Saturday, August 28, 2010

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

"Christ," he remarked, puzzled, "this is a dingy way to die."

In an essay on Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children (a book I seem to be alone in not loving), Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano certainly has some things wrong with it--symbols so heavy-handed they would've embarrassed Melville; the irritatingly juvenile 'dialogues' between the Consul's 'good' and 'evil' inner voices--but on this reading I find them outweighed by everything that's right about the novel. I'm impressed by Lowry's prose (this is probably inevitable since I'm coming to Under the Volcano after trudging through the hardening lava of Dreiser's American Tragedy), that wonderful Modernist style he creates from a synthesis of Joycean license and Woolfian lyricism. And I'm impressed by the final synthesis, in the Consul's dying mind, of the novel's two dominant and contradictory symbols, the ravine and the volcano. The mountain with its Romantic connotations of upward striving and 'natural supernatural' transcendence and the barranca, a squalid, hellish open sewer cum open grave, are finally united on the novel's last page as symbols of the same dingy death.

"You are no a de wrider, you are de espider, and we shoota de espiders in Mejico."

All great writers are spiders, spinning wordy webs that entangle even the wariest readers. And every great writer is a great spy, his best works recording the most important things seen and heard during an extraordinarily observant lifetime. All great writers would be shot in Lowry's fascist Mexico.

An artist with a murderer's hands; that was the ticket, the hieroglyphic of the times.

Los Manos de Orlac, con Peter Lorre. Along with the ravine and the volcano, this paranoiacally ubiquitous movie poster is one of the novel's most insistent motifs. (The U.S. title was Mad Love, exactly what we should expect from an industry that turned An American Tragedy into A Place in the Sun.) Jacques Laruelle helpfully interprets the symbol for us in chapter one, but Orlac's multiply re-made hands are more than a confused allegory for Hitlerism. (Hitler, after all, was a murderer with a hack artist's hands). The poster symbolizes, among other things, the decay of art in the Orlacian hands of capitalism: a landmark German Expressionist film remade and renamed as a mediocre Hollywood horrorshow. It's thus also an early example of America's global cultural reach: Hollywood films are playing even here, in the asshole of Mexico. But more important to the entire novel's structure and meaning is the fact that the film, like all the movies in this Mexican province, is trapped in a cycle of repetition. Its seemingly eternal return to the local cinema every year on The Day of the Dead symbolizes the circularity of the novel as a whole. For Under the Volcano is as circular as Finnegans Wake, if in a less obvious way. The opening chapter is both prologue and epilogue, and a truly complete reading of this novel would require the reader to re-read chapter one immediately upon finishing chapter twelve. Much more than a mere structural gimmick, this circularity heightens the book's overall sense of fatalism, futility and doom. The narrative is inescapable; it keeps playing like a terrible tape loop, killing the Consul again and again, over and over. This reminds us that Under the Volcano is a novel of its historical moment (the moment of its conception, not its publication nearly ten years later), and it beautifully captures the existential malaise of the post-Spanish Civil War left during those mercifully few years when European fascism appeared unstoppable. If the fascists will always win, why resist? why bother? After all, look what they did to poor Geoffrey Firmin...

Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.

I don't want to say anything here that might detract from the terrible hopelessness of this novel, the tragedy and pathos of its fascist-dominated world, a place where even the literary impulse is less than useless. (...your fate would not be altered by your simile.) But we should note that Lowry's most compelling answer to the "why bother?" question comes in his description of Hugh's plans for the immediate future, his doomed expedition to aid the last remnants of Spanish resistance. However much Lowry ironizes it, Hugh's principled action in the face of defeat is the only virtue in Lowry's world, lost causes the only causes worth fighting for (to paraphrase another, and altogether more friendly, artifact of the late Thirties, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).


TheRolexMan said...

I always love to see anything on the Volcano, which I still think is the best English language novel ever written. It has its issues, there is no doubt, but on my 5th or 6th read after 20 or so years since the first time, I am getting more and more out of it. It is not altogether darkness, I might remind the writer of the article. Why keep coming back for more if it is as bleak and hopeless as many think? I see that darkness more so now than ever before, almost feel it. Even have to put the book down and read in small doses, but it is still beautiful epic poetry which happens to be written in prose. There is nothing like this book, it borrows from The Wasteland, Dante, and the moral ethic of Dostoevsky, and blends personal life with symbolic realism, patched together with 30,000 volumes of literature that Lowry ate while developing his craft from childhood. It is truly, like the world of Nietszche, a book written for the sheer pleasure of beholding the written word and all of its possibilities. Since Lowry succumbed to his own hell in real life, it should make us all shudder and choose a path like Hugh in the face of it. I think that is what Lowry hoped for to some extent in himself, but was never able to deliver. Tragedy begat tragedy. The book is a warning to us all. I have always felt that.

Unknown said...

Here's the real problem with the novel: the Consul, Geoffrey Fermin, is lost within it. Not from alcohol but from Lowry's inexplicable decision to tell us next to nothing about Fermin's personal history. Who he is. How can the tragedy of a novel's central character exist without this? We are instead asked to take, as faith, Fermin as a man worthy of his, as written, great existential journey through the book. Lowry's narcissism and alcoholism wins out, blocking the the novel's great promise.