For people in the know, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is one of the novels of the twentieth century. Anthony Burgess said so. Harold Bloom slipped it into his western canon. Time magazine and the Modern Library placed it on their best 100 novels lists. And yet – let’s be honest – nobody much reads Under the Volcano. In the four years I spent studying Literature no one once mentioned Malcolm Lowry among the other masters of the twentieth century. When finally the book was recommended to me (by someone most definitely in the know), it took me about three years to track down a copy of it.
In his life, in his death and in his legacy, Lowry was a perennial outsider, a lonely loner with whom his one great and eventual success never sat comfortably.
Lowry’s outsider status was set at an early age. After finishing school he joined the crew of a ship heading for Japan and stopping at various ‘Oriental’ ports along the way. Lowry’s family was well-off (and supported him throughout his life), and he had a promising future at Cambridge; he had little in common with the most of the crewmen, Returning to England, though, he found he could no longer sit comfortably in his former surrounds. He was caught between worlds, unable to participate fully in either.
Lowry spent much of his life thereafter drifting about the world, existing on the fringes of various cultures and cliques. He met better established writers than himself in London in the 30s, and watched his first marriage disintegrate in Mexico. He checked into rehab in the US and lived for many years squatting on a beach in British Columbia with his second wife (where some of his best work was written and more of it was destroyed in a booze-induced fire).
Every expat is an outsider in some sense; to live abroad involves pulling up roots and sending down new ones. It involves finding some concept of home within that which is different and unfamiliar. Lowry’s isolation, though, was a deeper thing. His was the isolation of the expat, of the troubled writer, of the alcoholic and of the mystic.
All of these elements were thrown into Under the Volcano. Geoffrey Firmin, the doomed protagonist of the novel, is a dissolute expat, a former consul immersed in booze whose life’s work is a nonexistent book about kabbalah and other vague esoterica. Like Lowry, Firmin’s wife had left him in Mexico. Unlike Lowry, Firmin’s wife returns in one of the first scenes of the book. Lowry collapses his two marriages into the one character, Yvonne, the first wife that left and the second wife that returns to redeem a broken man (Lowry’s second wife was also his editor, without her he probably never would have finished Under the Volcano). Yvonne’s plan for Firmin is to take him away to some remote Canadian beach where he can reorder the scattered shards of his life. Lowry wrote Under the Volcano living on just such a remote beach near Vancouver.
The return of his wife is everything Firmin has hoped for, but is also destabilising. Firmin has longed for his wife without doing a thing to win her back. He has never replied to her many impassioned letters; he may not even have read them properly (or perhaps he just doesn’t remember). He misplaced the letters in a bar and only later has them returned to him (Lowry did the same thing with a manuscript). Yvonne’s return is troubling because it demands action, a response. It disrupts the morose isolation that Firmin wallows in. In the year since she left he has lived almost entirely within his own esoteric head, has not had to act, to commit to anything. He is an outsider, but this ‘outside’ is deep within himself.
All the action of Under the Volcano take place between pre-dawn and nightfall on Day of the Dead. As Firmin falters through this his last day, he is haunted by the question of how to respond to Yvonne. He equivocates endlessly before this, the very thing he has craved. This could be the end of his isolation and his purgatory, but Firmin does not rise above himself – or not for long enough. The novel ends and he dies alone; he had fled from Yvonne to take refuge in a cantina, el Farolito, the little lighthouse.
One of many fractured refrains of Under the Volcano is no se puede vivir sin amar. I’ve seen this translated as “you cannot live without love”, or similar, but that overlooks the verb form of “love” (I think). You cannot live without loving. The sentence follows Firmin through the day, but it is not Firmin’s sentence. Lowry interposed words and phrases from many different sources into his novel. The origin of this sentence is not known, but it feels like one of the few times when Lowry speaks directly into the book. Not that the sentence is his either, but it is an idea he struggled with in his life. It was, perhaps, something to aspire to. A quote from Goethe at the beginning of the noel is translated as Whosoever unceasingly strives upwards… him can we save.
Lowry and Firmin both lost their sense of up, and then found it again, and probably ultimately lost it. Lowry’s death was almost as ignominious as Firmin’s murder; after a fight with Lowry his wife returned to their house to find that Lowry had choked on his own vomit after taking a lot of pills and booze.
Lowry died in England, having returned to his native land. He published only two books during his lifetime, but several more works have been released posthumously, gleaned from whatever scraps survived the fires and the nights in bars and the ever-lingering despair. Under the Volcano remains his one classic novel though, an obscure, outside classic from the man who was never able to bring himself inside.