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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano (1947)

by Malcolm Lowry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,267622,485 (3.81)211
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» See also 211 mentions

English (49)  French (6)  Dutch (2)  Italian (2)  Spanish (2)  All languages (61)
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
Maybe if I took a class in it I would have the patience to go through the allusions, metaphors, and references, but as it is I don't care enough to bother.
Reading sentences like "Quauhnahuac was like the times in this respect, wherever you turned the abyss was waiting for you round the corner Dormitory for vultures and city Moloch!" makes me want to say "Dude... calm down." ( )
  amandrake | Jan 16, 2019 |
(Original Review, 1981-03-15)

“The Consul reached forward and absentmindedly managed a sip of whisky; the voice might have been either of his familiars or - Hullo, good morning. The instant the Consul saw the thing he knew it an hallucination and he sat, quite calmly now, waiting for the object shaped like a dead man and which seemed to be lying flat on its back by his swimming pool, with a large sombrero over its face, to go away. So the 'other' had come again. And now gone, he thought: but no, not quite, for there was still something there, in some way connected with it, or here, at his elbow, or behind his back, in front of him now; no, that too, wherever it was, was going: perhaps it had only been the coppery-tailed trogon stirring in the bushes, his 'ambiguous bird' that was now departed quickly on creaking wings, like a pigeon once it was in flight, heading for its solitary home in the Canyon of the Wolves, away from the people with ideas.”

"They were all plodding downhill towards a river - even the dog, lulled in a woolly soliloquy, was plodding - and now they were in it (...) The dog swam ahead, fatuously important; the foals, nodding solemnly, swayed along behind up to their necks: sunlight sparkled on the calm water, which further downstream where the river narrowed broke into furious little waves, swirling and eddying close inshore against black rocks, giving an effect of wildness, almost of rapids; low over their heads an ecstatic lightening of strange birds manoeuvred, looping-the-loop and immelmaning at unbelievable speed, aerobatic as new-born dragon-flies."

"He lay back in his chair. Ixtaccihuad and Popocateped, that image of the perfect marriage, lay now clear and beautiful on the horizon under an almost pure morning sky. 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! Enormously high too, he noted some vultures waiting, more graceful than eagles as they hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire which suddenly are seen to blowing swiftly upward, rocking. The shadow of an immense weariness stole over him..."

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

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

"God, how pointless and empty the world is! Days filled with cheap and tarnished moments succeed each other, restless and haunted nights follow in bitter routine: the sun shines without brightness, and the moon rises without light."

All quotes above taken from “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry

Warning: there are nearly 400 pages of this “sort of thing”...

I'm with everyone on the importance of reading, but we must also consider writing. While one must read a book, someone had to spend much more time writing it, and that writing is a process which I believe is fundamentally different than how we read, although another writer might read it quite differently, using a different process.

Whatever we do, our subconscious is always doing it with us since it is part of 'us'. It's not true human beings are all the same, but it's statistically true enough for us to all live mass consensual hallucinations which even, in some measure, across cultures. The book I am reading on Byronic Heroes for instance addresses the author's and other writer's response to certain kinds of reading from the days of Milton's Satan on. And I find the REPORT of his reading to accord with some of my own, and then I can comment on it and have it make sense to someone else (although not necessarily), even if that person disagrees. I don't worry though if my readings are idiosyncratic, or in what degree. I hope I am open minded enough to abandon ship, or change course, if I can be shown to be wrong or there's is a bigger picture involved I don't seeing, or just a strong alternative.
I am at an age, probably past the age, where devout household Buddhists, leave the world to become monks or nuns. They have raised the kids, and arranged their affairs and do a Flitcraft, with the exception of actually changing their lives. Me, I am religious. I see the world, and the human Being as a geography which has produced some deep caves and some high mountains. For some it is religion, others have seemed to penetrate into the most astounding complexities and depths of science or math, and a few more. I feel like I have my own mountain/caves in Literature. I mean LITERALLY that I have available to me one of the mightiest of those domains and I mean/hope to take as much advantage of it as I possibly can. Like the ageing Buddhist Monk I do it because I believe LITERALLY and PRACTICALLY that. That is the best thing I can possibly do, and that I can do, to make the absolute best of being human with the rest of my little lifetime. I wish I could do it better. That leads me too, to read all kinds of lateral texts, like Genesis, Plotinus, “Under the Volcano”, and so much the better. I know I get enthusiastic about texts, and one can always be bashful about one's enthusiasms or one’s ability to articulate them, but if one is as old as I am, feeling enthusiasm (look up the etymology) is just fine, and if I don't do it now when I am going to. In my view there is the bonus that age, before it eats your mind, can actually enrich your literary understanding. It's not the only way to read, not even the only way I read, and it sometimes puts people off, but it's my end of MY life and I'll do what I see fit with it.

