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Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano

This book is one of those books that goes through fashions. At some periods, it has been considered the greatest English novel of the twentieth century. At others, it seems somewhat tired and dated. For what it is worth, I consider it to be one of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century and others do too.

It tells the story of one day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin – in fact his last day on Earth. It is set in the fictitious town of Quauhnahuac in Mexico (based on Cuernevaca) on the appropriately chosen Day of the Dead. Firmin is the ex British consul, though known to everyone as The Consul. He is divorced from his wife Yvonne. At the start of the day, she has returned to him to try and patch things up. Firmin is also a serious alcoholic and much of the novel recounts his drinking or the effects of his drinking on his mind and body. The other key character is Firmin’s half-brother Hugh. Hugh was a correspondent for The Daily Globe but has recently resigned. He is currently living with his brother and concerned about the Spanish Civil War, which is going on at the time. Apparently, he had previously had an affair with Yvonne. Both Yvonne – killed by a horse – and Geoffrey Firmin – killed by thugs and the police – end up dead.

What makes this novel such a good novel is the character of Firmin. Here is a man – an alcoholic, depressed, out of job, clearly coming to the end of something (as it happens, his life, but we do not know that at the beginning) – who is unsure of his relations with his ex-wife, unsure whether they can be renewed or not, clearly saddened at his lost opportunities (as are his ex-wife and half-brother). Though it is only set in a small Mexican town, he makes a mythic journey round the town, visiting the Day of the Dead celebrations but also sees a film, visits cantinas, sees an Indian dying, in short makes a journey that is full of meaning both for him and for the reader. One of the key parts of his journey is merely a simple piece of graffiti he sees on a wall No se puede vivir sin amar – One cannot live without loving, which becomes the motif for the book. It has been said that this novel is an allegory about Europe – old Europe – heading to war and unprepared for it. This may be the case but the strength of the novel is Lowry’s brilliant writing, the character of Geoffrey Firmin and his inexorable journey to the abyss.

Publishing history

First published 1947 by Reynal & Hitchcock and Jonathan Cape