20 thoughts on “Under The Volcano – Malcolm Lowry

  1. “…the town of Quauhnahuac. It is situated well south of the Tropic of Cancer, to be exact, on the nineteenth parallel, in about the same latitude as…”

    Incredible gestalt-tending genius loci triangulated and coordinated by two drinking men who talkèd in shared clumsy English, their own tennis coordinates…

    “– the doctor’s triangular, the other’s quadrangular –”

    The genius loci, indeed, comes out of you and at you in a special English as if you are not drunk but prose-stylish, but someone jaggedly changed it drunkenly afterwards, and agonisingly changed it again when they were not drunk, and that is what we are now reading, a description of the place and some characters, consul, et al, a time of 1939 as another coordinate, and we all know what started then on the other side of the world, and a coordinate of sounds too, the fiesta, the weather, the jagged underfoot, and a gradual homing in on what is happening, but not yet fully on this “strange planet.” With two volcanos. Quarantined in time. Miraculous stuff. Why had I not returned here till now?

    Read up to: “How admirably he had concealed what must have been the babel of his thoughts!”

  2. “; probably it was just one of those meaningless correspondences that might be labelled: ‘favourite trick of the gods’.”

    This first chapter continues in the mind of the French man, forgotten his tennis press (Wimbledon starts in real time today), subsumed by memories of meeting when younger the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, back in England, years ago, where the latter’s adopted brothers acted more sober the drunker they got. Like this text, a text that shimmies between Ferris Wheel and Chartres Cathedral, Christ and some Abyss, Mexico and Europe, beyond geo- or global or retrocausal Brexit-quarantine, then we follow ghostly lovers….
    No way I can itemise the plot. The bits I do understand are the bits I can’t remember to tell you, and the bits I don’t understand need later to be understood (if at all) before remembering to tell you.
    This text makes you feel drunk or actually makes you drunk for real, word drunk.

    Read up to: “, And-we-all-have-zat-wibberlee-wobberlee-wobberlee-wibberlee-wibberlee-wobberlee feeling In ze morning.”

  3. “They all went to a tavern with some queer name, as ‘The Case is Altered’. ”

    And that sort of makes me think of the book that Laruelle once left by mistake in the cinema, a cinema now showing Orlac, a book that belonged to Firmin, the British Consul, a book of Elizabethan stuff like Faustus.. or an alternate book with its own influence on reality outside of it?

    “But controlled, not quite uncontrolled, somehow”
    “still encumbered with his tennis racquet”

    The pungent genius loci of a Mexican town is to die for, irrespective of the möbius plot around it. Waiting to erupt? When I was much younger I probably did not understand the plot at all. Now I hope to understand at least some of it.

    Read up to: “but an English Consul who could scarcely claim to have the interests of British trade at heart in a place where there were no British interests”

  4. “But by this time the poor Consul had already lost almost all capacity for telling the truth and his life had become a quixotic oral fiction.”

    One wonders: is the Consul some oblique forerunner of Trump? A spider or a spy, too. And after some scandal about incinerating some German officers of a submarine that blighted his career, and later consigned as Consul to Mexico, yes, Mexico, that had no northern wall of course in those days. Not so much Conrad’s Lord Jim, as Secret Agent…
    The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, has a backstory and a half. To die for. Still ongoing. Yet to be read.
    This is all-consuming stuff, much of it already rubbing off on you, others bits being stored away, unprocessed, for future attempts at a gestalt about him. And, then, of course, there is that book, the one with Marlowe, Dekker…and material about Faustus.

    Read up to: “and opening the book again twirled one finger in the air, and brought it down firmly upon a passage he now held up to the light:”

    As you do.

  5. “…arriving, the dark’s spin-nets.”

    “And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.”
    Arriving, my own dark spin-nets, too, as I face this major emotional work again after many years. The letter from Geoffrey to Yvonne falling out of the book, is indeed a changing of the reality seen by the French soul through which we see this first chapter. The Consul Geoffrey’s Mexit, Mescaline bifurcation as Consul by Brexit Britain of the day, as Hitler’s war starts, his wife Yvonne having left him (for Hugh?)
    And staggering references to Blake and Swedenborg in this letter soon after my recent reading here of ALL IS FULL OF HELL where Blake awakes…
    And the closing scenes of this chapter are probably the most famous in all literature, the chapter’s Mexican genius-coda, with bell. The sense of looming, volcanic or not?
    Utterly utterly transcendent. Lowry reminds me, too, of my recent ground-breaking readings here of fiction by William H Gass.