This is probably my favourite book of all. I've read it 4 times: each time discovering much more, and will read it again. I don't think you need to know the other works that are alluded too in the story. They certainly don't intrude and the Consul's accelerating and willful descent carries you, or carried me, along regardless. Certain language ambiguities are worth considering as the Consul stumbles along. The cigarettes called "Alas" - "wings" in Spanish - which appear at odd moments crying "Alas!" I agree that the Consul becomes a heroic figure, rejecting all help as he embraces the dark. And Lowry was pretty heroic in his dedication to this novel. One of the things I like about Lowry is the way he notes and records the wild juxtapositions and incongruities of life in Mexico without comment generally. In other words he accepts all that and uses it symbolically without remarking on the exoticism.

I am reminded of Andre Breton visiting Frida Kahlo and co. and saying something like "Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world." Not to Mexicans, I want to reply. Somehow Lowry completely avoids being patronising...

[2018 EDIT: Thinking about this novel now, one thing that bothers me, and that didn't bother me when I re-read it all those years ago, is the almost complete absence of Mexican characters, apart from the odd pantomime walk-on part. This is really an ex-pat novel, with almost no engagement with the contemporary Mexican culture, life and politics. A few sound bites in Spanish, the backdrop of Popocatapetl and, the interiors of cantinas provide an exotic backdrop for an English upper middle class love triangle and a drink problem beyond control. The Festival of the Day of the Dead is of course central to the novel, but more as symbolism than as an expression of South American belief systems. So in light of the above, I would say, I’ll have at “Under the Volcano” for another 20 years to see whether I’m able to understand it.] ( )
  antao | Dec 6, 2018 |

“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.

( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Excerpts from my original GR review (Feb 2013):
- Lowry's novel was first completed in 1940, but after rejections and revisions, was published in 1947. The book's origin was a short story he wrote in the 30s, while, yes, drunk in Mexico, his first marriage on the rocks. By the time Malcolm Lowry died ten years later of pills and booze, the book was out of print.
- The novel takes place on one day, the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938, in "Quahnahuacl", Lowry's Indian preference for the modern Cuernavaca, Mexico. The only exception is the first chapter, in which a childhood friend, shortly to depart the city, reflects on the Consul's self-destruction and death, exactly one year later. The city is within easy sight of twin volcanoes, often conjured in the story, and hence the title. Back to the auspicious day, Geoffrey Firmin is in fact ex-British Consul to the region, Britain having suspended relations with Mexico due to its nationalization of the oil industry. He's a far-too-gone drunk, who will swill anything at hand, Mescal being his favorite. His estranged wife, Yvonne, has returned suddenly in a hapless attempt at reconciliation. His half brother Hugh shows up as well, faintly trying to wean him off the juice. Both these relations are failures of sort, she a failed actress, he a drifter with romantic visions of fighting the fascists in Spain.
- The novel is written in mainly stream of conscious form, whether from the Consul's perspective or others'. I've seen 'Joycean' used to describe this book. Chris Powers, in his review for The Guardian in 2011, says, "the allusiveness of Under the Volcano is clearly a response to The Waste Land [by T.S. Eliot] and Ulysses". Whatever the case, this is a rambling, abstract, fatalistic book. For me, even as one who is drawn to literary works, it was an annoying test of patience... ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Oct 22, 2018 |
To early to say what I got out of this book..I need to read more about is symbolism and allusion. Well regarded ( )
  waldhaus1 | Oct 20, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lowry, Malcolmprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bergsma, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pedrolo, Manuel deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spender, StephenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vandenbergh, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061120154, Paperback)

Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, has come to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. His debilitating malaise is drinking, an activity that has overshadowed his life. On the most fateful day of the consul's life—the Day of the Dead, 1938—his wife, Yvonne, arrives in Quauhnahuac, inspired by a vision of life together away from Mexico and the circumstances that have driven their relationship to the brink of collapse. She is determined to rescue Firmin and their failing marriage, but her mission is further complicated by the presence of Hugh, the consul's half brother, and Jacques, a childhood friend. The events of this one significant day unfold against an unforgettable backdrop of a Mexico at once magical and diabolical.

Under the Volcano remains one of literature's most powerful and lyrical statements on the human condition, and a brilliant portrayal of one man's constant struggle against the elemental forces that threaten to destroy him.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:36 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Set in Mexico on the eve of WWII, the story tells of a man in extremis, an alcoholic consul bursting with regret, longing, resentment and remorse, whose climactic moment rapidly approaches..."---Editorial review from www.amazon.com

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