in pre-Spanish Mexico that enjoyed a privileged position in religious rituals, mythology, and the economy. Because the piña or heart of the agave is first cooked before its juice is fermented, a legend arose that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, opening it up and releasing its juice. For this reason, the liquid is known as both 'the elixir of the gods' and aguardiente or 'fire water.' It is often accompanied with sliced oranges, lemons, or limes, and sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called sal de gusano - literally 'worm salt.' Other motifs possess equally malevolent significance: the phrase "a corpse will be transported by express"; the numbers seven, twelve, and 666; a misread sign asking "¿Le gusta esta jardín?"; a dying Indian on the road; the abysmal barrancas that flank Quauhnahuac; the "hideous" pariah dogs that track the consul's steps; and the graffiti No se puede vivir sin amar ('one cannot live without love'). These are all examples of what William Gass calls the "wormy ubiquitousness of the sign" which riddles the novel, providing multiple layers of meaning that demand complex exegesis. The University of Otago Press has provided an annotated guide to the text which is available on-line and fulfills this purpose admirably.

A further fascinating aspect of Under the Volcano is its deranged and hallucinatory nature which struck a chord in many readers, especially in France where the translated version was warmly received. Lowry vividly recounts Firmin’s numerous mescal-infused visions and the final oneiric scene seems to take place in a terrifying, nightmarish landscape of utter alienation. The French avant-garde lettrist and Situationist writers were so impressed that they devised various drinking games to mimic the Consul’s nocturnal ramblings. These consciousness-altering adventures and chaotic rejections of the status quo were later theorised as a form of dérive, or drift, and adopted in the novelistic practice of psychogeography - a technique since adapted by some academics and writers such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Attempts to unravel the rebus-like puzzle full of arcane correspondences presented by Lowry have been made many times and, like all great works of art, Under the Volcano has inspired a myriad of critical interpretations. It is simultaneously a political, religious, mystical, and philosophical novel, concerned with damnation, fascism, and love. It is at once a tragedy and, at times, a comedy, its flashes of mordantly bleak humour too often overlooked. Its metaphors and symbols can be studied and catalogued, but their meanings seem to shift as they recur, or when they are returned to on re-reading. Ultimately, the elaborate texture of the densely opaque writing both precludes and occludes analysis, refusing to assume a definitive shape and resisting any simplistic interpretation.

It took Lowry many years and multiple rewrites to complete Under the Volcano, carefully layering his language to create a kind of palimpsest of meaning full of mordant wit, underlying melancholy, and verbal prestidigitation. He endured numerous rejections from publishers and frequent demands for various revisions and rewrites from Cape. Lowry remained defiant, detailing with consummate skill and precision exactly how and why it would be impossible for him to change a single word since all of it was “absolutely necessary.” Cape eventually relented, but in a further twist of fate, when the novel finally came out, it clashed with the publication of Charles R. Jackson's The Lost Weekend, another tale of hopeless alcoholism adapted into a successful film by Billy Wilder. Nevertheless, many critics (with the notable exception of the young Jacques Barzun) hailed the novel and Lowry was contracted for his next book, but by then he was exhausted by the black dog of depression. In his review of Lowry's posthumous collection of short stories, Hear Us, O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place for The Nation, George Steiner wrote, “Volcanoes that blaze high leave little life around them,” which is as good a way as any of saying that the single triumph of Under the Volcano had exhausted Lowry. Dependent on alcohol and barbiturates, and afflicted by severe delirium tremens whenever he attempted to detox, he was constitutionally incapable of ever scaling such a monumental peak again.

As in the case with Hemingway (another prodigious bottle man who proudly proclaimed “I drink to make other people more interesting”), Lowry appears to have been more productive after death than when alive. Hear Us, O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place was awarded the Canadian Governor General's Award for English-language fiction in 1961. The scholar and poet Earle Burney edited Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry the following year and collaborated with Margerie in editing for re-publication Lunar Caustic, a conflation of several earlier pieces about Bellevue Hospital, which Lowry was in the process of rewriting as a complete novel. With the assistance of Lowry's first biographer, Douglas Day, Margerie also completed and edited the novels Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend Is Laid (1968) and October Ferry to Gabriola (1970) from his manuscripts. Lowry was also a prodigious correspondent, often spending more time writing letters than working on his fiction. The Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Margerie and Harvey Breit, was published in 1965, followed in 1996 by the two-volume Sursam Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Sherrill E. Grace. Scholarly editions of Lowry's final work in progress, La Mordida ("The Bribe") and his screenplay adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night have also been published. Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976) was an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Donald Brittain and John Kramer that opens with the inquest into Lowry's "death by misadventure," then moves back in time to trace his life as Richard Burton (another big boozer) reads selections from his writing over images shot in England, Mexico, Canada, and the US. In 2001, Lowry's first wife revealed in her memoir that she had an early draft of Lowry's novel In Ballast to the White Sea, which was thought to have been lost. According to Dean Irvine, Lowry had deposited an early draft of the manuscript with Jan's mother before the couple went to Mexico and his working copy was then lost in the fire. It was finally published by the University of Ottawa Press in 2014.