    “Sometimes I am possessed by a most powerful feeling, a despairing bewildered jealousy which, when deepened by drink, turns into a desire to destroy myself by my own imagination – not at least to be the prey of – ghosts –”

    “, the little girl sat on the orange,”

  6. Chapter 2

    “‘ –Oaxaca. –’ –The word was like a breaking heart, a sudden peal of stifled bells in a gale, the last syllables of one dying of thirst in the desert.”

    I think this is the year before that in the first chapter, now 1938, not 1939, but on the same November Day of the Dead Fiesta (July 4th today in my own real-time, the day Not Known fired a missile capable of reaching USA) – and we are, with this new chapter not in Laruelle’s but in Yvonne’s head I guess, with her trying to recoup her marriage or something, a surprise visit by plane, finding him in a bar, of course! One where the barman takes sneaky drags on the Consul’s resting cigarette. (I sometimes feel I am doing this with this book.) The conversation we now hear is good enough for the most brilliant non-existent Hollywood film you are never likely to see, in fact too good for it.

    ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’

    An old woman in the bar whom Y had not yet seen, one with a chicken. And conversation between Consul and Y about accompanying a dead child on a train journey, holding its hand, as one had to. We take a lot for granted in this book. But it somehow works, feels real. A time and a place. Overseen by two volcanos. One the author, the other the reader?

    Read up to: “‘I am taking the only way out, semicolon,’ the Consul offered cheerfully and, soberly in passing. ‘Good-bye, full stop. Change of paragraph, change of chapter, change of worlds –’”

  7. “– striking Yvonne as so strangely familiar all over again and yet so sharply strange after the year’s absence, the severance of thought and body, mode of being, became almost intolerable for a moment.”

    There is this Quarantined City type of dislocation through Yvonne’s eyes, upon her return here after a year, (the Frenchman in the first chapter being part of that sense of the past and the present) as she wanders the genius loci with the ever-tipsy Consul. A vague sense of wanting to take down the wall of divorce between them. A hot lazy nothingness with inferred positive vibes. As she sees herself as the bifurcated rock in the shop window, a gestalt sort of real-time review of her position –

    “Ah, who would have thought of it then as other than a single integrated rock? But granted it had been split, was there no way before total disintegration should set in of at least saving the severed halves? There was no way. The violence of the fire which split the rock apart had also incited the destruction of each separate rock, cancelling the power that might have held them unities. Oh, but why – by some fanciful geologic thaumaturgy, couldn’t the pieces be welded together again!”

    But then the earlier child corpse trope adds to the gestalt…

    “It came sailing out of nowhere, the child’s funeral, the tiny lace-covered coffin followed by the band: two saxophones, bass guitar, a fiddle, playing of all things ‘La Cucaracha’,”

    “What she could not have explained was that recently in her picture of Quauhnahuac this house hadn’t been here at all!”

    Perhaps Quauhnahuac should be called QC for short in future. QC again, not only for Quarantined City …

    ‘But I don’t think I finished about the little corpse. What is really so astonishing about him is that he has to be checked, actually checked, to the U.S. Border of Exit. While the charges for him are equivalent to two adult passengers –’

    This book often has a prophecy of a version of the modern ‘-‘ smiley face as next-part-of-the-dialogue-as-meaningful-silence device.
    And the US Border of Exit…?
    And now we come to Hugh. Who is Hugh? All part of this hot nothingness under two volcanos, a walk through the streets, regrouping, recouping, with Y and H part of this emerging scenario for the reader, and H’s relational connections – in this book’s gestalt rock – with GF the wandering and tipsy Consul, no longer with his job.
    “Apparently he’d teleported himself, or been deported, from America by cattle-truck”
    Hugh had, what was that, ‘teleported’ there?!! ‘-‘

    “Then since the other day Quauhnahuac had seemed, though emptied still, different – purged, swept clean of the past, with Geoffrey here alone, but now in the flesh, redeemable, wanting her help.”

    Read up to end of Chapter 2.

  8. Chapter 3

    “Regard: see how strange, how sad, familiar things may be.”

    “…carrying the inevitable mop.”

    We learn now to be in Consul GF’s mind, his drunken mind, his strychnine concoction from Doctor Vigil whom we first met in the first chapter within French Laruelle’s mind.
    GF’s disparate relationship with Y, and Y’s backstory as an unpretty but always nearly beautiful actress in Western pictures… Y who is no longer his. But she still wears his wedding ring, it seems,

    “Two ambiguities ought to make an affirmative and this is it, the coppery-tailed trogon, not the cardinal.”

