Possibly the most astonishing thing, for me anyway, about Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is that it has managed to fly under my radar for so long. I’ve been obsessed with it this past week, and have been doing some research, and have found, among other things, that it is rated as the 11th best book of the 20th century by the editors of the Modern Library. Now, these sorts of lists are always best with a good helping of salt; this one includes such clunkers as Portnoy’s Complaint and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and awards the silver medal to The Great Gatsby, which I personally feel is one of the most overrated books of all time. (Some day, when I really feel like pissing people off, I may make a little list of some others.) And I’m fascinated to see that 99 of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century were written in English. The sole exception is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, who happens to have spent most of his working life in England and America.
Wasn’t I supposed to be writing about Under the Volcano? Okay, I’ve gotten off track. Not the first time, either, as sharp-eyed readers of this column just may have noticed. Used to drive my Trends and Concepts in American Literature professor nuts. There was, for instance, that scrambled essay I wrote on ‘The Triumph of the Egg’ . . .
Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of the novel I’m supposed to be writing about, has gotten off track as well. A tragic hero born with all the makings of greatness, the gods began testing him too hard and at too young an age, heaping trials upon trials (including an actual trial, a court-marshal for a crime he did not commit, but that occurred under his watch) upon his head until, by the time of the action of the book, he is employed mostly in drinking himself to death in a God-forsaken mountain town in Mexico.
Lowry combines the erudition and density of symbolism of James Joyce with William Faulkner’s alcoholic ability to string together ideas in the way they are sometimes connected in dreams. Here is a sample from a page chosen, believe it or don’t, at random:
There is, sometimes in thunder, another person who thinks for you, takes in one’s mental porch furniture, shuts and bolts the mind’s window against what seems less appalling as a threat than as some distortion of celestial privacy, a shattering insanity in heaven, a form of disgrace forbidden mortals to observe too closely: but there is always a door open for Jesus to walk in—for the entrance and the reception of the thunderbolt that never falls on oneself, for the lightning that always hits the next street, for the disaster that so rarely strikes at the disastrous likely hour, and it was through this mental door that Yvonne, still balancing herself on the log, now perceived that something was menacingly wrong. In the slackening thunder something was approaching with a noise that was not the rain. It was an animal of some sort, terrified by the storm, and whatever it might be—a deer, a horse, unmistakably it had hooves—it was approaching at a dead run, stampeding, plunging through the undergrowth: and now as the lightning crashed again and the thunder subsided she heard a protracted neigh becoming a scream almost human in its panic.