Malcolm Lowry, “Under the Volcano” (1947) – There’s a few categories of book I’m not good at reviewing (“yeah, books with words in ‘em!” I can hear you smart alecs saying). One is nonfiction books that are just generally good, and where I don’t have a critique or an entry point into the debates surrounding it. Another is literary fiction I can tell is “good” in some sense of depth, inventive language, etc. but which doesn’t especially move or interest me.
It’s a somewhat embarrassing roster of heavy hitters I can say that about: most of the Dostoyevsky I’ve read (I like “Notes From Underground” and need to get around to “Demons”), Faulkner (which makes it the two writers one of my best friends wrote his senior thesis on, sorry Aaron), Gunter Grass, Proust, Garcia Marquez, and most of Joyce (I like his short fiction). Maybe I’m intimidated by their name value into saying I recognize their value, but I’m perfectly willing to say I flatly dislike some serious writers (Updike, Plath, Franzen), so I don’t think that’s it. What can I say? I’m a simple historian at the end of the day.
I think I can pretty definitively put Malcolm Lowry on that honored roster. “Under the Volcano” has a lot going on, and some interesting hallucinatory language. There was some interesting stuff about Mexican and international (mostly Spanish Civil War) politics, which I clung to like a life raft. It got across a sense of hungover dread pretty well. But… I didn’t know what was going on much of the time, or felt invested in the story at all. The language wasn’t interesting or aesthetic enough to make up for that. I just wound up waiting for the volcano to blow up, literally or figuratively. Spoiler alert: it’s figurative. I’d put him on the low end of the bench of team “‘good’ literature I can’t get in to,” if Dostoyevsky and Garcia Marquez are among its starters.
It’s interesting to read Lowry’s story of a drunken British consul in a small Mexican city next to another “great” British novel set in revolutionary Mexico, Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.” Greene could theoretically belong on the roster with Lowry, but there’s a clear bifurcation at work. I actually quite like Greene’s “entertainments,” like “Our Man in Havana.” He should’ve stuck to crime/spy fiction, in my opinion- it’s in his “novels” where he tries to say something about the human condition that he got into trouble. Both “Under the Volcano” and “The Power and the Glory” use post-revolutionary Mexico as a backdrop for the existential crises of English alcoholics. The contrasts are instructive: conservative Catholic-convert Greene writes the story you see a few times in his “serious” work- the apotheosis of a cowardly drunk through the workings of ineffable grace. The writing is quite clear, whatever else you want to say about it. Lowry, who seems like he was vaguely left-leaning when that was cool in the thirties but was basically checked out (and mired in the bottle) in the last years when he was writing this, both lacks the epiphanies that make Greene hard to swallow, but also lacks the clarity that makes it possible to swallow at all.
Not to be all tumblr or anything, but I gotta say- presumably stuff was happening in Mexico in the thirties to Mexicans, not just to sad British drunks. Do we have “classic” novels that fit that description? Those, I’d like to have a look at. **’