Despite his acolytes' constant clamour for work-desk scraps, Lowry's reputation has not been well served by the publication of such texts, which bear traces of the haste he excised from Under the Volcano. Conceived by Lowry as seven projected volumes of a whole, to be titled The Voyage That Never Ends, they are perhaps best read as works-in-process. Lacking the grand central structure of Under the Volcano, however, this scaffolding of minor works contains an empty space. The poet and critic Michael Hofman argues that, on balance, his great novel proved to be a debit rather than a credit for Lowry, his obsessive rewriting preventing hime from enlarging upon a larger magisterial achievement in which Under the Volcano was but a component part, designed to assume the same function as the Inferno in Dante's Commedia. Goethe's unstageable drama Faust, Part II was also published after his death. This sequel to the poem that anthropomorphised the spirit of Romanticism into a world character invoked it again with a symbolic scene in which Faust marries Helen of Troy. They conceive a child named Euphorion, or 'well-being' and Goethe let it be known that he was thinking specifically of Lord Byron. The play ought to end with Faust's death, because he asks for an extension and his deal with the Devil stipulated that on making such a wish Satan would seize his soul. Faust is ultimately saved by the reason he asks for more time - not for self-centered enjoyment, but rather because he has not yet finished supervising a grand engineering project for public benefit.

For additional insight into a novelist like Lowry, whose overarching concerns constantly pivoted between salvation and damnation, and who relied so heavily upon literary and symbolic resonance to express this oscillation, it is worth recalling the first line of the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé's Brise marine ('Sea Breeze') - La chair est triste et j'ai lu tous les livres ('the flesh is sad and I have read all the books'). The last six words suggest the weight of past literature bears down on the poet like a tropical depression, only adding to his personal, pre-existing sorrow. Exactly one hundred years earlier Goethe's Faust had expressed essentially the same sense of entrapment - “hemmed in by many a toppling heap of books worm-eaten, gray with dust.” Perhaps this is the reason why twentieth-century Modernism never produced a single definitive style, for the answer cannot lie in rebellious egotism alone. The burden of the whole past, all the masterpieces, great and small, exerted a paralysing, exhaustive pressure. Substance and technique had given all that was in them. Everything had already been done.

A fascinating coda lies in the fact that Graham Greene, born five years before Lowry, was also traveling around Mexico from January to May 1938, researching his account of the persecution of Catholics, which was especially severe in the province of Tabasco under its anti-clerical governor who succeeded in closing down all the churches in the state. Greene chronicled this crackdown in The Lawless Roads, calling it the "fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth” and describing his "growing depression, almost pathological hatred ... for Mexico." Many of the details in Greene's nonfiction treatment of his trip, from the sound of a revolver in a policeman's holster to the minatory vultures circling overhead, later reappeared in his fictional masterpiece The Power and the Glory. Published in 1940, it tells the story of a renegade Catholic priest living in Tabasco during the period in which the socialist government attempted to suppress the Catholic Church. The principal characters all have their antecedents in people Greene actually met, except for the legendary "whisky priest," a fugitive who "existed for ten years in the forest and swamps, venturing out only at night.” The real inspiration for Greene's protagonist was in fact the underground priest Miguel Pro, who was executed on trumped up charges and without trial in 1927.

Just like Lowry's Consul, Greene's renegade Jesuit is haunted by guilt over past and present sins, combining a powerful instinct for self-destruction with pitiful cravenness, painful penitence, and a desperate quest for dignity. He is similarly beset by a plethora of problems, not least of which is that alcohol was prohibited in Tabasco, with the unspoken objective of preventing the celebration of Mass. Despite finding it virtually impossible to obtain wine, it is relatively easy to get hold of whisky, which the priest consumes to excess. Although his consumption borders on addiction, by the end of the story he acquires “a real holiness." Despite battling bipolar disorder, working for MI6 in Sierra Leone, and playing ‘games’ of Russian Roulette with his brother, Greene somehow managed to survive to the age of eighty-six, having combined writing, serial philandering, and serious drinking for over sixty years. As in the case of Lowry, the aroma of alcohol permeates the pages of his novels as it did his life, including Our Man in Havana, where it takes centre stage in a drinking game between Captain Segura and Jim Wormwold, who has converted his collection of one hundred whisky miniatures into draughts pieces - “When you take a piece you drink it.”

Finally, it is worth noting the uncanny coincidence of Under the Volcano with another novel that was published on the other side of the Atlantic in precisely the same year. Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, also makes a pact with the devil, agreeing to the voluntary injection of syphilis bacteria in exchange for twenty-four years of creative genius. In a manner comparable to Lowry's Under the Volcano, Mann imbues his novel with an ineffable and aggrieved sense of sehnsucht - a wistful yearning for something lost, imperfect, or irretrievable. Lowry's personal example serves as a similar reminder that alcohol can lead to equally fatal consequences. A highly addictive toxin that our bodies work overtime to expel, it is so ubiquitous, so glamorised, and so deviously advertised in popular culture that as a society we are in communal denial. It is, however, impossible to argue with the largest and most detailed research into its impact. Based at the University of Washington, The Global Burden of Diseases produces the most comprehensive data on the causes of illness and death. It has found the idea that even 'moderate drinking' is harmless or beneficial is a myth relentlessly promoted by the liquor industry. Those of us who have lost friends and relatives to its pernicious influence can personally attest to the fact that the best alcohol can offer is an artificial paradise which may begin as a blessing, but too often ends with a curse.


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