Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry – Mine’s a Sparkling Water, Thank You

“Would you deny the Consul such astounding visions? Me neither. In fact, I think I’ll have a mescal myself …”

Sam Jordisan – the Guardian

Published in 1947, Under the Volcano is Malcolm Lowry’s famous book about Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul, living in Mexico, trying to resurrect a relationship with his ex wife. The action takes place over the period of one day, the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Drink is a big thing in this book. Alcohol provides the extreme experience that people often look for in reading a novel, enjoying drama and danger without the risk. For some, all the visions, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, might even make heavy drinking an attractive real-world option. In The Guardian, I found a reviewer who was inspired to reach for an explosive glass of mescal. Writing for The Guardian must have felt pedestrian compared to the galactic visions provided by Mexican alcoholic beverages.

My reading of Under the Volcano, did not leave me wanting to reach for mescal. Apart from graphic descriptions of the physical horribleness of alcoholism, there was the confirmation that any supposed exciting elements of alcohol, potentially bringing colour to the humdrum lives of Guardian journalists, are an illusion. My favourite scene in the book involved an ‘over the garden fence’ conversation between Firmin and his neighbour, Quincey, a dull, American retiree. Quincey is a conventional, judgemental fellow whose imagination does not stray beyond the watering of plants in his beautifully kept garden. Firmin, too bohemian, drunk and out-there to worry about anything as suburban as watering and pruning, has a derelict garden. The irony is, Firmin, searching for a bottle hidden in his weeds, is not really breaking free from conventional limits through drinking. For all his visions of flying amongst the stars, alcohol has him in a ruthless death grip. And there’s a further irony in the name of his narrow-minded neighbour. Quincey’s name echoes that of the author of 1821’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey, founder of the ‘addiction literature’ genre. There is a suggestion that Firmin and his symbolically named neighbour are actually living similar lives. Both inhabit their own Garden of Eden, and both in their own way have brambles invading their pleasure grounds.

I have to say I didn’t really enjoy Under the Volcano. The action is supposed to happen over a single day, but that’s not how it felt. There were so many walks and visits to people’s houses or bars, trips to fiestas, and days out on buses, that it didn’t seem feasible to pack all this into a day. And between great descriptive passages, and sections like the Quincey conversation, there were long stretches, particularly in the second half, which I found confusing, and I have to admit, boring. Finally, the life of constant drinking did not resonate with me. I had one or two evenings at university involving quite a lot of drink, but they only taught me I didn’t like it. There’s no point pretending I’m some kind of William Burroughs. Drinking always left me feeling terrible, and provided no ethereal visions. Maybe I was a total lightweight, and if I’d tried harder, and drunk the equivalent of Crime and Punishment, the rewards would have come. But I very much doubt it. The alcohol would have killed me before I got anywhere near that point.

In no sense am I envious of Firmin’s experience. I appreciated the descriptive writing, and the contradictions involving freedom applying to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but it was a relief to reach the end.

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