October 23, 2004

Under the Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry

1947

Original language: English

Since I first read Under the Volcano in between Paradise Lost Books IX and X during my last year at Oxford, I have been in no doubt that it is my personal choice for ‘Greatest Novel Ever Written’.

With little more left in my memory than a mescal-soaked English consul swerving through a nightmare Mexican landscape on the ‘Day of the Dead’, something between the bridge of hell in Apocalypse Now and a Graham Greene Englishman craving mercy in an alien jungle, I felt a clear compulsion to read the book again, as if it held a secret I needed to rediscover, or understand.

With its stunning new ‘laughing skull’ cover, it arrived as a gift on my sixtieth birthday like a ticking bomb.

I have read the first three chapters (plus the extraordinary introduction by an academic of tenuous Lowry connections who appears determined to downgrade the book on virtually every level for which it is acclaimed).

It is very different from what I was anticipating, what I thought I remembered, except in the most superficial way of a drunk consul on a Day of the Dead in Mexico, beneath the two great volcanoes. I had forgotten how funny it was. I had no idea of how obviously and pervasively it had influenced the way I write (the rambling sentences, interminable mountains of clauses, meandering circles of thoughts spreading out until eventually, usually, coming back together long after most people could remember where they had begun, the reliance on iambic rhythms to determine a sentence’s structure, as a substitute for punctuation) - I am already sounding like the weird professor of the introduction, who nevertheless did say - in a sudden lapse from bitter deconstruction - that Lowry was probably right when he said no-one could begin to understand the book’s multi-layered meaning until at least a fifth reading. So for the moment I shall leave this reunion with this pre-notification of my undertaking, possibly reporting in occasionally during times of stress or elation, and definitely expecting to make a few well-chosen remarks as I duly give Lowry his five stars once, and immediately, the end is reacvhed of this mere second encounter. Already I have learnt that there is no way I could just read it through like a thriller - I have had a desperate need for more regular ‘comfort’ books since the first paragraph of Chapter 3, so have no idea how things will go between us in the time to come.

Posted by Iain Stewart at October 23, 2004 05:55 PM

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