    Madness, too, we meet in his mind as well as drunkenness and confused memories,.
    This is John Cowper Powys, as well as William H Gass, for me.
    We learn, too, of the half-brother relationship of Hugh. Hope that is not a spoiler for those reading this review without reading the book. Being in GF’s head at all is a spoiler, I guess.
    Like his view of the volcanos (Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl) as the Himalayas. Layers of him.

    “…too many surrogates in Harrogate,”

    “…that I am admitting moreover that to have cast Yvonne upon you in that fashion was a reckless action, almost, I was going to say, a clownish one, inviting in return the inevitable bladder on the brain, the mouthful and heartful of sawdust.”

    Trumpish, as well as clownish. One being unable to find his limo, the other falling in the street in a drunken stupor… ?
    Quixote in person as well as the stuffed Quixotes we’d been told about outside his abode.
    Quixote sounds like a Mexican word to me……………

    Read up to:-
    [Quote]‘But damn it all I say you were lying right down in the road there, might have run over you, there must be something wrong, what? No?’ The Englishman switched his engine off. ‘I say, haven’t I seen you before or something.’
    ‘-‘ [/Quote]

  9. “But then the other day I realized that the only thing I remembered about the whole book was that Napoleon’s leg twitched –’”

    This Consular drunkenness is both funny and pitiful. But there is a crazy sense to it, too, as he allows us to mix poignancy with absurdity in his delight at the Burke’s Irish whiskey the Englishman (a person coincidentally known to GF!) gives him after finding him collapsed on the road. And GF’s later manoeuvres with Yvonne, to regather as well as mutually spurn their intimacy in a series of hybrid moves. Nowhere else in literature – even in Joyce – will you receive such subtleties of emotion in conjunction with an oxymoron of withdrawn brazenness.
    Oxymoron – another Mexican volcano, I ask?
    The science of knowing when someone is drunk or likely to become sober again, and the upstart assumptions involved. The science and philosophy of drunkenness, as a masque, but a masque of what? Poe and the QC? Poe and ‘all is full of hell’ Blake?

    ‘Geoffrey, this house has become somehow evil –’

    ‘What’s the use of escaping’, he drew the moral with complete seriousness, ‘from ourselves?’

    Read up to the end of chapter 3.

  10. Chapter 4

    “‘I entered Mexico disguised as a cow so they’d think I was a Texan at the border and I wouldn’t have to pay any head tax. Or worse,’ Hugh said,”

    Hugh Firmin’s head, we’re now inside it. We feel his surprise at finding Yvonne in the vicinity of QC, and we sense for the first time the smoky brinkmanship of the looming volcanos, including his own enduringly theatrical or symbolic play with a cigarette, and the awkward brink of his backstory with Y as they surprisingly meet again; the brink of war as we learn he has left journalism with his last report about antisemitism. A smouldering billy goat, a shored-up entrance to a mine…

    “Only the Malebolge … And here is the Malebolge.” (Cf John Cowper Powys’ Malebolge here.)

    “Hugh laughed. ‘Journalism equals intellectual male prostitution of speech and writing, Yvonne. That’s one point on which I’m in complete agreement with Spengler. Hullo.’”

    “Hugh put one foot up on the parapet and regarded his cigarette that seemed bent, like humanity, on consuming itself as quickly as possible.”

    “Try persuading the world not to cut its throat for half a decade or more, like me, under one name or another, and it’ll begin to dawn on you that even your behaviour’s part of its plan. I ask you, what do we know?”

    In my own real-time, this is the day that Trump and Putin will meet for the first time, too. Just as awkward a meeting or brink as this one?

    Read up to:-
    “and it is all a bloody lie, he thought: we have fallen inevitably into it, it is as if, upon this one day in the year, the dead come to life,”

  11. “Each time the armadillo ran off, as if on tiny wheels, the little girl would catch it by its long whip of a tail and turn it over. How astonishingly soft and helpless it appeared then! Now she righted the creature and set it going once more,”

    We follow Hugh with Yvonne on rented mares as flanked by a ‘cavalcade’ of foals led by a dog, to outlying architectural sights, as Hugh queries the exact current triangulating of her coordinates with GF; has she gone back to him following their divorce? Her future with GF, say, in Canada? Is GF a black magician (judging by the book he has said he is writing)? Why does GF drink so much? And Hugh’s own blending of this wonderfully evoked Mexican landscape with his own yearning for an ocean life again?
    But I keep thinking of that armadillo that Y nearly took away from the little girl they met near a chateau… And the cinema that ever has Orlac due on.

