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Modern Classics Under The Volcano

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One of the twentieth century's great undisputed masterpieces, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano includes an introduction by Michael Schmidt in Penguin Modern Classics. It is the fiesta 'Day of the Dead' in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. In the shadow of the volcano, ragged children beg coins to buy skulls made of chocolate, ugly pariah dogs roam the streets and Geoffrey Firmin - ex-consul, ex-husband, an alcoholic and a ruined man - is living out the last day of his life. Drowning himself in mescal while his former wife and half-brother look on, powerless to help him, the consul has become an enduring tragic figure. As the day wears on, it becomes apparent that Geoffrey must die. It is his only escape from a world he cannot understand. His story, the image of one man's agonised journey towards Calvary, became a prophetic book for a whole generation. Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was born and died in England. Between school and studying English at St Catherine's College, Cambridge he spent five months at sea as a deckhand, an experience which gave him the material for his first novel, Ultramarine (1933). After marrying in Paris, he moved to New York where he completed In Ballast to the White (1936). Under The Volcano was begun in Hollywood, coloured by a short stay in the Mexico that it describes, and eventually finished in Dollarton, British Columbia. If you enjoyed Under the Volcano, you might like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, also available in Penguin Classics. 'A Faustian masterpiece' Anthony Burgess

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1947

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About the author

Malcolm Lowry

101 books377 followers
Malcolm Lowry was a British novelist and poet whose masterpiece Under the Volcano is widely hailed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Born near Liverpool, England, Lowry grew up in a prominent, wealthy family and chafed under the expectations placed upon him by parents and boarding school. He wrote passionately on the themes of exile and despair, and his own wanderlust and erratic lifestyle made him an icon to later generations of writers.

Lowry died in a rented cottage in the village of Ripe, Sussex, where he was living with wife Margerie after having returned to England in the summer of 1955, ill and impoverished. The coroner's verdict was death by misadventure, and the causes of death given as inhalation of stomach contents, barbiturate poisoning, and excessive consumption of alcohol.

It has been suggested that his death was a suicide. Inconsistencies in the accounts given by his wife at various times about what happened at the night of his death have also given rise to suspicions of murder.

Lowry is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Ripe. Lowry reputedly wrote 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," but the epitaph does not appear on his gravestone

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,773 reviews
Profile Image for Ben.
70 reviews55 followers
June 17, 2016
Purchase a large bottle of tequila and start walking from Ernest Hemingway's house to Vladimir Nabokov's house. As you're walking, take a drink for the sake of squandered love. Then take one for isolation. Take one drink for war, and two for peace. Take one for world-weariness. Take one for betrayal. Take a big one for fear. Take a bigger one for the allure of death. Take one for a chasm opened between lovers. Take one for connections that span oceans, continents. Take one for filthy, homeless dogs. And take one long drink, just for the sake of it.

If you do this right, you will end up passed out in a ditch somewhere between Hemingway and Nabokov, and you will have a fair idea of what 'Under the Volcano' is like.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,376 reviews12k followers
July 14, 2023

“Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life!”
― Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Don't be fooled by the usual blurb on this novel telling you the story is about a British consul and his wife, his half-brother and his childhood friend. They are but bit players. This is a novel where the main character is liquor and how liquor turns human blood and the nerves of the human nervous system into trillions of tiny colorful skulls, each skull with a mouthful of shinning white teeth chewing up the host human and, in turn, his relations with everything and everybody. Most appropriately, Malcolm Lowry set his novel in Mexico during the Day of the Dead.

“In the bathroom the Consul became aware he still had with him half a glass of slightly flat beer; his hand was fairly steady, but numbed holding the glass, he drank cautiously, carefully postponing the problem soon to be raised by its emptiness.” The Consul (there is a tincture of humor in the narrator continually referring to him by his official title) is an alcoholic, thus, his one central problem is the inevitable empty glass - all those legions of tiny colorful skulls need alcohol to maintain their bright red, blue, green, yellow, black, orange, white colors so they can keep their sharp teeth chomping.

The Consul speaks, “I am too sober. I have lost my familiars, my guardian angels. I am straightening out,” he added, sitting down again opposite the strychnine bottle with his glass. “In a sense what happened was a sign of my fidelity, my loyalty; any other man would have spent this last year in a very different manner. At least I have no disease,” he cried in his heart, the cry seeming to end on a somewhat doubtful note, however. “And perhaps it’s fortunate I’ve had some whiskey since alcohol is an aphrodisiac too. One must never forget either that alcohol is a food.”

Famous last words for an alcoholic: “It’s fortunate I’ve had some whiskey” - not only fortunate, but completely necessary, thus, my observation, the real main character in this Malcolm Lowry novel is liquor. All of the alcoholics I’ve had the misfortune to come into contact with (nobody in my immediate family, thank goodness) have likewise surrendered their blood, vital organs and nervous system to those chomping skulls. Every day is the Day of the Dead around the globe for millions of alcoholics drinking under their personal volcano.

A reader of Lowry’s novel will find enough references, both direct and indirect, to Dante, Faust and Lost Eden as well as Christ, Don Quixote and Oedipus, but, from my reading, all of these allusions and suggestions, signs and symbols, codes and enigmas, are filtered through the alembic of Consul Geoffrey Firmin’s liquor glass, bestowing a particular flair to the well-worn citation “through a glass darkly,” words depicting our less than omniscient manner of seeing and understanding.

To conclude on an up note, one of my favorite scenes is when Geoffrey, his former wife Yvonne and his half-brother Hugh attend a bullfight. Hugh jumps in the arena. We read:

“It was Hugh. Leaving his coat behind he had jumped from the scaffolding into the arena and was now running in the direction of the bull from which, perhaps in jest, or because they mistook him for the scheduled rider, the ropes were being whipped as by magic, Yvonne stood up: the Consul came to his feet beside her.
“Good Christ, the bloody fool!”
The second bull, no indifferent as might have been supposed to the removal of the ropes, and perplexed by the confused uproar that greeted his rider’s arrival, had clambered up bellowing; Hugh was astride him and already cake-walking crazily in the middle of the ring.
“God damn the stupid ass!” the Consul said.

A nearly 400-page novel and, for me, that was the up note, since, when it comes to alcoholics and alcoholism, there is really very little of what could be considered ‘up’; quite to the contrary, it is either down or very far down or all the way down.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,460 reviews3,631 followers
May 2, 2022
Under the Volcano is like a ticking time bomb – an explosion is unavoidable and with every new fanciful sentence it is nearer.
The day of remembering and honouring the deceased – a grotesque carnival of dread – the Day of the Dead…
…Night: and once again, the nightly grapple with death, the room shaking with daemonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful sleep, the voices outside the window, my name being continually repeated with scorn by imaginary parties arriving, the dark’s spin-nets. As if there were not enough real noises in these nights the colour of grey hair. Not like the rending tumult of American cities, the noise of the unbandaging of great giants in agony. But the howling pariah dogs, the cocks that herald dawn all night, the drumming, the moaning that will be found later white plumage huddled on telegraph wires in back gardens or fowl roosting in apple trees, the eternal sorrow that never sleeps of great Mexico.

How much a day in life can mean to a man? It can mean nothing or everything… And any day in life can be fatal, especially if a man helps the doom…
Man is weak… Man is tormented by uncertainty, passions, desires, doubts, vices…
But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? Your volcanoes outside? Your stars – Ras Algethi? Antares raging south south-east? Forgive me, no. Not so much the beauty of this one necessarily, which, a regression on my part, is not perhaps properly a cantina, but think of all the other terrible ones where people go mad that will soon be taking down their shutters, for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.

Everyone, sooner or later, has one’s own, personal Day of the Dead… Or is it night?
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
October 29, 2018
Literary Addiction

I first read Under the Volcano in 1968. At that confused cusp in time between teen aged idealism and adult cynicism, I had travelled to Cuernavaca in pursuit of my first love whose father had moved his family there - I was sure at the time, but mistakenly, in order to ensure his oldest daughter did not succumb to my inept entreaties. As it turned out I discovered that I liked her family more than I liked her. So the trip turned into a bit of a disaster.

So in an attempt at literary therapy I threw myself into Lowry, who satisfied my romantic needs on several levels. First, he turned the city itself into something of a post-colonial paradise that was insulated from the cares of the world and its physical necessities. “The eternal sorrow that never sleeps of great Mexico,” exactly matched my own depressive mood. As I tried to follow Lowry’s Ulysses-like travels around the city, I could see the pervasive poverty of Cuernavaca as quaint; the rubbish tip of its central ravine as a melancholy barranca and entrance to the underworld; the obvious Mexican racism as an easy co-existence of Spanish-American and European culture alongside that of the still visible Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. Mexico’s sadness became bearable.

And although a problem shared - in this case an immature affair of the heart - may not be a problem halved, it certainly allows for the serotonin-like effects of Schadefreude. However badly I was feeling, I wasn’t, like Lowry’s Geoffrey, drinking myself into paranoid oblivion; nor, like his brother, Hugh, was I gripped by terminal guilt; nor, as his wife, Yvonne, was I in the grip of an Electra (or Oedipal) fixation. And, despite my sadness, I hadn’t ‘lost it’ as we said in those days, referring to the elusive mental self, as had the Consul whose “equilibrium, and equilibrium is all, precarious--balancing, teetering over the awful unbridgeable void, the all-but-unretraceable path of God's lightning back to God?” In the scheme of things, I was getting off fairly lightly.

Finally, it was clear to me that Under the Volcano was referencing many things about which I had not the slightest clue - people, places, and events (not to mention vocabulary and cognate puns) which Lowry knew about and I didn’t were integral to his story. But I also knew he was using them as symbols. These things were more deeply meaningful than they appeared on the surface. And I had to learn about them in order to understand life - at least the life that Lowry described.* Call it ‘hope’ through lack of understanding. Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, which I could see from my bedroom window within the walls of ‘The Family Compound’, for example, took on a significance that was simultaneously mysterious but concretely other than mere mountains. They pointed elsewhere to hidden meanings, and therefore to my own youthful ignorance (and what really did happen in the bunker?). This was liberating since it distracted me entirely from the issue of lost love.

In short, Lowry helped me to grow up. Just at the moment I needed some way out of an emotional dead end he showed up with his posse of flawed characters in another-worldly world. I moved, however incrementally, from a state of emotional distress to one of imaginative possibility. Once that happens, for good or ill you’re hooked. Life without Lowry’s kind of writing is impossible thereafter. Oh well, I suppose there are worse addictions - just as Lowry suggests.

*This is an issue that largely has been solved by the internet. An indispensable guide to the book is publicly available and makes all Lowry’s references and allusions clear: https://www.otago.ac.nz/english-lingu...
May 16, 2017
Έτρεξα μόνη μου,βγήκα δεύτερη.

Αδηφάγος λαβύρινθος αλκοολικών παραισθήσεων και συμβολισμών.

