The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being an alcoholic


Click to follow

Ailment: Being a burgeoning alcoholic

Cure: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

If, even after a hard day, 6pm comes and goes with nary a glance at the gin decanter, you don't need this cure. But if you're someone who can't get through the day without a stiff drink – or four or five; or who thinks nothing of downing two bottles of cab sav of a night with (or without) your spouse; or if you've ever concealed a bottle of something colourless in the drawer of your desk, then you've crossed the line between drinking for pleasure and drinking to function at all. We suggest a sobering wake-up call in the form of Malcolm Lowry's portrayal of bottle-induced ruin in his 1947 novel, Under the Volcano, in which not just the dipsomaniac hero but those closest to him are brought down by his addiction.

Geoffrey Firmin, British Consul in the volcano-shadowed town of Quauhnahuac in Mexico, is facing one of the most important days of his life. His estranged wife Yvonne has come back in the hope of saving their marriage; and yet, at seven o'clock in the morning, Firmin is so hungover from the night before that he can't put on his own socks. As the day progresses, Firmin's attempts to engage with his wife and other guests are soon abandoned for the siren call of whiskey, or tequila, or mescal. And with the Day of the Dead celebrations building to a feverish climax around him, he plunges irrevocably towards his own destruction.

The path that led him to this nihilistic place is clearly plotted: early neglect; guilt over his complicity in the immolation of a German U-boat crew; and Yvonne's departure a year earlier. Yvonne still has faith in him – but Firmin won't allow her to stand in the way of his almost gleeful despair. Be thoroughly chilled by the shadow of this novel, by Firmin's blackly funny musings and ultimate fate. Then revel in the clarity of your thoughts, screw the top back on the bottle, and determine to deal with your own demons differently.