    Read to the end of chapter 4.

  12. Chapter 5

    “Behind them walked the only living thing that shared their pilgrimage, the dog. And by degrees they reached the briny sea. Then, with souls well disciplined they reached the northern region, and beheld, with heaven aspiring hearts, the mighty mountain Himavat …”

    Having been with Hugh and Yvonne, we are now with (ex-)Consul gF, “tequila-unafraid”. having found a secret bottle of it he’d once hidden in his garden, on his ever-accreting Joycean Day of the Dead, not a Ulysses Day, but now a Finnegans Wake one for someone like me who distilled that strangest of all novels here, and now a useful guide for dreamcatching gF’s hallucinations and his ingrown madnesses of wordplay…
    horripilating hangover – gnattering demons
    Churlish river: Tartarus or jakes?

    He meets his testy neighbour Mr Quincy who prefers that gF vomits in his own garden not in Mrs Quincy’s!
    ‘in fact I expect Rousseau to come riding out of it at any moment on a tiger.’
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau? More Henri Rousseau, I suggest, who painted naïve tigers in jungles. A tiger burning bright?
    gF a drunken gif

    Read up to:- “Then, simultaneously, the two men groaned.”

  13. All the same, might I take this opportunity of asking you what you prescribe for a slight case of katzenjammer?’

    ‘(in the obscure language known only to major adepts in the Great Brotherhood of Alcohol),’

    “Comic ballet” morning, not a masque, but still the same Joycean Day? Manoeuvres of importance and unimportance…


    A series of passages that extend into other quite staggering passages, with only the beginnings of each one shown below –

    “Beyond the house, where now the problems awaiting him seemed already on the point of energetic solution, the day before him stretched out like an illimitable rolling wonderful desert in which one was going, though in a delightful way, to be lost: lost, but not so completely he would be unable to find the few necessary water-holes, or the scattered tequila oases where witty legionnaires of damnation who couldn’t understand a word he said, would wave him on, replenished, into that glorious Parián wilderness where man never went thirsty, and where now he was drawn on beautifully by the dissolving mirages past the skeletons like frozen wire and the wandering dreaming lions towards ineluctable personal disaster, always in a delightful way of course,”

    “he knew not only that they’d been talking about him, but, obscurely, from that bright fragment of overheard conversation, its round meaning, just as had he at that moment glimpsed the new moon with the old one in its arms, he might have been impressed by its complete shape, though the rest were shadowy, illumined only by earthlight.”

    “Inflamed minutiae”

    ‘I have another enemy round the back you can’t see. A sunflower. I know it watches me and I know it hates me.’

    ‘But a mesh? Mesh. The nerves are a mesh, like, how do you say it, an eclectic systemë.’

    systemë as gestalt?

    ‘and it was as though bits of his eyelids had broken off and were flittering and jittering before him, turning into nervous shapes and shadows,’

    Flat beer.

    “bombs threaten, ideas stampede –”

    “which mere insanity was drop in the bucket. Yet who would ever have believed that some obscure man, sitting at the centre of the world in a bathroom, say, thinking solitary miserable thoughts, was authoring their doom, that, even while he was thinking, it was as if behind the scenes certain strings were being pulled, and whole continents burst into flame, and calamity moved nearer”

    Organ stops.

    Smoke over Popo, but is it gunfire?

    ‘Repellent,’ the Consul said. ‘Isn’t Guanajuato the place they bury everybody standing up?’ –

    Insect world closing in.

    “he knew not only that they’d been talking about him, but, obscurely, from that bright fragment of overheard conversation, its round meaning, just as had he at that moment glimpsed the new moon with the old one in its arms, he might have been impressed by its complete shape, though the rest were shadowy, illumined only by earthlight.”

    This review does not pretend to help you with the plot (plenty of that on-line, I guess, if you need it.) This review is the ultimate vaguebooking about a book that is the ultimate vaguebook about states of minds, a state of a point in history, a triangulation of a point in geography, a hawling of meaningful madness.
    I shall be eternally grateful for being put back into this book after decades of life. Hawling a version of myself by means of my invention of this type of reviewing, as if I started doing it nine years ago in preparation for rereading this very unmissable book.

    Read up to the end of chapter 5.

