Lowry began writing at the same time as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, when the fashion was to interweave bits of other authors’ texts into one’s own, a way of maintaining tradition in the midst of Jazz Age modernity. At his best, Lowry mixes allusions together into a heady tonic. His derivativeness, however, limits the effect of all his works except Under the Volcano, whose success consists precisely in the style’s being awash with the drunken flow of the main character’s memories. Joyce, however, had already achieved such inebriated stream of consciousness in a long section of Ulysses (1922). The originality of Under the Volcano consists in its not reconciling contradictions, even as tentatively as Joyce’s Ulysses or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Instead, Lowry’s characters are dependent personalities, who need to lean on one another, but influenced by the mutually antagonistic diversities of their world, they betray and thus destroy one another. Neither previously nor thereafter did Lowry ever again achieve this felicitous harmony of form and content.
His first novel, Ultramarine (1933, revised 1962), was nicknamed “purple passage” by Aiken because it presents Lowry’s emotional sufferings in the merchant marine so pretentiously that it elicited more boredom than sympathy. His posthumously published works include the unfinished novella Lunar Caustic (1968), an account of his time in Bellevue; an unfinished novel, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (1968), a meditation on the trauma of having written Under the Volcano; and another unfiished novel, October Ferry to Gabriola (1970), a philosophically and psychologically elaborated recollection of a voyage Lowry took with Margerie. Some of his short stories have been collected in the volumes Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961) and Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs (1975), while his Selected Poems (1962) and the Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry (1965) have also appeared. An excerpt from his most fragmentary manuscript, “La Morbida,” was published in The Voyage That Never Ends: Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Letters (2007). Because they are unfinished, his posthumous works are at best a tantalizing taste of what might have been, and they are often intuitions of how his meditative time in the beautiful Canadian wilderness could have begun to heal him if he had overcome his alcoholism.
Under the Volcano
First published: 1947
Type of work: Novel
During twelve hours on November 2, 1938, ending with his murder, Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul in Mexico, drinks instead of working at that profession, or laboring on the occult book he wants to write, or reconciling with his estranged wife.
In the most symbolically charged scene of Under the Volcano—a garden, with a snake, where Geoffrey keeps talking about Eden—he proclaims that ownership of property was obviously the original sin. This is, of course, not the only theme of the complex book, but it is its core, holding together its social, religious, and literary vision. The fundamental problem of property takes many forms. For Geoffrey’s brother Hugh, it includes his greedily plagiarizing others’ songs as his own, even while stealing his publisher’s wife. For Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne, it is memories of her lost material success as an actress, dragging her away from Geoffrey. For Geoffrey himself, it is his position as paid defender of British territories in the period when he had some complicity in German soldiers being burned alive. The different forms of guilt that the characters feel are variations of the way coveting or defending property divides people from one another.
By the final draft of the novel, Lowry’s long fascination with the supernatural had brought him under the influence of the occultist Charles Stansfield Jones (also known as Frater Achad), whom Lowry met in Canada. Based on Jones’s synthesis of various kinds of mysticism, including Jewish Kabbala, Lowry associated the divisive power of property with the metaphysical idea that, in the beginning, God’s divine energy entered vessels that broke, with the tragic consequence being the multiplicity of the material world where there should have been divine unity. As Lowry explained in his preface to the French translation of the novel, Geoffrey should have been a prophet, whose consciousness was bringing the world back toward that unity. Being infirm instead of firm, Geoffrey,...
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