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Under the Volcano

ISBN 0060955228 / 9780060955229 / 0-06-095522-8

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Book summary

Regardless of what his apologists say, Under the Volcano is Malcolm Lowry's only wholly successful book. Fortunately, it is a masterpiece. Reading it is like willingly submitting yourself to a bout of delirium tremens, with all of the disorientation, terror, and pity that that implies. Under the Volcano isn't an easy book to get through; it is extravagantly lurid and deeply allusive, and its protagonist, Consul Geoffrey Firmin, is a hopeless wreck of a human being. Nonetheless, Lowry's seemingly self-indulgent horrors are justified by the immense power of his fiction.

Under the Volcano takes place in Quahnahac, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead in November 1939, in the shadow of European war. Firmin is in the process of violently drinking himself to death, alternately cowering in the comfort of his few, half-estranged friends and lashing out at them. His ex-wife, Yvonne, has returned from her flight to the United States to attempt to bring Firmin back into line. His younger brother, Hugh, wishes to slip over to Spain to join the last feeble resistance against Franco's fascist government. Firmin's long, doomed day is a progress through metaphysical dread and faint hopes of redemption--hopes that are always dashed by politics, mescal, and the failure of love.

This is one of the handful of fictions that gave the 20th century the Infernos it so urgently deserved. Lowry's attention to the Second World War is oblique, almost evasive, but Under the Volcano somehow remains one of the best literary attempts to grapple with modernity's most terrible moment. Indispensable. --Jack Illingworth [via]