Πέρασα άσχημα βράδια με αυτό το βιβλίο.
Με κούρασε πολύ.
Με έφθειρε εγκεφαλικά. Με τύλιξε μια ψυχρή,αργή μάζα εσωτερικών συγκρούσεων και παραίτησης χωρίς καμία εννοιολογική διαδοχή πέρα απο μια μεθυσμένη και χορταστική αποτυχία στη ζωή και το θάνατο του πρωταγωνιστή.

Το πάλεψα σκληρά να βρω το αριστούργημα που προβάλεται,μα βρήκα μια τρομακτική μονομανία απίστευτα περίπλοκη και παραληρηματική και μια ολοκληρωτική απαξίωση ασφυκτική και βαριά,σαν την κληρονομιά μιας καταραμένης ανθρωπότητας.

Όλο το βιβλίο είναι βασισμένο στην μετουσίωση της ύπαρξης ενός τραγικού,εθισμένου,ευαίσθητου,πληγωμένου και πολυσχιδούς άνδρα.
Ο Πρόξενος Τζόφρεϊ Φέρμιν. Ο αιώνια μεθυσμένος ονειροπόλος. Ο πολίτης της γης των συμβολισμών. Ο πρωταγωνιστής μιας αρχαία τραγωδίας επιφορτισμένος με σεξουαλικά κατάλοιπα, τύψεις και απέραντη θλίψη.

Δεν προσπαθεί να γιατρέψει τις πληγές του, παλεύει να τις μα��ώσει ακόμη πιο πολύ και είναι αυτό ακριβώς που μεταφέρει στον αναγνώστη, η απόγνωση και η παρακμή μιας ολόκληρης ζωής που περιγράφονται και μάχονται για κατανόηση μέσα στην πλοκή του βιβλίου λαμβάνοντας ως χρονική κάλυψη το τελευταίο εικοσιτετράωρο της ζωής του.

Επομένως,κάθε δευτερόλεπτο της αποφράδας μέρας και της αφήγησης παράλληλα παίρνει βασανιστικά εφιαλτικές διαστάσεις.

Πρέπει μέσα σε μια μέρα,συγκεκριμένα τη μέρα των νεκρών,να συμπεριληφθούν στην ιστορία και τη συνείδηση μας όλες οι προϋπάρχουσες καταστάσεις, τα γεγονότα, η σκιαγράφηση των άλλων ηρώων, ο εσωτερικός κόσμος τους, οι πολιτικές και κοινωνικές εξελίξεις,εξομοιώσεις πράξεων,ο έρωτας, ο θάνατος, η προδοσ��α, η ήττα, η τρέλα της εξάρτησης απο το αλκοόλ και λοιπές ψυχοφθόρες ουσίες και παρουσίες.

Επιπροσθέτως, το ντελίριο της μετουσίωσης του Φέρμιν ξεπερνά τον εαυτό του και αργά αργά καθώς εμβαθύνει καταστρέφεται και μας παρασύρει σε μια βάρβαρη και θλιβερή ασάφεια.
Δεν κατάφερα να βρω εννοιολογικό συνειρμό,δεν προσέγγισα καμία κοινωνιολογική θέση,δεν εμβάθυνα σε κανένα καθήκον σκέψης.
Όλα πολύ έντονα, κάποια τελείως περιττά,τα γεγονότα με προσπέρασαν αφήνοντας με σε μια κατάσταση φόβου, ελλιπής κατανόησης και καχυποψίας.
Κρίση εξιδανικεύσεων.

Απέτυχα παταγωδώς να συλλάβω την ενόρμηση του Λόουρυ σαν μια εκπρόσωπο, εξουσιοδοτημένη με ένα κάποιο μήνυμα απο έναν αποστολέα για έναν αποδέκτη.

Κόλαση κάτω απο το ηφαίστειο χωρίς αρχή - μέση - τέλος. Ατελείωτο βασανιστήριο. Δύσκολη γραφή, πυκνή,μακροσκελής πέραν του δέοντος και λεπτομερειακά μπερδεμένη.

Ένας εθισμένος αφηγητής, κρυμμένος κάπου στο Μεξικό κάτω απο ένα ηφαίστειο. Απωθεί τη ζωή και τους λόγους για να ζήσει. Απορρυθμίζεται (βιο)λογικά,διαταράσσεται ο ήδη πληγωμένος ψυχισμός του και θέτεται εκτός λειτουργίας μαζί (ίσως) με τον αναγνώστη. Όλα τα υπόλοιπα λάβα, μάζα, έρεβος.

Λυπήθηκα ειλικρινά γι’αυτή την άποψη που εκφράζω καθώς και τη χαμηλή βαθμολογία επειδή οι διθυραμβικές κριτικές με κάνουν να την εκλαμβάνω ως προσωπική ανεπάρκεια και αποτυχία.

Παρόλα ταύτα θεωρώ πως δικαιολογώ απολύτως τη δυσαρέσκεια μου και ρίχνω περισσότερο βάρος στη δική μου (ίσως) κούραση ή στην έλλειψη σωστού συγχρονισμού με ένα ομολογουμένως κλασικό έργο.

Στις προτάσεις για δεύτερη, τρίτη ή και τέταρτη προσπάθεια ανάγνωσης για την καλύτερη εμπέδωση νοήματος, θα απαντήσω: Ευχαρίστως ναι, αλλά όχι....

Καλή ανάγνωση - καλύτερη μάλλον-

Πολλούς ασπασμούς!
Profile Image for Fabian.
956 reviews1,623 followers
December 8, 2020
A good word to describe 1947’s Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is LANGUID. This is authentic rambling & genuinely just one loooong continuous drivel. All of it: sound and fury signifying… nothing. It’s a true pity that the book is so inaccessible, unreadable; it invites for some spontaneous skimming to occur, something a book must never inspire in its reader. The setting is magnificent, but certainly not unalike Henry Miller with his snooze-inducing masterpiece impostor “Tropic of Cancer,” the uglification of Mexico is as abhorrent & ridiculous as the descriptions of rancid Paris in “Tropic.” There is not one single sentence clever enough, beautiful enough, even at all special or pretending to be special. Lowry decides to produce one of the only books that I can think of that is totally devoid at least ONE special, one poetic sentence. It's that horrible!

“The eternal sorrow that never sleeps of great Mexico…”: this certainly is a promise left unfulfilled. We get nasty descriptions which repeat endlessly, all in a headache-inducing loop, just as the brain of a drunkard reels about. Aimlessness--murkiness, being inside the mind of a drunk without being drunk ourselves is a total bust. This is that overly-typical story of the crazy gringo (well, a displaced British Consul, actually) getting “tight” on a Mexican holiday, the unintentionally un-symbolic Day of the Dead, boozing on mescal and myriad other liquors which appear before him like mirages in the wild. Why are stories with roaring drunks in ‘em so critically lauded? I REALLY don’t get it…!

Unlike Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Rum Diary,” or any of the innumerable American plays (by Arthur Miller, by Eugene O’Neill, by Edward Albee… you know exactly the tragic type) this one makes it hellish for the reader himself (poor poor guy) to really delve into the novel; into the awful sways and malicious deviations from a proper plot and proper character portrayals. It’s insipid, it‘s a novel which transpires one fateful day but feels like one l-o-n-g, sad weekend; actually, like an entire week of swimming in alcohol like a booze hound. Although considered one of the bonafide towering achievements of the 20th century, it is indeed novels like this one which make one glad that that century is long gone.
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,028 reviews17.7k followers
September 2, 2023
How does heroic Perseus murder that Boa-bearing Banshee, Medusa? He shows her her own ghastly image in his gleaming shield, which in turn hides his eyes from her evil murdering vision.

For he who sees his devil face to face must die.

Has this former diplomat-turned-drunk seen his OWN devil face to face in the bottom of that bottle? No. He knows it would only spell his own demise.

But this day has the Devil’s Seal upon it, and his myopia must end.

And he must face that Face…

You see, this man is HIDING behind that bottle because this “man cannot bear too much reality.” Just like the rest of us poor souls.

You see, we ALL have our diversions. The alternative to them is madness. But this man’s devil has poisoned his liquid diversion, turning it into an insanity-inducing poison.

And this day he must face his devil head on. He has no choice - for the few who care about him, on this Day of the Dead in sweltering old Mexico, will soon show it to him.

And all Mexico is going mad on this ghoulish day, and Mexicans about him can see their worst nightmares unfolding just as he sees his ruination in them. For on this day, Hell is Real.

Nothing can stop those Chthonic Forces from erupting.

And this drunk is no Perseus:

For the Devil of the Bottle has already stolen his only shield.

You know, T.S. Eliot once said our personal actions and hurts are covered over and forgotten under "currents of action" -

But the hurts of those we know - or read about, as in Malcolm Lowry's case - remain with us for a Lifetime.
Profile Image for Guille.
781 reviews1,735 followers
December 3, 2020
“¿Qué es el hombre sino un alma minúscula que anima un cadáver?”
Siendo honesto debería haberle otorgado solo 3 estrellas, pero, aunque solo sea por las últimas 150 páginas, he decidido sumarle la cuarta. Y el caso es que estoy bastante de acuerdo con el editor que le aconsejó que metiera la tijera al manuscrito, algo que Lowry comenta en el prólogo que él mismo escribió expresamente para la primera edición francesa en un caso rarísimo en el que el autor cree necesario explicar su propio texto.

