Today in Literary History – November 2, 1938 – the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano

Today is All Souls Day in the Christian tradition. In Mexico it is celebrated as Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. One of my favourite novels, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is set in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on a single day, November 2, 1938, the Day of the Dead.

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The book was published in 1947 and records the thoughts of the alcoholic British consul to Quauhnahuac, Geoffrey Firmin, as he recalls that momentous day in his life.

Lowry, who was British, wrote the first version of the novel while he was living in Mexico with his first wife, but couldn’t find a publisher.

He completed a substantially new version while living with his second wife in Dollarton, just north of Vancouver, in a shack on the beach. The shack burned down in 1944, but !owry’s wife, Marjorie Bonner, was able to rescue the manuscript of Under the Volcano, which Lowry managed to complete the following year.

When it was published in 1947 it got good reviews but sales were slow. By the time of Lowry’s death in England in 1957 of an overdose of sleeping pills (most likely a suicide) the novel was out of print.

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A new generation of readers discovered it and it went on to became hugely admired and is regularly taught in university courses. It is ranked at #11 on Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

The novel was intended to be the first book of a trilogy mirroring Dante’s Divine Comedy. Under the Volcano was meant to be the modern Inferno volume. It is full of references to Hell, damnation and suffering.

Under the Volcano is dense with literary and mythological references, but in the end it is a very realistic portrait of a man, the consul, as he descends into alcohol induced madness as the world is on the brink of the Second World War.

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Despite the gloomy subject matter, the novel also contains lots of humour and lively wordplay. I have read it several times and each time I find more insights and pleasures.

 

 

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