Book Review #3: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Under the Volcano cover

Under the Volcano is one of those books that you cannot simply read casually. It’s the kind of novel that requires you to take a short pause after each paragraph and really think about what you just read. It’s truly dense and packed to the bursting point with symbolism and hidden meaning, and if that isn’t your kind of thing, you will probably strongly dislike this book. Otherwise, you’re in for a real treat.

The book details the various activities of Geoffrey Firmin, his ex-wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh, over the course of a single day, namely, the Day of the Dead, in the city of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on the thoughts and actions of one of the characters, and every one of them has a distinct way of thinking. The narrative is frequently sidetracked and taken on tangents by the characters thoughts. In one rather extreme example, Hugh spends almost the entire forty-page chapter lounging in a pool chair and reminiscing on his life. In that respect, Under the Volcano is very Ulysses-like, even if it is miles easier in terms of writing.

Speaking of writing, Lowry’s narrative voice is great, if at points confusing and overly complex. His writing is eloquent and often poetic. He really knows how to take the emotions and thoughts of his characters and beautifully put them to paper. That’s not to say his style isn’t very difficult to understand. Sentences are multi-layered, strangely worded and very long-winded. A basic understanding of Spanish also helps, as there is quite a bit of dialog and other phrases that require that you have at least a small grasp on the language. While I certainly don’t consider any of that a negative, it does require an extra level of concentration for pretty much the entirety of the novel. If you aren’t up for that, I wouldn’t recommend you read it.

So to conclude, this is a very intricate, powerful and thought-provoking novel. If you are willing to put in the effort to really give it a thorough reading and analysis, it’s a hugely rewarding undertaking. Malcolm Lowry has certainly written a masterpiece here, just one that not everyone will enjoy, per se. I certainly enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it. Just know what you’re getting into.

Next Up: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

Reading Update: Halfway Through Under the Volcano

Halfway there! So far, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry has been outstanding. It’s quite the depressing read, but Lowry’s writing and characterization is incredible. As for the plot so far, one of the things I have noticed is that it is very sparse in terms of actual plot events. For example, the main character Geoffrey, a.k.a. The Consul, at one point spends almost twenty pages simply having an idle chat with his neighbor while they do yardwork. He doesn’t really accomplish anything in doing so, and the reader might be left wondering what the point of the entire scene was, but that’s the point, or so I can tell. It’s not a novel about action, but rather introspection. It’s about gazing inwards, rather than outwards. What gets done, and not much has at this point, doesn’t matter. What matters is the inner conflict and anguished thoughts of the characters, as they lounge around, ride horses down nature trails, and generally just bathe in their own sorrow and depression.

So far from what I can tell about the book, one of the main themes is misunderstanding. None of the characters really seem to know each other, even family and close friends. Geoffrey’s doctor keeps nagging him about giving up his drinking habits, and the reader can clearly see, as is usually the case with severe alcoholism, that it’s nowhere near as easy as just putting down the whiskey and quitting. ┬áHis doctor, however, doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is for him. Hugh, his half-brother, is another good example of a disconnect between people and their understanding of each other. In one particular scene, written from Hugh’s point of view, the narrative makes frequent jumps between his rambling, aimless inner monologue and the conversation that he’s having with Geoffrey as he helps him shave. It’s very clear that Hugh is not at all engaged in the conversation, as when the book jumps back to his thoughts, his mind is occupied with something completely different and unrelated.

So, two-hundred pages in, I can already tell that this is an incredible book. It’s very character-driven, with almost no actual action to be spoken of, but Malcolm Lowry pulls that off masterfully, giving a detailed and incredibly sad portrait of his character’s inner struggles. Needless to say, I am highly enjoying this novel, and will probably place it very high in my rankings. The review should be up in about a week, see you then!