La novela, aunque toca temas como la guerra de España, el compromiso social y político, los judíos y la inminente guerra mundial, la situación social de México, sus costumbres, sus gentes, y se cuentan otras vidas como la de su hermano Hugh y la de su exesposa Yvonne, el gran protagonista es el volcán en continua erupción que va quemando el alma de Geoffrey Firmin entre montañas de elementos simbólicos y referencias varias. Realmente, como en el paisaje mexicano elegido como escenario del relato, hay dos volcanes que se comunican y se refuerzan, el amor/dolor por Yvonne y su traición (“Nunca podré perdonarte lo bastante”) y la adicción al alcohol.
“—No voy a beber —dijo el Cónsul parándose en seco—. ¿O sí? De cualquier modo, no será mezcal. —Claro que no, la botella está allí detrás de aquel arbusto. Recógela. —No puedo —objetó. —Está bien; tómate tan sólo un trago, sólo lo indispensable, el trago terapéutico: tal vez dos tragos. —¡Dios! —dijo el Cónsul—. ¡Ah! Bien. Dios. Cristo. —Y luego, podrás decir que no hay que tomarlo en cuenta. —No, en efecto. No es mezcal. —Claro que no; es tequila. Podrías echarte otro. —Gracias, así lo haré —tembloroso, volvió a llevar la botella a sus labios. Qué dicha. Jesús. Santuario… Qué horror —, añadió…”
Y la lava que llena las laderas de ambos volcanes, de los dos, uno por no poder conceder un perdón que podría facilitar una nueva oportunidad de felicidad junto a Yvonne y el otro por dejarse dominar sin remedio por la adicción, lleva el nombre de culpa, que, como dijo Durrell, “se apresura siempre hacia su complemento, el castigo, y sólo allí encuentra su satisfacción”. Y vaya si Geoffrey puso todo su empeño en encontrarlo.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,485 reviews2,370 followers
August 23, 2023

I liken Under the Volcano to Conrad's Heart of Darkness - in the fact that it's dark, difficult and complex, probably a masterpiece, has some great writing, but is one of those novels where upon completion I sat, thought about it for a bit, and didn't feel anything.
The still-active Popocatepetl and dormant Iztaccihuatl volcanos loom ominously over the town of Quauhnahuac, as Lowry details the psychology and personal collapse of one Geoffrey Firmin - the consul - who battles his addiction to beer, wine, tequila and mescal, whilst trying to find the will to resurrect a failed marriage, save a decent career, and uphold his duty in regards the privileged upbringing he was blessed with - while the catastrophe of war seems to gather in the storm clouds. A couple of things that I liked about the novel was Lowry using the concept of eternal recurrence - opening in the present day, spooling back to the same point a year earlier - which gives the sense that Firmin is repeating the same futile trajectory over and over again. Also, Firmin's mescal-infused visions create a hallucinatory and disorienting feel to parts of the narrative, which works well, as he tries to escape the violent real world around him - a world he can no longer understand. The novel is no doubt awash with alcoholism, but Lowry raises many other important issues than simply the bottle. Of the main characters then I should have felt at least something for the long-time suffering divorced wife Yvonne, but - just like the novel overall - it was a struggle.
Appearing in 'best novels of the 20th century', 'books to read before you die', etc... I can at least cross another of those off the list and say I've read it.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
April 27, 2019
The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbors it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view. Nor even that he was sauntering. The Consul ... was almost running. He was also lurching. In vain he tried to check himself ...

The Consul. Albert Finney in the 1984 film.

Malcolm Lowry may be one of the best examples of the writer who has one (and only one, so far as we can tell) great novel in him. I have to admit I had never heard of this novel prior to reading it a few years ago. It blew me away.

What I remember best about it is the frighteningly realistic way in which Lowry conveys that the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, is sickeningly drunk almost constantly, from his first drink in the morning until passing out at night. Reading many of the passages made me feel I had a horrible drunk on myself, just barely conscious, not able to think clearly, my mind alternately racing and stopped dead. Lowry, who was himself an alcoholic, somehow contrived this unbelievably realistic way of writing of the consul’s inner world in what might be called a "stream-of-drunkenness" style.
... the Consul nodded desperately, removing his glasses, and at this point, the Consul remembered, he had been without a drink nearly ten minutes; the effect of the tequila too had almost gone. He had peered out at the garden, and it was as though bits of his eyelids had broken off and were flittering and jittering before him, turning into nervous shapes and shadows, jumping to the guilty chattering in his mind, not quite voices yet, but they were coming back, they were coming back.

If you haven't read the book, you owe it to yourself to check it out, but be forewarned - you may not take another drink for awhile. It is often mentioned on lists of the twentieth century’s greatest novels.

A great movie was made from the book (which I have seen from Netflix) in 1984. Directed by John Huston, and starring Albert Finney as the consul (a masterful performance), and Jacqueline Bisset as his estranged wife (who wants to return to him), it was nominated for many awards (including Finney for the Best Actor Oscar). The movie captures the dark, drunken, dazed tone of the novel in an outstanding, almost amazing, manner. It is ultimately as disturbing as the novel.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Previous review: The Iron Tracks
Next review: Eight Men Out
More recent review: SAGA Vol. 1

Previous library review: Dubliners Joyce
Next library review: The Fourth Pig Mitchison
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,441 followers
September 29, 2022
În mare, e vorba de ultimele 12 ore din viața unui alcoolic. Protagonistul, fostul consul britanic Geoffrey Firmin, are meritul (profund discutabil) de a bea, de a fi din ce în ce mai amețit și de a ține discursuri savante, întortocheate, despre simboluri, despre virtuțile cifrei 7, despre esența Femeii etc. Consulul bea fără alegere: whisky, tequila, rom, anisette (un lichior dulce, lipsit de culoare), mezcal, bere, vin și, în genere, orice fel de lichid excitant.

La capătul celor 12 ore, Geoffrey Firmin închide ochii pentru totdeauna, dintr-un motiv pe care mă sfiesc să-l divulg. Romanul lui Malcolm Lowry - o carte-cult - se salvează, neîndoielnic, prin stilul somptuos... A se citi în doze mici.

Există și o traducere mai veche, realizată de Ion Caraion (după o versiune franceză, se pare), și intitulată La poalele vulcanului.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,882 reviews16.6k followers
October 15, 2017
A true literary masterpiece.

This is minimalistic in scope but brilliantly complex and multi-layered in detail. The exceptional prose is interspersed with flashes of stream of consciousness and eclectic, almost poetic imagery.

The multiple references to Conrad were interesting, almost the flip side of Heart of Darkness as Lowry describes the inevitable collapse of a man and in metaphor, civilization.

Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
October 22, 2022
“How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?”

I am not an alcoholic, but I’ll admit, even now, when I rarely have more than a glass of wine a day, I remain intrigued by the great novels of alcoholism (and their often alcoholic authors). Maybe Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is not about alcoholism per se, but it is clearly about the booze-fueled destruction of the relationships between a group of friends. I think of the alcoholic Raymond Carver, whose almost every story deals with self-destruction via alcohol. Kerouac’s career tracks the devastating effects over time of his alcoholism, in works such as Big Sur, including almost clinical descriptions of his hallucinations from delirium tremens.

“Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life!”

I think maybe because I have largely lived a pretty stable life, I have always been been fascinated by the gutter tales of Fyodor Dostoevsky, that St. John of the Cross Dark Night of the Soul experience. Noir despair. Existential trauma. I guess at one point in my life I kind of romanticized spiritual desolation as one kind of potentially rich experience. I mean, what was it someone said? You never recall those nights you had a good night’s sleep. So I lived vicariously in these books and occasionally made conscious choices toward living in angst and anguish instead of just accepting that I might be just the least bit happy. My mom asked me when I was a late teenager: “What happened to you? You were such a happy baby!!” I probably sneered or grimaced in response; I might have answered: I just read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment! You don't understand!

Anyway, I was reminded of some of those other alcoholic twisted nightmares when I reread the alcoholic Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (which, given the location of murderous lava, might be described as a kind of Hell), which to my memory was one of the best pieces of literature I had ever read. I would not have seen it in my initial reading as alcoholism exactly, as Lowry writes about something he thinks of as the dissolution of the soul, which could also be true, but as with Kerouac, Lowry’s describing in almost clinical fashion the self-destruction of a man from almost non-stop drinking.

“I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least: my redemption is sure.”

Under the Volcano takes place on one day, The Day of the Dead, 1938 in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, between two volcanos, where British Consul Geoffrey Firmin is visited by his ex-wife Evonne Constable, who tries one last time to rescue him. The book is dedicated to Lowry’s long-suffering wife, who is sympathetically depicted in this semi-auto-biographical novel as many lovers of the addicted often are: Caring for their damaged loved ones to the extent they are able. Evonne is accompanied by Hugh, Geoff’s step-brother. An intervention, we call it now.

But though Lowry lived for many years after publishing this, his last novel and major accomplishment, it reads like a combination last love letter/suicide note.

“No se puede vivir sin amar.”

This book is on one level about a miserable human being whose life is described in often gorgeously lyrical terms as one who recognizes the great beauty of the place he occupies in Mexico, but on another level, he descends, rung by rung, down the ladder into Hell, under the volcano, via delirium into horrific nightmares. A song of despair with tributes to much great European literature, maybe Cervantes’ Don Quixote chief among them.

I have to say I loved it. On the one hand, Geoff is a man of privilege who wastes his life, or whose is wasted because he has a disease, but on the other hand he seems a lost, tragic figure. Though we certainly feel sorriest here for Evonne, who truly loves him. But I also know now that this book can’t be romanticized as just a spiritual cry; this book is about addiction. He may be making some bad choices, but he is also an alcoholic. He needs extraordinary help and doesn’t get it. Not always fun to read, maybe, but the language is rich and compelling, building to the operatic, inevitable conclusion.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,482 followers
December 28, 2020
The truth is that most of the best books aren't part of any movement at all. Most of them don't need to be; they're just trying to tell you a story.

But when you talk about the story of literature, you end up inventing chapters - realism, modernism, gothics - because that helps you organize it. You give examples in each chapter, and so books that can be categorized into these movements end up over-represented in the story. And here we are with Under the Volcano which is not a very important book, nor as good a read as, say, The Street by Ann Petry, but which nonetheless keeps making it onto syllabi because it's Extremely Modernist. Mostly it's an attempt to relocate Ulysses to Mexico and drown it in mezcal.

Which is not to say that any book belonging to a recognizable movement is bad! That would be a silly thing to say. Woolf is great. Even Ulysses is great, although it suffers from sortof a Pulp Fiction problem: it was so innovative and powerful that it spawned a legion of doppelgangers, most of which are unnecessary, like Under the Volcano. It's not Ulysses' fault but you sortof blame it anyway.

Anyway Malcolm Lowry is certainly shitfaced on modernism here. Switching perspectives like a drunk guy switching excuses for his limp dick. Making sure that you'll start each paragraph thinking, "Wait, what?" I can explain the plot though, don't worry. So can Lowry, actually, here's his explanation: it's "A kind of opera - or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, and so forth." The shit-averse Michael Schmidt, in his introduction, correctly interprets this: "Fortunately," he says, "In the teeth of such nonsense, it can be regarded as a novel." Well, barely.

Malcolm Lowry doing his thing

Here's what happens, with minor spoilers: Geoffrey Firmin is a minor diplomat in Mexico whose wife Yvonne has left him because he drinks too much. She comes back for one last try on the Day of the Dead but he ignores her to drink all day. She’s fucked every man in this story (huh!) and she ends up hanging out with his brother Hugh all day, whom she’s fucked. Perspectives shift between them and the chapters each correspond to an hour of the day. The landscape is hellish; we pass by dead dogs, a dead tortoise, a bald boy swinging madly in a hammock. At the end, major

Day of the Dead

Well, thank God we've finally heard from an alcoholic old white guy, right? I mean, talk about your underrepresented demographics! If it weren't for Malcolm Lowry and Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and Martin Amis and Thomas de Quincey and John Updike we might never know what it's like to be an old alcoholic white guy.

But a funny thing happens as you stagger after these particular losers all day: Lowry manages to trip over a couple of honest-to-God moments. Geoffrey stumbles onto a Ferris wheel, empty except for him, which promptly flips him upside down. All his shit falls out of his pockets. Later Hugh tells a story about running off to sea, and being disappointed to find that the food's not bad and sailors are nice. These things are funny. And that ending in the spoiler tags, it achieves a tilted sort of beauty. The book's got a little something going on.

