December 11, 2017
Malcolm Lowry's Volcano
On this day in 1947 Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was published. Lowry began the book where it is set, in the Cuernavaca region of Mexico in the late 30s, but it had been a full and difficult decade in the making -- a handful of rewrites, many handfuls of rejections, a nearly disastrous fire, a divorce, and mostly a desperate struggle with alcohol that would at one point drive him to drink olive oil in the mistaken belief it was hair tonic. Given the struggle to write the book, and perhaps sensing that he would never manage another such, Lowry wanted to be there on publication day. Sent money by his publisher to travel from his squatter's shack outside Vancouver to New York, Lowry and his wife made the most of it: they flew to Seattle, took a bus to New Orleans, boarded a cargo ship to Haiti, flew to Miami, and took a final bus north, arriving after two and a half months, many misadventures and one hospitalization for alcoholism on the morning of the day of the book's release.
Many first reviews praised it highly -- comparable to Thomas Wolfe, better than Hemingway, second only to Joyce -- and it remains near the top of most 'books of the century' lists, read with admiration and horror as a portrait of "magical and diabolical" Mexico, or of modern despair, or of alcoholism. The poetic prose may be, as Martin Amis recently quipped, "drunkenness recollected in sobriety" (instead of Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility") but within the freefall of guilt, recrimination and suicide-by-mescal are higher longings:
There the bird was still, a long-winged dark furious shape, a little world of fierce despairs and dreams, and memories of floating high above Popocatepetl, mile on mile, to drop through the wilderness and alight, watching, in the timberline ghosts of ravaged mountain trees. With hurried quivering hands Yvonne began to unfasten the cage. The bird fluttered out of it and alighted at her feet, hesitated, took flight to the roof of El Petate, then abruptly flew off through the dusk. . . up soaring, with a sudden cleaving of pinions into the deep dark blue pure sky above, in which at that moment appeared one star.
Lowry was just thirty-seven, but his visions of Under the Volcano being the basis for a seven-novel "drunken Divine Comedy" came to almost nothing, or came true only in the worst possible sense. Reading about his last decade would cure any budding alcoholic; it is almost impossible to persevere, or possible only with Amis-like detachment: "Towards the end, even Lowry's freak accidents and cluster catastrophes are assuming an air of the dankest monotony. An average hour, it seems, would include a jeroboam of Windowlene and Optrex, a sanguinary mishap with a chainsaw or a cement-mixer, and a routinely bungled attempt to guillotine his wife." Not that he, his wife and his doctors did not try. A series of seven shock treatments having failed, Lowry then underwent apomorphine aversion treatment: ten days isolation in a tiny cell illuminated by a red lightbulb, during which the patient is given apomorphine and all the alcohol he wants, but only subsistence food and water -- Lowry said afterwards that he became so thirsty that he drank his own urine. The idea is that the patient will drink himself into aversion after about five days; after ten days Lowry appeared in better spirits than he had been when he went in; after twenty-one days he seemed to have had enough; several days after that, he broke out of his treatment center, went on a two-day bender and returned, says one biographer, "roaring and very pleased with himself." The final year and a half was more of the same; the end, at age forty-seven, came in the village of Ripe, Sussex, from a bottle of gin and most of a bottle of sleeping pills.