Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano

What better book about booze has ever been written than Malcolm Lowry's alcoholic masterpiece, Under the Volcano? I don't know that I can think of a more self-destructive, self-loathing, sad alcoholic character ever depicted so poignantly and so lyrically in literature than Geoffrey Firmin, the former British consul, living in Quanhnahuac, Mexico, the depressed, self-exiled, drunken protagonist of Under the Volcano.

It's the Day of the Dead when the novel opens, and its the same Day of the Dead when the novel closes. "Quanhnahuac possesses eighteen churches and fifty-seven cantinas". With a lopsided ratio of liquor looming over religion at 3:1, it's no wonder Firmin won't remain sober, not even to save his estranged wife, Yvonne, from the arms of a man he's been close to all his life.

How, or when, Firmin, wound up so addicted we do not fully know; the reasons and the origins of his alcoholism are not fully outlined in the novel -- it's not cut and dry as to why he let himself go so completely (he can't blame it all on his bad marriage can he?) -- we just know he's pretty much lost, and we're witnessing the consequences of his life's accumulation of bad decisions, on what turns out to be the last day of his life: the Day of the Dead.

And as Lowry lowers the boom of Firmin's eventual demise with abundant literary allusions and foreshadowing (I don't pretend to have grasped them all) with increasing intensity page after page, we can't help but say aloud to this sad character depicted on the page, "please stop; this is too painful to watch." Lowry writes of Firmin:

"Dark coils of shadows lay in the deserted barroom. They sprang at him. "Otro mescalito. Un poquito."

"The subdued roar of the falls filled the room like a ship's engine...Eternity...The Consul, cooler, leaned on the bar, staring into his second glass of the colourless ether-smelling liquid. To drink or not to drink. --But without mescal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten their world's voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn's tail, doomed never to make her Valparaiso. Or that is was like a golf ball, launched at Hercules' Butterfly, wildly hooked by a giant out of an asylum window in hell.... Why lost?....What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse? The soul!...."

We know that a bitter (though beautifully penned) end is swiftly approaching...

The Consul (Geoffrey Firmin) is easily my favorite anti-hero in literature. So melancholic, yet strangely inspiring, how Malcolm Lowry, with his authorial gifts, elegantly elevated the tragedy of Under the Volcano; taking a man's addiction and somehow transforming it into a triumph of modern language. It should be required reading for the alcoholic who truly, finally, wants to quit drinking, before it's too late …

For more on Under the Volcano, I recommend getting your hands on a copy of David Markson's book-length study, Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning.  I reviewed the book right here.


  1. Wolf Solent and Belle du Seigneur have been for a long time N°s 1 and 2 on my list of greatest modern classics. They will now have to make do with being 2 and 3 as Under the Volcano just has to be N°1. For the moment I can't read past p.369 of the 376 pages of my Penguin Modern Classics edition - because of - FEAR !!! (I'm asking myself, how am I going to manage
    reading to the end - and manage afterwards!!!)

  2. Thanks, Anonymous! I should've had my review of David Markson's book length study of Under the Volcano linked in the post somewhere. Here it is if you're interested:

    Also, thank you so much for mentioning Belle du Seigneur as being your #2, or, now #3 on your modern classics list. Can you believe I've never even heard of it?! How absurd is that?! I'm off to go check it out now. Should you happen to return to this post, I'd be delighted to learn more about this novel and to read anything you'd like to share.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hello EnriqueFreeque - have just got back to your site. Thank you for its existence ! Two urgent remarks:
    a) I feel that Belle du Seigneur should be read in the original French, and
    b) it is very special; one HAS to be patient with it (and even then...) I mean most people find it indigestible, which, of course, proves next to nothing... or, on the contrary...etc etc.
    I did read your review, appreciated it greatly, and will read it again, in a minute maybe...
    One feels, often, that one's own tastes are so - idiosyncratic? - that I would be astonished, I think, if someone who appreciates Lowry would appreciate Albert Cohen's Belle du Seigneur... Marlee (ex-Anonymous).
    p.s. Since the 9th have you checked out B du S ?

  4. Hello again EnriqueFreeque

    If you haven't already I would love you to read this:

    It's a book review of 1996 by Richard Dryer titled : A French Classic loses nothing in the translation. (So maybe my remark above should not be taken into account...)

    A bientôt!
    (My English is going to the dogs, having lived in Fr. for years and not being a natural linguist!


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