But it's hard to get it up, I have to admit, for yet another modernist book about a drunk white guy. It's hard to imagine who I would be excited to loan this to, aside from alcoholics. It is maybe the most resolutely alcoholic book I've ever read, which is saying something. But I don't drink much these days.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
901 reviews136 followers
October 4, 2022
Day of the Dead

Este libro era muy dificil.

I heard about this book when my friend Julie and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico back in the mid-80s. We had met a young man named Michael while there, and he showed us around Oaxaca and even took us to meet a Zapotec family in nearby Lacalulu.

It was All Soul's Day, and the women in the family were making tamales. Julie and I tried to stir the dough that was in a large caldron. She made it once around, and I could hardly move the spoon though the thick tamale dough. The women laughed and must have thought that American women were very weak. Maybe we all are.

After the tamales were cooked we began eating them. Delicioso. Michael had told us earlier that it was very insulting to refuse food or drink from an Indian family. I don't know how many tamales I had before it dawned on me that if I ate real slow I would be saved from eating another one. It worked.

Next, we were outside on a patio and were being served mescal. I don't drink, and I can't handle alcohol because it all gives me a headache immediately or just makes me sick when drinking it. I drank my first one, yuck. The next one I poured into a flower pot, and the flower wilted and died right in front of me. I was offered another, and so I had to say, "No es bueno para mi." It worked. Their feelings were not hurt.

Then we drove to another town to its cemetery and sat on the cement border of a grave while eating more tamales. The cemetery was filled with families, food, and lit candles. A priest was walking around taking up money from the families and offering prayers. And that was my introduction to All Soul's Day. How much I wished that we had come to Oaxaca earlier during Dias de los Muertos, a similar holiday, but then I would have missed meeting this family and sharing All Soul's Day with them.

Michael also told us about the movie, "Under the Volcano," saying that it was filmed in Mexico, it was also a book, and the author used to live in Oaxaca. The movie took place during Dias de los Muertos. What a lovely holiday, I thought. And after telling us about the bar that Lowry frequented, we had to find it and take a photo. No, we did not go inside, and being that it was during the day when we were in this run down section of town, we were safe.

When we returned to the U.S, I saw the movie and loved it. "Such a depressing movie," a friend said. "No," I replied, "It was marvelous, the scenery was wonderful, and the story was captivating." I don't know what I really said outside of not thinking that it was depressing, but I like what I said just now.

Anyway, the book was about 12 hours in the life of the Consul, a man who was an alcoholic. Albert Finney played him in the movie, and Jacqueline Bisset played his estranged wife. Finney, by the way, was nominated as best actor for his part in the film. As for Basset, I loved her clothes.

I own the movie and have probably watched it four times. I tried to read the book back in 1985, but the large vocabulary that Lowry used made it too difficult to read. I tried to read it again a couple of years ago, and even with the dictionary, some of the sentences didn't make sense. I put it down again. I swore this time I would read it even if I didn't understand it. After all, I almost know the story by heart.

What I learned recently is that it is part auto-biographical. Malcolm Lowry was that alcoholic, and his real wife,Yvonne, was the woman in the book. Then I learned that Lowry was kicked out of Mexico, and I am very curious as to why. I started to read his wife's autobiography, but when she said that he was abusive, I didn't care to have the book spoil the story. It was obvious anyway, but I hate reading about dysfunctional families.

As I said, it was the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the Consul spends those next 12 hours of his life looking for one more drink. His estranged wife has come back to him, after being away for a year, and hopes to make the marriage work. His half-brother has also returned, and it is obvious that he had once had an affair with Yvonne, but in spite of this, they all spend 12 hours of the Consul's life together.

First, Lowry is looking for alcohol in his garden. Then the book becomes obscure for a while. It finally picks up a long thread of coherency when they ALL take a bus ride. During this ride, the bus driver stops when they all see man lying down on the side of the road. Next, the passengers are getting off the bus in order to view the dying or dead man, I can't figure out which, but this part of the book is important to the remainder of the story. Then they go to a bull throwing, and finally, after leaving the bull throwing, the Consul disappears. His wife and half brother end up going from bar to bar looking for him, and then the story ends in tragedy.

This book vacillated between being extremely boring due to his stream of consciousness ramblings and his alcoholic hallucinations, to being beautifully written but extremely depressing. I imagine that Lowry wrote best when he was lamenting over this ex-wife. What a tortured man.

As a result, I hated picking this book up every day. I asked myself, "Why is it is classic, a masterpiece?" "Why are their so many five star reviews? Tal vez, los que le dio cinco estrellas eran intelectuales, y yo no soy uno de ellos. Además, yo no entiendo algunas de sus palabras en Inglés y Español, y yo no quiero aprender.

John Huston directed the film, and I feel that it was he who created the masterpiece, not Lowry. John Huston did something marvelous: He took out the boring parts of the book and left the exciting moments. And being filmed in Mexico, well, me gusta Mexico y deseo vivir alli, pero no como en este pelicula.

Here are what I think are some of Lowry's deep, moving words:

In a letter to Yvonne that was never mailed I offer three paragraphs:

"I like to take my sorrow into the shadow of old monasteries, my guilt into cloisters and under tapestries, and into the misericordes of unimaginable cantinas."

"I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying. I wonder if it is because tonight my soul has really died that I feel at the moment something like peace."

"If I am to survive I need your help. Otherwise, sooner or later, I shall fall. Ah, if only you had given me something in memory to hate you for so finally no kind thought of you would ever touch me in this terrible place where I am. "

And then a few that I had missed but found online:

“How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?”

“Adiós," she added in Spanish, "I have no house only a shadow. But whenever you are in need of a shadow, my shadow is yours."

"Nothing is altered and in spite of God's mercy I am still alone. Though my suffering seems senseless I am still in agony. There is no explanation of my life."

Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
May 4, 2017

Labyrinth of streets, wild, lush tropical vegetation impudently encroaching everywhere, seizing the garden and the residence of Consul; volcanoes majestically tower over the city hiding every moment in the clouds, humidity and heat suffocating everything around. Atmosphere of unspecified horror lurking in the alleys, misery hanging in the air like a premonition of impending storm. Mexico, fiesta Day of the Death, 1938. And though we know the time and place of action, in dialogues and flashbacks with Consul, Hugh and Yvonne, we wander around the world, traversing countries and cultures, their history, myths and poetry.

The city spread out at the foot of two volcanoes, streets and buildings remembering better times, not only the Consul's but much earlier, the Spanish' explorers. The city with ruins of Maximilian’s Palace, where yet still seem to wander the ghosts of his ill-fated love for Carlotta. Narrow and winding streets that Consul, stupefied in scorching heat, like in somnambulistic transe, alternately drunk, sober and hung-over, traverses from cantina to cantina, chased by demons and hallucinations.

The narration is jerky and chaotic, full of complaints, remorse, memories, monologues. Words are flowing and flowing ...

One can read Under the Volcano as a record of extreme alcoholism, self-destruction, as a human one way journey. As a record of a one day, the last one in fact from Consul Geoffrey Firmin’s life, the day in which Consul reached the end of the line, marked gradual plunge into darkness, alcohol, exploration of ... absolute ?

But it is also a story of love Consul and Yvonne, their separation and her return on fiesta day. Her desperate attempt to save Consul from himself and stick that what is irrevocably broken. How one can help other man, contrary to him ? Is it really possible such a thing, to save anyone ?

But one can look at the novel as an allegory of the fall. Of a man, but also the world and civilization. Not only by invoking the ruins of Maximilian's Palace and statues of ancient conquistadors on the squares of the city or devastated garden, like a parody of paradise from which lovers were exiled. But also by reference to the time of action. November 1938, there is not much time left when world will plunge into madness of war.

Images that Lowry creates are painfully suggestive so that in the end we seem to lose orientation, we wonder if it is still Mexico whether delirium, is it heat or maybe hangover.

Author 3 books10 followers
June 29, 2007
This seemed so promising (self-destruction! love triangles! Mexico!), but after about 150 pages I couldn't hack it. Certainly the most committed stream-of-consciousness study of alcoholism I've ever failed at reading, but in the end I just decided to not become an alcoholic and stopped reading.
Profile Image for Annetius.
320 reviews91 followers
May 17, 2021
Το Κάτω από το Ηφαίστειο διαβάστηκε παρέα με ανθρώπους από διάφορες γωνιές της γης, σε συνανάγνωση και ήταν μια από τις πιο ενδιαφέρουσες καλειδοσκοπικές αναγνωστικές εμπειρίες που είχα γενικώς.
Κάθε τι που ειπώθηκε και σχολιάστηκε συνέδραμε στο να φωτιστούν πολλές από τις πάρα πολλές πτυχώσεις του έργου που εντάχθηκε όχι αναίτια σε ένα από τα αγαπημένα μου. Η θλίψη είναι το όχημα που επιβιβάστηκα. Το ντύσαμε με πολλή μουσική κι αυτό ήταν κάπως σαν αναπόφευκτο. Προσωπικά, οι μουσικοί συνειρμοί που έκανα με το βιβλίο ήταν χωρίς τελειωμό και σχεδόν απαραίτητοι, το αλκοόλ σχεδόν επιβεβλημένο.

Υπάρχει ένα αδιόρατο νήμα μέσα στο βιβλίο που ενώνει την ιστορία του κόσμου, κάπου σε έναν πυρήνα, ριζώνεται βαθιά μέσα στη γη.

Είναι ένα βιβλίο όπου ο ενθουσιασμός μου ερχόταν κατά κύματα, ένα βιβλίο που μέσα στην ευτυχή συγκυρία να καταφέρνω να το διαβάζω πάντα συγκεντρωμένη, μου άρεσε σε όλο του το μάκρος, δεν χρειάστηκε να φτάσω στα τελευταία κεφάλαια για να δω την αξία του, τα αστέρια του, τη δύναμή του.
Υπάρχουν κάποιοι σημαδεμένοι σ’ αυτή τη γη, κάποιοι που κουβαλούν την κατάρα μιας μοναδικότητας, που φυλούν τη μοναξιά τους και την ακεραιότητά τους σαν μαργαριτάρι μέσα στο κοχύλι της καρδιάς τους. Και βιώνουν την πτώση τους μοναχικά, συνειδητά, παρέα με την καταραμένη φύση τους. Ένας από αυτούς ο Πρόξενος, καταχωρημένη πια περσόνα στον προσωπικό λογοτεχνικό μου κουμπαρά με τους ιδιαίτερους χαρακτήρες, όλοι με τα πάθη και τις αδυναμίες τους, όλοι με την τρωτότητά τους, όλοι ψεγαδιασμένοι και απολύτως φτιαγμένοι από ανθρώπινη, πολύ ανθρώπινη πάστα.

Ο Λόουρι μέσα σε δέκα χρόνια, έγραψε αυτό το βιβλίο που ζωντανός του χρόνος είναι μία και μοναδική μέρα, η μέρα των Νεκρών στο Μεξικό. Η τοποθεσία είναι μεν το Μεξικό αλλά όχι μόνο.