  14. Chapter 6

    “he lay watching the clouds speeding across the Mexican skies. How fast they went, how far too fast! In the middle of our life, in the middle of the bloody road of our life …”

    As he does so, Hugh slipstreams through his life in his head, and watching clouds represented my own first triangulation as a measure against time, but Hugh’s deathphobia comes relatively young in his trail or race of clouds, his sea voyages to sell his songs (one song is even called “I’m Home-sick for Being Homesick”). He even compares himself to Adolf Hitler. Much of his life (most of which I will not cover here) rolls before our eyes here like a portable screen on the back burner of his and our brain. A life for its own sake, not for the novel’s. In fact, I get the sense that you can read these chapters in any order and still get their sense upon a cloudscape of time, whether linear or not.
    This is literature that actually changes real-time around you, eventually to have its gestalt clinched by hindsight. But hindsight can never end: a realisation that can obviate deathphobia, I guess.
    (And I am still only partway through Hugh’s ruminations of relative fame!)

    Read up to:
    “the whole ship rolled and weltered in bourgeois prejudices and taboos the like of which Hugh had not known even existed. Or so it seemed to him. It is wrong, though, to say she rolled. Hugh, far from aspiring to be a Conrad, as the papers suggested, had not then read a word of him.”

  15. “Now at sea more days are more dollars, however few. And at sea likewise three months is a terribly long while. But fourteen months (Hugh had not yet read Melville either) is an eternity.”

    Hugh at sea, in his head. The sea and its fame of communication as a sort of prophecy of today’s Internet sea, a sea that takes our yearned-for fame, Hugh’s songs being here the case in point that he dreams are being heard and sold at every sea’s port, through each “hawsehole” or “stokehold”, mixed with the toing and froing of a hierarchy of the sea’s crewmen. A dream Archipelago, that mixes with Hugh’s own seductions of publisher’s wives and his questionable attitude to Jews, despite his later journalism on their behalf. And other dreams that curdled his nostalgic verities of England towards our own times toDAY via his own conflictive times then. And the once potential plagiarisms of his songs and scores being sold upon a digital sea’s crescendo and diminuendo.

    “To the sailor life at sea was no senseless publicity stunt. It was dead serious. Hugh was horribly ashamed of ever having so exploited it.”

    “And the polygonous proustian stare of imaginary scorpions.”

    “the strange dream of some old monk, eight hundred years dead, whose forbidding house, reared upon piles and stakes driven into the marshy ground, had once shone like a beacon out of the mysterious silence, and solitude of the fens.”

    And so we turn back to the genius loci of QC in Mexico in this book’s toDAY and his half brother GF – and all mixes with the latter’s own alcoholic shakes and delirium tremens, only to be steadied like a ship on the sea by another found art of a bottle with drink in it, instead of a message.

    Read up to:
    “…an immense guitar, inside which an oddly familiar infant was hiding, curled up, as in a womb –)”

  16. “The Consul spoke haltingly while Hugh shaved his neck.
    ‘And do you see that sunflower looking in through the bedroom window? It stares into my room all day.’
    ‘It strolled into your room, do you say?’
    ‘Stares. Fiercely. All day. Like God!’”

    Hugh shaves his half brother’s neck and generally makes him shipshape for a trip out. To a place they had chosen? Or the zoo?
    There is a tiger mentioned again, and a boa constrictor. But nothing to do with the zoo.
    Hugh streams his thoughts within brackets as he shaves GF the Consul, his half brother. Do two half brothers make one brother, I wonder? His thoughts continue the thrust of the networking of Internet sea, his guitar, songs et al. His striving for fame…

    “so – yet becoming increasingly conscious of loneliness, isolation – aware too of an odd habit of thrusting myself to the fore, then subsiding – as if one remembered one hadn’t the guitar after all … Maybe I bored people with my guitar. But in a sense – who cares? – it strung me to life –)”

    This dreamcatcher-net strung me to life in my latter years.

    ‘you may have learned about Guelphs and so on … But did you know that no angel with six wings is ever transformed?’

    (Cf my review of Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem.)

    Yvonne joins them for the trip. They meet Laruelle, who sort of latches on to Y. We continue to absorb the half-meanings of these relationships. And all of these manoeuvres, in an ambiance & language not to die for, but to kill you.
    SPOILER: They also meet a postman – what a character!! what theatrical business! – and he brings, inter alios, a postcard from Y that was posted a year ago!
    Retrocausality in action. An obsession of mine.
    Somebody yesterday on the Internet sea (face book) posted for me a brand new article about retrocausality, viz. https://phys.org/news/2017-07-physicists-retrocausal-quantum-theory-future.html

    Read up to end of chapter 6.
    Hawled and trawled.

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