“A little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing.” — Malcolm Lowry
Reading Under the Volcano again. No wonder I put it down three or four times before plowing thru. The first section is a fog of words about characters whom you do not know, pieces of incidents half illuminated, nothing spelled out… little to hold onto. Reading on is thus almost a matter of faith. “There must be something here” because of the critical acclaim it achieved. He re-wrote it 17 or 19 times. It must be this way deliberately… inaccessible to all but the most determined.
— Journal note, June 15, 2000
My original fascination with Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano was due to its purported structure, corresponding to the Kabbalah, with its origins in Jewish mysticism. Having long fashioned myself as a mystic of sorts, I attempted several times to read this book which proved to be too tedious to get fully engaged with. Eventually, I did get past the fog and received much enjoyment from the read, aesthetically and emotionally.
It’s a tragic story about the last twenty-four hours in the life of a once important man, a British consul in Mexico. The tragedy that is Mexico is played out as an undercurrent in this book which later became a film directed by John Huston and starring Albert Finney (“Daddy Warbucks” of the musical Annie.)
Of special interest to me are the scenes in Tepotztlan, a small town near Cuernavaca and one of my favorites, where I had visited during Easter 1981. The annual ceremonies surrounding the crucifixion, featured in this film as the Day of the Dead is celebrated, recalled that time for me. The film provided an opportunity to relive that 1981 experience, to re-ignite its memory.
My first encounter with the Kabbalah came through the writings of Jacob Boehme, a mystic from centuries past who wrote about the “super-sensual life” or “Life which is above Sense.” One who reads Under the Volcano seeking to find echoes of such things will likely come away disappointed. Perhaps the books structure is thus designed, but like the skeletal system that supports our bodies, I do not believe you’ll see any of it.
The novel is about the tragic fatalism of one very isolated man whose sole preoccupation is, “Where will I get my next drink.” But the story is much more than that, and for this reason, I believe the determined reader will ultimately be rewarded. And for those who appreciate good writing, there are some very nicely written sentences.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
Photo credit: The Author, from my year in Mexico.