Οι 380 σελίδες ήταν σχεδόν νωπές από το αλκοόλ και ως αναγνώστρια σχεδόν ζαλιζόμουν από τις νοερές αναθυμιάσεις, απαραίτητη προϋπόθεση για να ακολουθή��ω την κατάβαση του πρωταγωνιστή κάτω από το ηφαίστειο. Εκεί που η λάβα κοχλάζει δυναμικά, εκεί που γίνονται όλες οι ζυμώσεις του νου μέχρι να καταφέρουν να ξεπεταχτούν, να ελευθερωθούν, και που το υγρό πυρ των αισθήσεων δίνει τη χαριστική βολή.
Αμέτρητοι συμβολισμοί και οιωνοί, προβολείς πάνω στη θλιβερή και πονεμένη ιστορία του Μεξικού, χαμηλός σταδιακός φωτισμός στα πρόσωπα της ιστορίας από το παρόν στο παρελθόν τους.
Μια τραγωδία σε 12 πράξεις, με χορό τον μεξικανικό λαό, μεγάλο πρωταγωνιστή τον Πρόξενο και συν-τελεστές την Υβόν, τον Χιού, τον κ. Λαρυέλ και μερικούς ακόμα.
Και η μουσική υπόκρουση ερχόταν από μόνη της, αβίαστα… Nick Cave, Joan Baez, Django Reinhardt, Τρύπες, Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison… Μόνο ποίηση μπορούσε να συνοδέψει την ποίηση του βιβλίου.

Μεθυστικό βιβλίο, βαθύ, πολύπλοκο, δύστροπο, λαβυρινθώδες, ένα ταξίδι μιας μέρας αλλά και πολλών ζωών μαζί. Εκεί που οι ζωντανοί συναπαντιούνται με τους νεκρούς σε ένα αέναο αλισβερίσι μέσα στον γραμμικό χρόνο.

Το Κάτω από το ηφαίστειο ήταν επίσης ένα εικονογραφημένο βιβλίο• τόσες ήταν οι εικόνες που έπαιζαν στα μάτια μου, κάθε σκηνή ήταν σαν να τη βλέπω, αναπαρήγαγα αυτόματα θαρρείς αυτό που διάβαζα σε μια φωτογραφία έτσι που θα μπορούσα να φτιάξω πολλά καρρέ, μια εικονική πραγματικότητα σαν κάπως να έζησα μέσα στην εμπειρία. Επίσης ήταν και ένα ταξίδι• ένα ταξίδι από μέρος σε μέρος, από χώρα σε χώρα, από τεκιλερία σε πουλκερία με φοβερά ευφάνταστα ονόματα ("Όλοι ευχαριστημένοι κι εγώ μαζί", ορίστε ένα παράδειγμα!), ένα ταξίδι που φέρει το βάρος της ιστορίας. Μα κυρίως ήταν μια κάθοδος προς τα συνειδησιακά άδυτα, μια πτώση προς την άβυσσο σε ένα υπαρξιακό φόντο.

Πολλές ιδέες ωριμάζουν είτε γεννιούνται αν τις «κοιμηθείς», αν αφήσεις το χρόνο να κατακάτσει και ασυνείδητα να κάνει τις απαραίτητες επεξεργασίες. Έτσι έγινε και με το ηφαίστειο. Διαβάζοντάς το σε συγκεκριμένες δόσεις εξαιτίας της συνανάγνωσης που υπαγορεύει το αργό, σταδιακό διάβασμα, σε έκταση μερικών βδομάδων, το «κοιμήθηκα» πολλές νύχτες και αυτό ήταν πιστεύω που έπαιξε ρόλο σημαντικό ώστε να μπω ακόμα περισσότερο στο κλίμα του βιβλίου και να γεννήσει τα τόσα συναισθήματα που γέννησε. Μου απασχολούσε το μυαλό όσο το διάβαζα, μου το απασχολούσε και τις ώρες που δεν το διάβαζα. Κι έτσι, έγινε η φανταστική συνοδεία μου.

Πολυδιάστατο βιβλίο, από αυτά που όσο σε παιδεύουν, άλλο τόσο τ’ αγαπάς.

Κεραστείτε ένα μεσκαλίτο για το δρόμο, παρακαλώ. Αν και χρειάζοντ��ι πολλά, πάρα πολλά για τον δρόμο που οδηγεί κάτω από το ηφαίστειο.

* Να αναφέρω ότι η έκδοση της Αστάρτης, παρότι άχαρη και αποτρεπτικά πυκνογραμμένη, είναι τελικά μια καλή έκδοση και θεωρώ πως η μετάφραση της Λώμη, πλην μερικών πταισμάτων, αποδίδει σωστά το έργο του Λόουρι, χωρίς παράπλευρες απώλειες.
Profile Image for Tara.
433 reviews19 followers
January 11, 2018
Under the Volcano tells the indelibly haunting tale of Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul living in Mexico in 1938, assiduously drowning himself in alcohol. Like much of the desolate landscape, he is at times “so reconciled to [his] own ruin no sadness touches [him].” Make no mistake, this is a landscape crackling with danger and despondency: vivid, intractable, monstrous, divine. You find yourself gradually submerged in it. You’re flattened by the oppressive heat, wearied and worn down by too much drinking, too much thinking, and ultimately beset by . And always, you discern the plaintive yet resigned cry of “it’s too late.” The book is permeated with a nearly unbearable atmosphere of anguish, sunk in lassitude and futility. It stifles you under dark, heavy clouds and thick, heavy air; you feel the full weight of the Consul’s sorrow, hopelessness and dread. You experience, understand, and finally forgive .

I’m including a few quotes below, though in order to fathom Lowry’s virtuosity, you really need to read the book in its entirety. Sentences and paragraphs, mere fragments, simply cannot do it justice. Still, I can’t help sharing some of the more compelling excerpts just the same:
“A little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

“Far too soon it had begun to seem too much of a triumph, it had been too good, too horribly unimaginable to lose, impossible finally to bear: it was as if it had become itself its own foreboding that it could not last[…]”

“What is it Goethe says about the horse?” he said. “‘Weary of liberty he suffered himself to be saddled and bridled, and was ridden to death for his pains.’”

“This was what she too was seeking, and had been all the time, in the face of everything, for some faith—as if one could find it like a new hat or a house for rent!”

“Life had no time to waste. Why, then, should it waste so much of everything else?”

“[…]he had assumed the blue expression peculiar to a certain type of drunkard, tepid with two drinks grudgingly on credit, gazing out of an empty saloon, an expression that pretends he hopes help, any kind of help, may be on its way, friends, any kind of friends coming to rescue him. For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar. Yet he really wants none of these things. Abandoned by his friends, as they by him, he knows that nothing but the crushing look of a creditor lives round that corner. Neither has he fortified himself sufficiently to borrow more money, nor obtain more credit; nor does he like the liquor next door anyway. Why am I here, says the silence, what have I done, echoes the emptiness, why have I ruined myself in this wilful manner[…]”

“He laughed once more, feeling a strange release, almost a sense of attainment. His mind was clear. Physically he seemed better too. It was as if, out of an ultimate contamination he had derived strength. He felt free to devour what remained of his life in peace. At the same time a certain gruesome gaiety was creeping into this mood, and, in an extraordinary way, a certain light-headed mischievousness. He was aware of a desire at once for complete glutted oblivion and for an innocent youthful fling. ‘Alas,’ a voice seemed to be saying also in his ear, ‘my poor little child, you do not feel any of these things really, only lost, only homeless.’”

I suppose that, in the end, what fascinated me the most was the book’s relentless portrayal of self-destruction. It flawlessly depicts the ravenous downward spiral, so impossible to break out of, that feeds itself only by devouring itself. Quod me nutrit me destruit. The book captures not only self-destruction’s inherent guilt, shame and regret, but also the irresistible attraction, that seductive pull, which it can have. It is an itch in the back of your mind, one that whispers for you to walk right up to the edge and lean over. It then proceeds to tantalize and torment you with the heady urge to just let yourself fall, to keep on falling. The Consul understands this: “For all you know it’s only the knowledge that it most certainly is too late that keeps me alive at all…” Yes. And: “[The Consul] could prevent it even now. He would not prevent it.” He knew its terrible appeal all too well. For he grappled desperately with these two mutually exclusive needs: the need to stop himself from falling, and, equally powerful, the need to let himself go. Perhaps it is that very contradiction, that excruciating inner struggle, which finally succeeds in tearing so many apart.

The posters plastered on every street corner say it all, of course:

Profile Image for The Dazzling Stranger.
121 reviews185 followers
January 11, 2018
Under The Volcano.
I thought The Tunnel was the most exquisitely drawn book title. But no. Under The Volcano. A fiercely poetic title. Terse in form and rich in mythic imagery.

Under: Beneath and covered by. Below the surface of. At a point or position lower or further down than. In the position or state of bearing, supporting, sustaining, enduring, etc….

This is an incredible book. I'm experiencing an incredible run of great reads and discovering writers who I want to read more of but Malcom Lowry's book stands out as the most memorable - its imagery and symbolism are imprinted in my mind.

It made an impression early on. As the first chapter draws to a close; as the initial strokes of scene setting are made, with our drunken protagonist Geoffrey Firmin, staggering through the Mexican streets, past colourful characters, all preparing for the Day of The Dead ceremonies, the closing passage descends down into a insular character observation, beautifully poetic in its foreshadowing:

…set the writhing mass in an ashtray, where beautifully conforming it folded upon itself, a burning castle, collapsed, subsided to a ticking hive through which sparks like tiny red worms crawled and flew, while above a few grey wisps of ashes floated in the thin smoke, a dead husk now, faintly crepitant…
Suddenly from outside, a bell spoke out, then ceased abruptly...
Over the town, in the dark tempestuous night, backwards revolved the luminous wheel

Lowry embeds motifs and symbolism throughout the fine prose incorporating, philosophy, religious symbolism, literary references; tragedy and mysticsm to dramatic effect. The book's title is an example of the fine use of metaphor. I have recently read William H. Gass's essay collection Life Sentences and the chapter on metaphor certainly primed me for this novel. Feels the perfect novel to have read in succession, in fact.

And there were moments I felt I was reading a Gass novel. Personally I see many similarities in tone between Under The Volcano and Gass's debut novel, Omensetter's Luck. There's a feverish zeal in the layering of emotion and psychological drama as our protagonist journeys through the story's increasing intensity, which erupts in the epic closing scene.

