Thursday, March 17, 2016

the last book I read

Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

Geoffrey Firmin, British ex-consul of a town in Mexico, is in one of its bars at 7am on the Day Of The Dead (our own Hallowe'en, broadly speaking) taking the hangover-avoidance advice variously attributed to WC Fields, Dean Martin and Dorothy Parker: "stay drunk". He's therefore somewhat ill-prepared for the unexpected arrival of his estranged wife, Yvonne, whose sudden reappearance marks the beginning of a day of wild adventures; it will also be the last day of Geoffrey's life.

Yvonne has returned to Quauhnahuac, in the shadow of the twin volcanoes Popocat├ępetl and Iztaccihuatl, in a last-ditch attempt to save Geoffrey from his rampant alcoholism. Not that Yvonne has been blameless in the disintegration of their relationship, mind you, as in addition to having a fling with French film director and local resident M. Laruelle she's also slept with Geoffrey's half-brother Hugh. Right on cue Hugh, who leads a wandering existence as a musician and journalist, turns up at the house. Geoffrey is having a nap and attempting half-heartedly to sober up, so Yvonne and Hugh go for a horse-ride to pass some time.

Partly to escape the awkwardness of their situation, and partly to keep Geoffrey off the whisky for five minutes, the three decide to take a day trip. Taking a bus to a nearby town, they make an unscheduled stop when they pass a Mexican in the road who has been beaten and robbed and is pretty clearly dying. No-one on the bus wants to get involved, though, for fear of being implicated in his death, so eventually they move on. They mooch around for a bit in town, taking in a bullfight and a visit to a bar, where after a few more drinks Geoffrey and Hugh get into an argument and Geoffrey storms drunkenly out.

Yvonne and Hugh decide that they'd better go after Geoffrey, but it's not clear where he's gone. Concluding that he's probably made his way to the next town, and probably done so via a route that includes a couple of bars, they set off through the jungle in pursuit.

Meanwhile Geoffrey has reached his destination - his final destination - a bar right under the slopes of Popocat├ępetl. Here he drinks some more mescal, reads some old love-letters from his wife, and is confronted by some representatives of the local police force, who are highly suspicious of westerners and take a dim view of Geoffrey's failure to co-operate. Eventually the situation escalates, a scuffle breaks out, and Geoffrey is shot and his body hurled down a ravine. Meanwhile a horse, spooked by the gunfire, runs off down a jungle path and tramples and kills Yvonne.

Well, so that's just your basic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, with added pub crawls, extra-judicial killing and illegal corpse disposal, you might say, but as so often a surface reading of the narrative doesn't quite reveal the full story.

The most obvious thing to say is that this is a book liberally soaked, steeped, soused, marinated in booze. Geoffrey gets through a heroic quantity of whisky, tequila and mescal during the course of the book, leavened only by the occasional beer ("full of vitamins") as a pick-me-up, and since most of the story is seen through Geoffrey's eyes (the other bits are written from either Hugh or Yvonne's viewpoint except for the opening framing chapter - set a year later - which is M. Laruelle's) he's the ultimate unreliable narrator - one who's completely arseholed all the time. We've all probably been in the situation of misjudging one's own level of sobriety during a drinking session and imagining that one is holding forth on a variety of topics with consummate wit and charm, while those around us just see some rambling cretin spouting slurred nonsense.

And it's not just the basic drunkenness - long-term alcohol abuse has all sorts of neurological implications, from the painful extremities that Geoffrey suffers from (and which prevent him putting his socks on) to visual and auditory hallucinations. So it's never entirely clear which stuff is actually happening and which bits are just inside Geoffrey's head.

Lowry didn't have to do much in the way of research for Geoffrey Firmin, as he was himself a roaringly hopeless alcoholic, who died at the age of 47 after an unwise cocktail of drink and barbiturates. Under The Volcano was the second of only two novels he ever published, and you get the feeling he knew he wouldn't write anything else of any significance, so he was going to throw everything he had at this one. So it's dense with allusions, digressions, flashbacks, as well as some prodigiously long sentences and some chapters (the last one in particular) which are mainly intimidating stream-of-consciousness walls of text.

That makes it sound difficult to read, but I didn't find it to be that, or at least not in the same way as The Autumn Of The Patriarch, which did some similar tricks with immensely long sentences. That said, you won't race through it, but it's well worth having a go at, if only for one of the most vividly convincing depictions of alcoholism I've ever read: the raw grinding need for a drink, the furtiveness, the terrible hopeless clammy despair and self-disgust on succumbing to temptation, the maudlin regret and wild promises to reform, give up, spend some quality time with the family, play more tennis, etc. etc. Geoffrey isn't just a drunk, though, he's obviously an intelligent man with a moderately distinguished military past, and you care about him enough to find his long meandering stagger towards his inevitable demise tragic rather than comic (though there are a few blackly comic moments).

Under The Volcano is pretty much guaranteed to be on any "best 20th-century novels" list you can find, including the TIME Magazine list that's featured here many times before, but also lists from the Guardian, the BBC, and the Modern Library. Under The Volcano is number 11 on that list; other novels on that list to appear on this blog are numbers 2, 4, 21, 55, 63, 64, 70, 90 and 99.

Under The Volcano was also made into a film, directed by veteran John Huston, in 1984. I haven't seen it, but it gained Albert Finney an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Geoffrey Firmin - F. Murray Abraham won that year for Amadeus.

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