Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Under the Volcano (by Malcolm Lowry)

After I finished the Radcliffe list, I peeked at my booklists again. I'm still 41 books short of the MLA list and something like 50 short of the Time Magazine list, so both of those will take a while. But I did make a note of six books that I haven't read that are on both lists, figuring I'd start there. Then I read the list to Ian and asked if he had any of them, and he handed me this one. Which is a really long-winded explanation of how I decided to read this book!

It's very interesting, and I'm surprised it's not on the Radcliffe list. It's a largely autobiographical stream-of-conscious novel about an alcoholic living in Mexico. The introduction to the book (which I went back and read last night) talks about how Lowry is compared to James Joyce a lot, but that Joyce's characters embody the collective unconscious, while Lowry's characters are more specific and in many cases, they represent himself. I don't think that's a bad way to differentiate the two. It's not necessarily praise or criticism, it's just a difference. Lowry's SOC is easier to read than Joyce's or Woolf's, for what it's worth.

I also noticed Lowry's incredible use of metaphor and symbol. Ian told me that there was an article where Lowry said, "I'm going to see how many symbols I can squeeze into this novel!" and once he said that, it all made sense. It does seem overstuffed with them. The elements I most enjoyed were the amazing metaphors and the wonderfully specific description of the experience of extreme drunkenness, which is not a pleasant sensation. The stream of consciousness style worked so well to convey that. Lowry also gets inside the brains of multiple characters, which is also well done. Really, I would recommend this book to any writer of novels, because Lowry does such unique and sophisticated things with point of view.

My biggest complaint was that you didn't get enough of a sense of the relationships--why did Yvonne come back? Why was she so heartbroken by the end of her relationship? What are the details of her relationships with Hugh and Jacques? And why, above all, does she want to be with the Consul in the first place? All we see of him is the alcoholic. We never saw what he used to be, or could have been. It would have added so much depth and poignancy, I think. (It's not like it's totally absent, it's just really subtle, and requires a lot of reading between the lines.)

And finally, my biggest personal failing in reading this novel is that there is a lot, and I mean A LOT, of descriptions of scenery. I had to force myself to re-read sentences over and over and really work on visualizing. The tremendous metaphors really helped; at times I felt like I really understand why descriptions of scenery exist and what they add. But at other times my mind wandered away, as usual, because I couldn't be bothered. It's good, though. It is good. It's not you, Lowry, it's me.

"He watched the clouds: dark swift horses surging up the sky. A black storm breaking out of its season! That was what love was like, he thought; love which came too late. Only no sane calm suceeded it... And let such love strike you dumb, blind, mad, dead--your fate would not be altered by your similie. Tonnerre de dieu... It slaked no thihirst to say what love was like which came too late." (Page 11)

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Blogger Jen said...

Ian probably already told you this, but there was a great article about Lowry and his wife (who assisted greatly in the editing of Volcano) in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. Actually, I see here that it's up on their website and it was actually from a month ago. Anyway, I tried to read the book a couple of years back and ended up putting it down, but have been meaning to try again and maybe now I will.

3:17 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Oh yes, he did, but I told him I didn't want to read it before I'd finished, because it gave too much of the book away. I think he saved it for me but now I can just read it online; thanks!

3:24 PM  

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