All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947) By Gavin Griffiths
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Geoffrey Firmin, a desperate alcoholic, is British Consul to the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac which cowers under the twin volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. It is November 28, 1938, and as the locals celebrate the Day of the Dead, Geoffrey lurches towards ignominious extinction.

Geoffrey's intelligence and weaknesses dominate. Alcohol devilishly lends him intense insight but at the expense of his humanity: he is in flight from love, friendship and himself.

Also present are his ex-wife Yvonne, who has just returned, half-hoping to redeem him; his brother Hugh, an ineffectual nonentity, espoused to Communism; and finally, in the background, Jacques Laruelle, and old friend who has cuckolded our doomed hero.

Hugh, Yvonne and Geoffrey drift through the festival which bubbles with premonitions of disaster. They reminisce and bicker, struggling to make contact but usually falling wide. They drink busily in cantinas; they are not morally equipped to understand.

Theme: Although there are sidelong glances at the rise of Fascism and the abuses of colonialism, the core of the book is religious.

Geoffrey is a contemporary Faust: intelligent enough to predict the consequences of his actions, he nevertheless chooses to damn himself with alcohol. He cannot forgive his wife her infidelity nor seek forgiveness of God for his own imbecilities as he believes it is too late. He rejects Yvonne's promise of salvation and embraces self-destruction because it is easier: his fall is a compound of sloth, gluttony, anger and, above all, pride.

Style: Dazzlingly eclectic; Melville, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner are refracted to produce a dense, darkly glittering prose capable of suddens shift of poetry. The narrative scene-cutting and the disturbing use of flashbacks are self-consciously cinematic.

Chief strengths: The passion and precision of the writing recall Wuthering Heights, whilst the highly charged spirituality makes Waugh and Greene seem faint and under-powered.

Chief weaknesses: The minor characters are too dimly lit: Yvonne remains in the shadows and Geoffrey's passion for her is hard to fathom.

The symbolism is sprayed on without sufficient care for detail. The ferris wheel at the carnival, for example, stands confusingly for (1) Fate (2) Death (3) Resurrection.

What they thought of it then: English readers admired it for its use of local colour, thus deliriously missing the point. In America it was highly praised.

What we think of it now: Lowry's unusual drinking habits provoke curiosity - a bottle of aftershave, neat, before breakfast - but his work has yet to be fully appreciated.

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