Under the Volcano … and an inquiry into the life and death of Malcolm Lowry.


And now he saw them, smelt them, all, from the very beginning—bottles, bottles, bottles, and glasses, glasses, glasses, of bitter, of Dubonnet, of Falstaff, Rye, Johnny Walker, Vieux Whiskey blanc Canadien, the apéritifs, the digestifs, the demis, the dobles, the noch ein Herr Obers, the et glas Araks, the tusen taks, the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal.
— Malcolm Lowry, in Under the Volcano

In 2015, I had the pleasure of reading the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a substantial portion of which takes place in Mexico. At present, I’m wading through Novel Explosives by Jim Gauer, another hefty novel centering on Mexico, and also writing a column about mezcal for Food & Dining Magazine.

It was only a matter of time until an old fascination came back to seize me: Under the Volcano, the legendary novel by Malcolm Lowry, telling the story of the doomed, self-destructive Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, stumbling drunkenly through his last day on earth, amid the Day of the Dead, in the shadow of two Mexican volcanoes.

Booze flows through Lowry’s writing. It’s a way of escape, as much as the sea voyages and plane journeys he wrote about. In Medieval times, a definition of possession included drunkenness, and Lowry was well aware of drink’s shamanic association:

“The agonies of the drunkard find their most accurate poetic analogue in the agonies of the mystic who has abused his powers.”

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this 1976 documentary film about Malcolm Lowry, arguably the English-speaking literary world’s most infamous alcoholic, is that Richard Burton, himself a legendary drinker, was both willing and eager to act as conduit for Lowry’s voice.

This feature-length Oscar®-nominated documentary focuses on Malcolm Lowry, author of one of the major novels of the 20th century, Under the Volcano. But while Lowry fought a winning battle with words, he lost his battle with alcohol. Shot on location in four countries, the film combines photographs, readings by Richard Burton from the novel and interviews with the people who loved and hated Lowry, to create a vivid portrait of the man.

The excellent short essay at Dangerous Minds offers this disclaimer:

(The documentary) does create a vivid portrait, but one under the shadow of Lowry’s last wife Marjorie Bonner, and it was not until after her death, in 1988, and the publication of Gordon Bowker’s top class biography, Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry, that a complete picture of Lowry came to fruition.

D.T. Max’s 2007 essay in The New Yorker provides more information on Lowry’s “mysterious demise.”

Margerie at first told friends that there had been a suicide note but then said that there wasn’t. The lack of a note surprised them. Alcohol would hardly have stopped his pen—he wrote while drunk all the time. And he was someone for whom written words accompanied nearly every moment of life; he even scrawled observations as he sat drunk in bars. Some four hundred jotted notes to Margerie are in the British Columbia archive—messages from El Leon to Miss Hartebeeste. “Lowry was always saying, ‘Make notes,’ “ Markson told me. Lowry’s despair was always part theatre; and, for such a person, self-destruction practically demanded documentation.

To me, the film’s early 1970s footage of England, New York City, Mexico and Vancouver is what resonates. The dive bars in the Big Apple? Those are pre-gentrification. The Mexican urban vistas wouldn’t have been altered much from Lowry’s period of residence prior to WWII. The “beer parlor” in Vancouver — well, who among us knew there was such a thing?

Having read Kunstler’s forecast for 2017, it’s obvious that we’re headed back … toward Lowry, not away from him.

But look at that sunlight there, look at the way it falls through the window. What beauty can compare with that of a cantina in the early morning? This cantina has been open all night and so cannot compare with the beauty of one which has just opened, which most of them do in a couple of hours, and not even the opening gates of heaven could mean as much to me as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked, jostling, jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they unsteadily carry to their lips. All mystery, all assuagement of hope, all disappointment is here, beyond those swinging doors. “And do you see that old woman from Tarasco over there playing dominoes?” he asked aloud. But his glance implied: how, unless you drink, can you understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?