Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson

In 1951, David Markson, of eventual Wittgenstein's Mistress renown, wrote his 30,000 word master's thesis on Under the Volcano.  Nothing substantive at that time, only four years removed from Under the Volcano's publication, had been written on it, except for, well, Markson's thesis.  Lowry liked what Markson wrote about his novel.  And the two became fast friends the final years of Lowry's life; and Malcolm, when he was sober enough, which unfortunately wasn't very often, mentored David Markson's then burgeoning literary/academic career.

First edition, 1978
In 1978, Markson went back to his old thesis, saw what was lacking therein, saw how much more he still had to say about the Volcano, and turned his master's thesis into a book of insightful criticism upon it.

Sven Birkerts writes a perceptive and incisive introduction to Malcolm Lowry's Volcano that gets to the real meat and bones of the Volcano's doomed protagonist, the Consul's — Geoffrey Firmin's — existential predicament, cutting through Firmin's cracked, alcoholic mask.  Birkerts cites a question in an excerpt from a letter the Consul has composed, that not only sums up the Consul's philosophy, but undoubtedly Malcolm Lowry's philosophy too:

"Is there any ultimate reality, external, conscious and ever-present etc. etc. that can be realized by any such means that may be acceptable to all creeds and religions and suitable to all climes and countries?"

Birkerts then responds to the Consul (to Lowry), with the following:

"It is the great question. What lies behind the phantasmic shimmer of the here and now? Are there larger meanings to be found? Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"

I guess the answer depends on how whomever responds to the question defines "survive".  I'd say that "haunted mind," quoted above, can survive, but "survive" by definition doesn't necessitate "living well".  And that's the psychological, inter-relational crux of Under the Volcano: its poignant portrayal of a sad and squandered and profoundly disconnected life not lived well.

Malcolm in the Mescal Bottle
How do we, who've read the book, answer it's core cosmic question, "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"  Can we live well alone?  Can we live well when we're surrounded by so many people and yet so much loneliness and unhappiness and addiction retains its vice grip upon our lives?  When we're, quoting the astute Neil Peart (of Rush) lyrics, "Alone and yet together like two passing ships?"  Can we?

I have read the book entire, Under the Volcano, and yet cannot answer the universal question it raises with much conviction either way; which is part of the reason I'd like to return to it again with David Markson as my guide leading me through, searching its pages for the answers, assuming they exist, socked away as they are in the labyrinthine mythology and allusions under- pinning it.  I'd also like to return to a closer reading of the Volcano because I know I missed a ton of those deeper meanings and layers, the story's symbolic and elusive substrata of coded data that Lowry so painstakingly applied to his classic narrative like the nuanced brush strokes of an Impressionist.  Markson deconstructs each brush stroke he can locate within Under the Volcano, as he encyclopedically expounds his talents of linguistic, literary archaeology (or would literary volcanology be a better term?) exploring the Volcano's vast and mysterious — and metaphysical — subterranean chambers.

My copy of the 1965 hardcover reissue,
 J. B. Lippincott Company
Markson claimed that next to Ulysses, Under the Volcano was the most myth- and symbol-laden novel of the twentieth century.  So it's not just a book about a doomed self-destructive drunk, I think is the obvious message communicated by Markson's laborious analysis, though super-cynical or superficial readers, I suppose, could "read" the Volcano that way.

But, again, despite what it's many moralistic naysayers may say, Under the Volcano is patently not just a dumb book about a drunk.  It's not because the Consul, in Lowry's hands, has an uncanny knack for offering a tweaked — yet prescient — perspective of Day of the Dead events, even though he's constantly intoxicated, hammered on practically every page.  The Consul eyewitnesses, watching the world through his cryptic, alcoholic lenses, an hallucinatory collage of culture and politics and faith and intrigue and memory/sense perceptions swarming all around and within him, invisible to his cantina acquaintances (mostly the bartenders) and understandably exasperated ex-wife, that elevates him to sage-like status even despite his despicable failures of character.  This strange and complexly flawed mystic man, Geoffrey Firmin, damaged yes beyond belief, beyond hope, beyond redemption, but still a man somehow, brimming over with eerie spiritual enlightenment his last day alive in Mexico; and David Markson shows us exactly how it's about that — his transcendence — and not just about some worthless drunk in a bar south of the border committing slow suicide literally 24/7.

What Stuart Gilbert first did for Ulysses, David Markson did for Under the Volcano.  And neither accomplishments are small feats in the history of literary criticism.


  1. Not a book I have ever heard of but sounds like it offers more than meets the eye

    Visiting from the Book Frog
    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  2. It's an incredible, beyond describable reading experience, bookdout, I hope (despite my much too late reply) you'll nevertheless read it sometime.


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