I'm under it's intoxicating wiles.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,585 reviews2,805 followers
April 9, 2019
Lowry's exploration of alcoholism is so haunting because the book's protagonist, the enigmatic consul Geoffrey Firmin, manages to convey the sources of his depression in a way that makes the descent into a mescal-filled stupor seem like the only reasonable reaction to the world's impositions. Set in Quauhnahuac, a fictional Mexican town overshadowed by two volcanoes (Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuat), on the Day of the Dead in 1938, we accompany the British consul on the last day of his life which he spends with his estranged wife Yvonne, his half-brother Hugh, and his childhood friend Jacques. Lowry paints a panorama of four lives, and he finds an astonishing poetic approach to reflect the twisted, non-linear perception and the sensual delusions of an alcoholic - this book's language is disorienting, scary, and outright fascinating.

Compared to, let's say: Burroughs, who also mirrored addiction in his texts, Lowry's writing is beautiful in a more traditional sense, but without glossing over the consul's decline, which remains terrifying. In this novel, even the horse of the apocalypse has lost its way, because its rider was left to die at the side of the street. At the time, the relation between Mexico and Britain was stalled (which is why the consul has nothing to do), and the Brits we encounter in Mexico are all experiencing their own personal crises. Lowry puts an emphasis on traditions like bullfighting and cockfighting and mirrors them with human brutality, while also diving into mythical beliefs and the spirituality of the Day of the Dead, which he connects to alcohol-induced visions and perceptions - this is a truly unsettling read.

Unfortunately, the story is informed by the author's own life, he also drank excessively and once travelled to Mexico on the Day of the Dead in order to save his marriage - to no avail. Lowry died in 1955, the causes of death stated as "inhalation of stomach contents, barbiturate poisoning, and excessive consumption of alcohol." His masterpiece "Under the Volcano" remains an intense, haunting experience full of existential dread and poetic force.
Profile Image for Chavelli Sulikowska.
226 reviews218 followers
March 27, 2020
Dizzyingly terrifying. A descent into fear. The very title, Under the Volcano, is both foreboding and indicative of the darkness that is to pass.

Lowrey’s modernist masterpiece is set in Mexico on day of the dead in the late 1930s. Taking place over a single day, it recounts the demise of Geoffrey, a lonely alcoholic ex-British consul, his estranged wife Yvonne and his half brother Hugh and the inter-tangled emotional mess that at once binds and separates them from each other.

This novel is immensely dense and complex. It really requires two or more readings, Lowrey himself admitted that several readings were recommended for its full meaning to “explode in the mind…” I concur with that. Reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that horrific journey through the Congo, Under the Volcano similarly utilises the disorienting and depressive atmosphere of the jungle – the perfect backdrop of the circulation of superstition, paranoia and madness, to render his bleak literary canvas.

His writing is subliminal – language that is literally clammy with fear and foreboding. I could practically feel the humidity and stifling air. The lushness of the jungle positively heaves with an all consuming terror. It has a life of its own. The plot is tangled, jumping back and forth and across characters (one of whom, the Consul, is inebriated for basically all 453 pages which presents it’s own challenges), and the stream of consciousness style and density of prose is testing but ultimately perfectly rendered.

Most clever is how the Consul’s intoxication is cleverly juxtaposed against the oppressive surrounding environment. The overbearing vegetation, the inclement poverty and suspicions of the locals, the subjugation of the Indians, the senseless violence and the poison of corruption in Mexico at this time is ever present and reinforced by the way in which Lowrey allows the plot to creep ominously, growing darker and darker, quickening in pace.

There are staggeringly erudite sections of writing, that then quickly descend into a thick jungle of wordiness and confused meaning and require a complete re-reading of the entire paragraph. Even then, I’m not sure there is any certainty that the reader has fully grasped the meaning of what has just happened. This is accentuated by Lowrey’s frequent use of symbolism and metaphor – the novel is veritably teeming with latent meanings, most non-definitive and open to a multiplicity of interpretations. A stand out example is at the bull fight, when Hugh leaps on the struggling beast and takes him down. Later, the old bull serves as an effective metaphor for the Consul, his fraught relationship with his brother, and his failing grip on reality and indeed his life.

This novel is dense! It is at once deeply personal and introspective, political and philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual. Most evidently through the ever present awareness of the two looming volcanoes in the background, ‘precipitous, seemed to have drawn nearer, they towered up over the jungle, into the lowering sky – massive interests moving up in the background….” It is tragic, but also comedic. In fact, the witty and humorous elements cannot be understated – such as “how’s the mescal? …. Like ten yards of barbed wire” …though of course, the Consul cannot exist but in a state of perpetual inebriation. Sobriety is both a foreign and fearful sensation he cannot make sense of. Booze, namely mescal, is both his reality and his first love really, and he is incapable of giving up his addiction even for the love of his wife, the sake of his marriage, and in the end, his own life.

Perhaps the most profound theme here is the sense of giving up, for “what is a lost soul? It is one that has turned from its true path and is groping in the darkness of remembered ways…”, and also the impossibility of escaping oneself, as in the word’s of the Consul, “I love hell. I can’t wait to get there. In fact I am running to get back. I’m almost back there already…”
Profile Image for Nickolas the Kid.
313 reviews70 followers
June 28, 2020
Μόλις αναμετρήθηκα με ένα βιβλίο, το οποίο ειλικρινά αποτελεί πρόκληση για κάθε αναγνώστη που αγαπάει την καλή και απαιτητική λογοτεχνία.
Το "Κάτω από το Ηφαίστειο" δεν είναι απλά ένα βιβλίο. Είναι ένα δαιδαλώδες δημιούργημα ενός αυτοκαταστροφικού αλκοολικού συγγραφέα που μας ταξιδεύει μέσα μόνο σε μια μέρα στον κόσμο του παραλόγου, των ψευδαισθήσεων και της υπερβολής. Ο Λόουρυ δημιουργεί το alter ego του, τον Πρόξενο Τζόφρι Φερμιν και μαζί του δεν μας αφήνει να αναπνεύσουμε ακόμα από τις πρώτες σελίδες του βιβλίου. Οι συμβολισμοί αμέτρητοι, τα τοπωνύμια πολλά μέσα σε μια πυκνή γραφή η οποία όμως δεν μπουκώνει σε κανένα σημείο, αντιθέτως κάνει το κείμενο απαιτητικό και πολύ ελκυστικό.
Μαζί με τον Πρόξενο εμφανίζονται διάφοροι χαρακτήρες με βασικούς αυτούς της αγαπημένης του Υβόν και του ετεροθαλή αδελφού του Χιού. Όλοι οι χαρακτήρες του βιβλίου είναι περίεργοι αλλά αριστοτεχνικά δομημένοι. Ο καθένας παίζει κάποιο σημαντικό ρόλο που δεν το αντιλαμβανόμαστε αμέσως. Ακόμα και κάποιοι που εκ πρώτης όψεως φαίνεται πως είναι αδιάφοροι εμφανίζονται ως κλειδιά στην κατανό��ση του κειμένου.
Για να ξεκλειδώσουν όμως όλα τα μυστικά του βιβλίου χρειάζεται υπομονή. Όσοι το αντιμετώπισαν επιδερμικά ήταν λογικό να το προσπεράσουν σε αντίθεση με αυτούς τους υπομονετικούς αναγνώστες που μπόρεσαν ακολουθήσουν τον Πρόξενο στην προσωπική του κόλαση - όμοια με του Δάντη - και αποζημιώθηκαν με τον καλύτερο τρόπο. Την επίγευση δηλαδή που αφήνουν τα αριστουργήματα στα πεινασμένα χείλη αυτών που βλέπουν την ανάγνωση ως μυσταγωγία.
Το βιβλίο επιδέχεται πολλών ερμηνειών. Μπορεί να αποτελέσει έμπνευση για καινούργιες δημιουργίες αλλά και δοκιμιακές αναλύσεις. Έτσι είναι τα αριστουργήματα. Πολυεπίπεδα και απαιτητικά.
Μήπως είναι μια ωδή στην αγάπη; Μήπως ένα πολιτικό μανιφέστο; Μήπως μια μαγική αλληγορία με πολλαπλά επίπεδα ή μήπως εν τέλει το παραλήρημα ενός αλκοολικού; Ίσως να είναι όλα αυτά μαζί ίσως κι όχι. Για να το αντιληφθεί κάποιος θα πρέπει να χαθεί στις σελίδες του και ίσως παραπάνω από μια φορά!
Τέλος οι επιρροές του Λόουρυ είναι πάρα πολλές. Από την κλασική λογοτεχνία μέχρι τον κινηματογράφο και τους αστικούς μύθους. Έτσι το τελικό αποτέλεσμα έχει κάτι το "Τζουσικό" με τον Πρόξενο φαντάζομαι να παίρνει την θέση του Λεοπόλδου Μπλούμ σε μια προσωπική Οδύσσεια. Μη έχοντας διαβάσει βέβαια το βιβλίο του Τζόυς παρά μόνο μέρη του διάσπαρτα δεν είμαι σίγουρος για το συμπέρασμα αυτό, απλά φαντάζομαι πως και το δημιούργημα του Ιρλανδού είναι φτιαγμένο από την ίδια συνταγή. Αυτή των αριστουργημάτων παγκόσμιας εμβέλειας....

