Under the Volcano Themes
by Malcolm Lowry

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Under the Volcano Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

If Ernest Hemingway was right when he declared that what writers talk about they do not write, Malcolm Lowry's epistolary preoccupations may very well have distracted him from writing fiction. In a sense, however, readers are the beneficiaries of the fruits of Lowry's defects as a working novelist. The long letter he wrote to the English publisher Jonathan Cape on January 2, 1946, protesting a Cape reader's recommendations for cutting and altering, is so thorough an anatomization of the book's themes and techniques that Granville Hicks praised it as "the most careful exposition of the creative imagination" he had ever encountered. Stephen Spender recommended that the letter be made the standard preface to Under the Volcano. His novel, Lowry wrote, is "principally concerned with the guilt of man, with his remorse, with his ceaseless struggling toward the light under the weight of the past, and with his doom."

Although Under the Volcano, a novel by a possessed man writing about a possessed man, is fiction's most powerful clinic on the moment-to-moment agony of the drinker of sensibility, the Consul's alcoholism functions, thematically, as a correlative for the universal drunkenness of mankind during humanity's "binge" just after the Spanish Republic fell to Franco and just before Hitler invaded Poland.

Lowry also wrote, with characteristic diffidence, that his magnum opus "makes provision . . . for almost every kind of reader." It "can be read simply as a story . . . a kind of symphony . . . a kind of opera — or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall. It can even be regarded as a sort of machine; it works too, believe me, as I have found out."

No critical consensus about Under the Volcano has emerged forty years after original publication. "The numerous hiatuses and ambiguities of Lowry's multileveled, mannered, encyclopedic narrative seem positively to invite multiple interpretations," English critic Ronald Binns wrote in 1984. Biographer Douglas Day, paying tribute to the book as "the greatest religious novel of this century," analyzed five major elements: landscape, characterization, politics, the occult, and religion. Earlier, Dale Edmonds, discussing Under the Volcano at the "immediate level," also located five major aspects, as follows: (1) "The Weight of the Past," the complex linkups — both...

(The entire section is 610 words.)