ΥΓ1: Για την μετάφραση τα είπαν άλλοι, αλλά ας πω κι εγώ το παραπονό μου. Κάκιστη... Ευτυχώς είχα δίπλα το αγγλικό κείμενο που με βοηθούσε συχνά πυκνά. Ελπίζω κάποτε ο Κυριακίδης να το μεταφράσει από την αρχή και να δώσει στο βιβλίο μια νέα ώθηση.
ΥΓ2: Η έκδοση των εκδόσεων "ΑΣΤΑΡΤΗ" ήταν επιεικώς απαράδεκτη...
ΥΓ3: Το βιβλίο διαβάστηκε με πολύ αλκοόλ, μουσική και φανταστική παρέα
Profile Image for Paul.
1,216 reviews1,962 followers
April 18, 2014
This is an influential book; Bolano opens The Savage Detectives with an epigraph from it. Under the Volcano isn’t just a book about a drunk and a record of his drunken ramblings. Our protagonist, the British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin is not a classic hero in the Hemingway mould; craggy and square-jawed. Nor is he drowning his sorrows. His primary relationship is not with Yvonne, his estranged wife, but with alcohol.
There are oceans of allusions and references here; the book is packed with them. The Faust myth was there in abundance with references to Goethe and Marlowe. The fall from grace myth also takes us to Paradise Lost. Dante’s Inferno is the backdrop to some of the more hellish descriptions. However the allusions that interest me relate to John Bunyan, I was brought up with Bunyan; “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners” has an epigraph and it has been pointed out that Under the Volcano is a sort of Pilgrims Progress in reverse; although there is a redemptive theme. There are equivalent companions related to those who journeyed with Pilgrim at various points. That’s a line I would like to consider if I re-read; particularly the feeling of being enmeshed/tangled.
The numbers are also important; the novel takes place on the Day of the Dead one year apart; there are 12 chapters; signifying 12 hours and 12 months. Books have been written about all this and many academic essays produced.
It seemed to me that disintegration was one of the underlying themes; the world is beginning to disintegrate. It is 1938 and the world is almost at war. The alcoholic disintegration is also well written; Lowry had some experience of this! Alcoholics who drink long enough and hard enough develop a type of dementia (known as Korsakoff’s syndrome) and some of Firmin’s experiences feel a little like this and his conversation reminds me a little of people I meet with this condition (in structure rather than content). There are also contradictions here; redemption and loss, ascent and descent, identity and annihilation; I could go on. The atmosphere and heat you can cut and it exudes noir film of the 30s and 40s.
If I live long enough to read this again I think I will read it with Bunyan to pick up more of the crossovers.
Profile Image for FotisK.
366 reviews167 followers
June 19, 2018
Η Πτώση ενέχει πάντα τραγική διάσταση, όταν αποτελεί πράξη προαναγγελθείσα και αδήριτη. Ο ήρωας του "Κάτω από το Ηφαίστειο" εγκλωβίζεται στη σπείρα του αφανισμού, αναζητώντας τη λύτρωση στη λήθη του ποτού και της ανυπαρξίας. Καμία παρηγοριά στα ανθρώπινα, στην αγάπη, στους εορτασμούς της Ημέρας των Νεκρών που αποτελεί το σκηνικό της Πτώσης.
Παραληρηματική γραφή ενίοτε, βουτηγμένη στις αναθυμιάσεις του αλκοόλ και μια ηδονική σκιαγράφηση του κενού που καλεί ανέλπιδα εκείνους -τους διαλεχτούς της θλίψης-που έθρεψαν τους δαίμονές τους με τις προσδοκίες και τις διαψεύσεις τους.
Profile Image for Evan.
1,071 reviews752 followers
June 12, 2016
Ah, Malcolm Lowry, you were a batshit crazy drunken nut of a novelist at the right time to be so: the mid-20th century -- a time of Jackson Pollock and atonal music and cut-up literary narrative and horrible black box skyscrapers; a time of an artistic aesthetic that, thank God, is dead -- and your obsessively overdescriptive novel in which even the non-drunk characters spout non-sequiturs showed your critically fashionable Joycean penchant for the stream of conscious and ample obscurantist references that send English majors into raptures that are usually followed by unfortunate attempts at symbolic analysis that make even less sense than the novel they are analyzing.

This is not at all to say that Under the Volcano doesn't make sense; it actually does, very much. I found the stream of consciousness, the time shifting, the changing centers of interest, the flashbacks, the internal character monologues and the like all very easy to follow, even if I wasn't always sure what the hell they were entirely talking about. I'm not entirely convinced that Lowry did either. I was mostly very convinced that, for most of the way, I didn't much care.

Under the Volcano had its first iteration as a short story, which might be informative to read in light of the absurdly fulsome, interminable descriptions of flora and fauna that Lowry has added to pad it out to novel length. Sometimes the descriptions served a symbolic purpose -- as in the glowering, menacing, foreshadowing presence of the volcanoes dominating the setting -- but just as often I simply found them to be examples of Lowry showing off his descriptive chops to no good purpose other than to do just that. He played chicken with this reader's patience, and this reader conceded to him and skimmed through a whole lot of flora and fauna. On one end of the spectrum we have Hemingway, who described places a bit too sparely for my taste, and at the other end we have Lowry, who has writerly OCD in telling us so much about the setting that I never could grasp or visualize it. After contending with this for a number of pages I finally decided once and for all what the town and the surrounding environs looked like and settled for that in my mind and ignored the rest of Lowry's embellishments. Somewhere between Hemingway and Lowry there is a happy medium.

In Lowry's lush vegetal Mexican hell symbolic portents of tragedy are dolloped out to give the English majors plenty to write about as horses get loose, charging and frightening the innocent and disappearing into the night, dead dogs ooze life, scorpions sting themselves to death, lazy bulls drunk with happiness like Ferdinand are wrangled, made confused and goaded into rebelliousness and complacency, and a caged eagle is set free as an ineffectual gesture by the powerless Yvonne, the clingy enabling romantic interest of the alcoholic protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin. The symbolism all refers back to him and his self-fulfilling prophecy of personal doom.

The partisans of this book are probably right in calling it one of the great achievements of literature. I can't deny Lowry's herculean patience as a craftsman, his mastery of description, and his artistic integrity in creating a unique novel that is unlike any other. Despite the grotesqueries and disturbing contradictions he reveals about the human condition and Mexico, his story is also imbued with compassion and wonder.

But, whatever the reason, and notwithstanding the tour de force that it may be, I found less to engage my heart in Under the Volcano than I have in other novels about western expatriates in Third World lands written by the likes of Paul Bowles and Graham Greene. I couldn't muster much sympathy for Geoffrey Firmin, the naval war hero/criminal turned diplomat, demoted over time from high to low posts in the British diplomatic corps because of his drinking, or for his hapless girlfriend, Yvonne, or for his globe-trotting leftist twit brother, Hugh. There are many flashbacks in this work that help us (to some degree) understand the characters, but the flashbacks I really wanted, to help me figure out why Yvonne and Geoffrey are so hung up on each other (in which the nature of the couple's past relationship might be clarified and fleshed out) are virtually absent.

Having lived with an alcoholic for too long, I no longer have much patience for them or for people who tolerate their lies and manipulations and self-destructive arrogance. In romanticizing Firman to some degree (understandable, Lowry himself being an alcoholic), particularly in the finale where he is seen as abandoned (rather than, say, as being someone who abandoned everyone else), Lowry tries to turn Firmin into an tragic hero of a sort, and I'm just not buying it.

I was remarking to a good friend this evening about how, as I grow older I find myself caring less about philosophy or agonizing over insoluble existentialist problems that nobody will ever be able to answer or solve anyway, but which always seem to fascinate the young (as they did me when I was discovering these weighty concepts). I think this change of priorities comes with the realization of having fewer years left, fewer years in which one will have a functional dick, for instance. Which all leads me to the following passage from Under the Volcano, which, for me, sums up my own criticism of the book, or, more precisely, why I find it more fun to live than to overthink enigmas or to read books that I do not love:

"But where does it all get you in the end?" The Consul sipped his strychnine that had yet to prove its adequacy as a chaser to the Burke's Irish (now perhaps in the garage at the Bella Vista). "The knowledge, I mean. One of the first penances I ever imposed on myself was to learn the philosophical section of War and Peace by heart. That was of course before I could dodge about in the rigging of the Cabbala like a St. Jago's monkey. But then the other day I realized that the only thing I remembered about the whole book was that Napoleon's leg twitched—"

(kr@Ky 2008, slightly revised in 2016)
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,536 followers
September 19, 2014
I can see why many people love this book as a masterpiece. Now several weeks since I completed it, I still experience some potent emotional resonance over its hollow dance of life and its frustrating ambiguities on the locus of evil and purpose. I still expect to look up from the plane of my existence and see the twin volcanoes of its Oaxaca setting, glorious one moment, lonely or threatening the next. That is a good sign that the book has gotten under my skin and shaken me up. But my personal rating notches down over the denseness of the prose and how it sang for me with such few notes in plot and characters. Luckily, the narrative periodically rendered flights of perception and imagination which lifted me out of the story and gave me the glide to reach the known end of the day. The book jacket blurb lays out the overall trajectory:

It is the Day of Death in Mexico and, stranded in the colorful fiesta gaiety, Geoffrey Firmin—ex-consul, ex-husband, an alcoholic and a ruined man—lives out the last day of his life. Drowning himself in mescal while his former wife and half-brother look on, powerless to help him, the consul has become an enduringly tragic hero and his story—an overwhelming image of one man’s agonized journey towards Calvary—the prophetic book for a whole generation.

The setting is the high plains of Cuernevaca in the fateful year of 1939. Save for the beginning piece where the French movie producer Laurelle introduces the three main characters, we spend almost all of our time with Firmin. Yvonne has recently returned to him after about a year’s absence and a divorce, wondering why she left him and wishing to begin anew. His younger brother Hugh has also arrived for a visit, full of idealism over taking a stand against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War and not yet disillusioned by communism. Over the day, they drink, attend a sort of rodeo, dine, drink, visit a church, take a walk up the mountain, drink some more. Not much happens, but everything that does is portentous. For example, they witness a dying peasant by the roadside who has been severely beaten, possible by the police. Every discussion in the present gathers a net of meanings from their past, from history, from literature. Through the lens of Firmin’s infirm mind, there are so many nuts of meaning to be dug from the shells.

I can see already by tossing out the term “hollow dance”, I am already subconsciously infected with Lowry’s ways (over the head with literary reference or under the radar with metaphor). Firmin’s life seems hollow because his former role as British consul posted to a small city seems pointless. And he professes love for Yvonne, but why can’t he commit to a future with her? Yvonne, whom we are told is a former Hollywood movie actress, is hollow because she is a cipher, essentially unknown to the reader. Hugh, the aspiring writer and reporter, has more depth through revelations of his backstory. He comes off as a fool pretending to be a Conrad or Byron, but he is admirable to me because he still believes he can change the world.

Why Firmin is really in Mexico is not clear. His friends wonder if he is running away from some naval disaster in World War 1 in which German officer prisoners were executed under his command. The Fascist-leaning police seem to think he is a spy. Of all the ambiguities in the book left to the reader to resolve is why Firmin drinks and why he can’t stop drinking and just live in the world and love Yvonne. We experience again and again such entertaining vitality in Firmin’s imagination when he drinks. He can see through the veil of the present to the sweep of history back to the time of Mexico’s conquering by the conquistadors, skip beyond the beauties of nature before him to the spinning of galaxies, and in to dark truths of the lonely soul, and splash back to the divine comedy of the human circus before him. The careening is so entertaining over cocktails, so incisively funny, so scary with its truths and judgments, it always seems to call for another drink. Yet, this form of living is incompatible with the biggest message sown in the text: "No se puede vivir sin amar” (“You can’t live without loving”). At a church with Yvonne, he tries to pray:

"Please let me make her happy, deliver me from this dreadful tyranny of self. I have sunk low. Let me sink lower still, that I may know the truth. Teach me to love again, to love life." That wouldn't do either... "Where is love? Let me truly suffer. Give me back my purity, the knowledge of the Mysteries, that I have betrayed and lost. -- Let me be truly lonely, that I may honestly pray. Let us be happy again somewhere, if it's only together, if it's only out of this terrible world. Destroy the world!" he cried in his heart.”

If you are intrigued enough at this point to consider reading this, I really must share some more samples of wonderful prose that reveals the state of Firmin’s (and Lowry’s) vision:

Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass.

“But my lord, Yvonne, surely you know by this time I can’t get drunk however much I drink.”

Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life!

But who could agree with someone who was so certain you were going to be sober the day after tomorrow?

How alike are the groans of love, to those of the dying.

What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse?

And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.

I leave you with one particular rant around a question that goes to the moral heart of human choice and civilization, prompted by a pondering if they couldn’t have done more for the dying peasant in the road:

‘Why should we have done anything to save his life? Hadn’t he a right to die, if he wanted to? … Why should anybody interfere with anybody? Why should anybody have interfered with the Tlaxcalans, for example, who were perfectly happy by their one stricken in years trees, among the web-footed fowl in the first lagoon—‘

Like these wars. For it seems to me that almost everywhere in the world these days there has long since ceased to be anything fundamental to man at issue at all…Ah, you people with ideas!…’

‘Can't you see there's a determinism about the fate of nations? They all seem to get what they deserve in the long run. … What in God’s name has all the heroic resistance put up by poor little defenceless peoples all rendered defenceless in the first place for some well-calculated and criminal reason … to do with the survival of the human spirit? Nothing whatsoever. Less than nothing. Countries, civilizations, empires, great hordes perish for no reason at all, and their soul and meaning with them that one old man perhaps you never heard of, and who never heard of them, sitting boiling in Timbuktu, proving the existence of the mathematical correlative of ignoratio elenchi with obsolete instruments, may survive.’

…’I should like to know what the bloody hell it is you imagine you’re talking!’
‘Why can’t people mind their own damned business!’

We root for Firmin to surmount the dark truths he sees as the flame he burns with is so bright.

Profile Image for Blaine.
781 reviews653 followers
February 17, 2023
Popocatepetl towered through the window, its immense flanks partly hidden by rolling thunderheads; its peak blocking the sky, it appeared almost right overhead, the barranca, the Farolito, directly beneath it. Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.

Geoffrey Firmin is the former British consul to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, and he is slowly drinking himself to death. His wife Yvonne left him over a year ago and divorced him. But she has returned to Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead in 1938, apparently to attempt to reconcile with Geoffrey, and to see if she can get him to leave this hellish place and try their relationship again before he finishes killing himself.

Under the Volcano regularly appears on lists of the top 100 novels; I read it as part of my attempt to read all of the Pop Chart 100 Essential Novels. It’s considered a masterpiece of English modernism, but it has a reputation as a difficult book to read because the writing is dense and full of symbolism. But I’ve read and enjoyed difficult books before, so I went into this book ready for the challenge and hoping to enjoy it.

But I’ve gotta tell you, I hated Under the Volcano, and I had to force myself to finish it. Every single character is intensely unsympathetic, desperately unhappy yet unwilling to change, and the fact that’s what the author intended doesn’t make it any less maddening. The story is difficult to follow due to the meandering prose (sometimes it’s not even clear who’s speaking), yet not a lot actually happens over the course of this one day. Many important questions are left deliberately unanswered (whether Yvonne had an affair with Geoffrey’s brother Hugh and/or his friend Jacques is open to interpretation). I had assumed (and in hindsight, I’m not sure why) that the much-discussed volcanoes would play more than a symbolic role in the story. I thought that when the foreshadowed death came, it would involve lava and explosions, or a leap into the crater, voluntary or otherwise. But when death comes in this book, it comes from out of nowhere, almost random rather than the logical conclusion of the characters’ choices, which may be realistic but is pretty unsatisfying for a work of fiction.

And no discussion about Under the Volcano would be complete without talking about alcohol. If an actual person tried to match Geoffrey Firmin drink for drink, mezcal for mezcal, I’m pretty sure they would die. I don’t think there’s another work of literature where characters spend so much time drinking, and talking about drinking:
As if, as if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober?

“Good God, if our civilisation were to sober up for a couple of days it’d die of remorse on the third—”

Honestly, and again this may have been the author’s intention, this book’s depiction of alcohol and alcoholism is almost enough to make a person swear off booze.

Under the Volcano stresses the importance of love and human connection, and then is populated with characters incapable of taking the actions needed to make it happen. It is probably the most nihilistic book I’ve ever read. If that’s your idea of a good time, or if you’re working your way through a list that includes this novel, then I hope you enjoy this book more than I did. Otherwise, my recommendation would be to stay far, far away from this frustrating, depressing book. 1.5 stars rounded up to 2.
Profile Image for merixien.
587 reviews327 followers
April 3, 2023
Çok uzun zamandır beni bu kadar yoran, elime aldığımda asla bırakamadığım ama bıraktığım anda da elimin bu kadar zor gittiği; o hüznün ve karanlığın içine tekrar düşmek istemediğim bir kitap olmamıştı. O yüzden yine en sonda söyleyeceğimi en başında söyleyeyim “herkesin okusun” diyebileceğim bir kitap değil.

Kitabın konusuna kısaca değinecek olursak; eski İngiltere Konsolosu olan Geoffrey Firmin, karısı Yvonne ve kardeşi Hugh’nun 1938 Ölüler Günü’ndeki 12 saatini - ilk bölüm hariç- bolca geri dönüşlerle ve sanrıların içinde kaybolarak anlatıyor. Bilinç akışının önemli bir örneği olduğu dile getiriliyor ancak akışına kapıldığınız zihnin delirium tremens evresindeki bir alkoliğin zihni olduğunu unutmamanız gerekiyor. Tabi bu yönüyle değerlendirildiğinde de alkolizmin ve bireysel çöküşün en muazzam edebi temsillerinden birisi olduğunu da belirtmeden geçemeyeceğim.

Yanardağın Altında Malcolm Lowry’nin parçalanmış kişiliklerini bütün karakterlere parça parça yansıtarak -aslında yeterince dikkat ederseniz eşine dair detayların da Yvonne ve Hugh karakterlerinde yakalayabileceğiniz- kendi başarısız hayatının tanıklığını yaparken, diğer yandan da dönemin dünya siyasi çöküşünü anlatan inanılmaz derecede karamsar ve hüzünlü bir kitap. Okurken biraz daha kolay ilerlemek adına Dante’nin İlahi Komedisi’ni okumuş olmak yarar sağlayacaktır. Zaten İlahi Komedya’yı okuduysanız, Meksika tarihi ve İspanya İç Savaşı’na dair bilginiz varsa kitabın adım adım gittiği sona dair ipuçlarını çok daha kolay toplayabilirsiniz.

Sonuç olarak; bireysel bir yoketme hikayesini, ölüm kültürü, devrim, toplumsal dönüşüm ve dönemin siyasi tarihiyle bu kadar şiirsel bir dil ile birleştirmesine, anlatımına ve bir alkoliğin beyninde bu kadar gerçekçi bir şekilde kaybolmaya hayran oldum. Gerçekten okuduğum için mutlu olduğum kitaplardan birisi. Ancak okurken dilinden, kişiselin ve zamanların değişiminden ve hüzünden o kadar yoruldum ki Malcolm Lowry’nin istediği gibi daha iyi anlamak adına üçüncü ya da dördüncü kez okuyacak yüreğim de yok. O yüzden tavsiye edemeyeceğim ama iyi bir kitap olduğunu da inkar edemem.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,357 reviews795 followers
September 17, 2014
Lowry could not perform the vital surgery of separating himself from his characters. He suspected at times that he was not a writer so much as being written, and with panic he realized that self-identity was as elusive as ever.

-Conrad Knickerbocker
You could state this novel was amazing. You could name it false. You could call this novel a giant of Modernism. You could pass it off as the rambling obscurities of a overeducated white guy with too much money in pocket and too lengthy a time on his hands, enough of each to not only allow for lazy alcoholism but to also think it worthy of a book. You could wonder at the explications of historical context or frown at it for being too 'political', depending on whether your methodologies for coping with reality lie in grasping explication or willful ignorance.

I thought to compose an ode to this thin-skinned and oh so brave piece of work, one that considered 'vital' the need to cloak oneself in shrouds of objective cleverness writing from the scheme of rote, but recognized the conventions as being too limited. Poetry it is, in the attention it pays to rhythm of word and the homage it pays to the feeling provoking it, all those words circling and circling and never quite circumventing the fundamental issue of conveying the state of a human being in full with mere paper and pen. But an ode? That implies form, and function, and the worst sort of dignified pride, all prettied up above and so horridly stunted down below. So I am sticking with prose, where there is at least more room to breath and stretch and thrust into realms not yet choked with nitpicking banalities.

If history draws a line in the sand and says to you, congratulations, you won, is it better to take your winnings and hightail it back to the stolid world of living a normal life, or fumble one's way across the line in a horrifically misguided effort to help? Neither direction will guarantee a sustained sense of worthwhile living without sustained effort, and the shame of that effort is often enough to kill. Lucky for you, there are ways to run, and keep on running, deep into the fuming dark of drink after drink which renders mind and reality palatable to each other, so long as you keep on coming back.

Some bring back some packets of papers from these trials. Some luck out through sheer sense of language and liking for certain literature and pass through the fires of public perception with a penchant for labeling things as 'trivial'. Lowry was right in feeling his will to write translated into being written, and yet he went on taking risks to the contrary of the sensibilities of his fellows. Today, he is beloved of the certain echelons of readers and poses a difficult challenge to those not yet in the 'know', or on the contrary is passed off as the pretentious tragicomedy of an unlikeable man with no real reason to be moping around besides his pandering at an 'existential crisis'.
Meantime do you see me as still working on the book, still trying to answer such questions as: Is there any ultimate reality, external, conscious and ever-present etc. etc. that can be realised by any such means that may be acceptable to all creeds and religions and suitable to all climes and countries? Or do you find me between Mercy and Understanding, between Chesed and Binah (but still at Chesed)—my equilibrium, and equilibrium is all, precarious—balancing, teetering over the awful unbridgeable void...Though it is perhaps a good idea under the circumstances to pretend at least to be proceeding with one's great work on "Secret Knowledge," then one can always say when it never comes out that the title explains this deficiency.
There's something bloodcurdling about the inexorable crimes of history and the question posed in every era of how one is to 'do one's part'. For what constitutes a 'crime', and what is a suitable 'part', and just how long is one supposed to wait around for a situation to arise where it is not only 'right' to act, but 'proper' in motivation and 'vital' in context and anything but 'trivial'?

Lowry wrote what he knew in order to bring his self to a final resolution. Somehow, it was decided that his results were worthy of surviving in the hallowed halls of literature, for all his half-handed attempts to decry atrocities and feckless graspings at a life worth being sober for. Someone, somewhere, decided that for whatever reason, this work for all its ivory tower references and obtuse characterizations was important to merit a place in the future.

Pity the poor fool with time enough to think on the scope of humanity, and cannot bear the weight without the solace of addiction or the finality of death. They wander outside the range of 'conventional' society, and we can only acknowledge their presence and hope that that they will return. And if they bring something back that we recognize as part and parcel of our own nobly fallible states of life, ensuring a record of that forlorn mess of feeling that so many unknowingly struggle in with every bit of mindless work and drink and frivolity, all the better. For one is always alone in composing a how-to guide for their lot in life, and while criticism is useful, condemnation wallows in a pit of aborted failings.

You'll do yourself no favors in claiming to be better than it all, no matter how loud and long you scoff and bleat.
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