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Deep Work at Dollarton

Shane Barry

1947 saw the publication of Under the Volcano, a novel written by a prodigiously hapless alcoholic who had spent much of the previous decade occupying a squatter’s shack in the Canadian boondocks. Chronicling a dipsomaniac English diplomat’s final hours on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the book struck a chord with both critics and readers of serious fiction. A reviewer in The New York Times asserted that “Under the Volcano may well be the best novel of the season.” The influential Saturday Review eulogised a “magnificent, tragic, compassionate, and beautiful book”. Following the appearance of a French translation, disenchanted intellectuals in postwar Paris adopted Geoffrey Firmin, the quondam consul to Quauhnahuac, as an existentialist role model. Members of the Situationist International ‑ whose slogans and stunts prefigured the student revolt of May 1968 ‑ went so far as to take Firmin’s erratic wanderings as a template when they set off on their own dérives, alcohol-fuelled explorations of the city’s hidden geography.

Seventy years on, Under the Volcano is regarded as one of the last great Modernist novels. But its author, Malcolm Lowry, was left shaken by his moment of triumph. He claimed in a letter that ‘success is like some horrible disaster’. Aside from a handful of short stories, he would publish nothing of substance for the rest of his life. Ten years after Volcano hit the shelves, Lowry died, aged forty-seven, in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily clarified.

Despite the often squalid environments and events that characterised his adult life, Lowry was not a tramp savant who conjured up a masterpiece ex nihilo. Born in 1909, the son of a prosperous Liverpool textile merchant and his socially ambitious wife, he benefited from a top-tier education. After attending an excellent Methodist public school, he went up to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, from which he eventually scraped a “gentleman’s third”. From an early age Lowry chafed against the conformity of his class and kin, where religiosity, propriety and emotional continence were the order of the day. Yet he would never be able to break entirely free from his family’s ambit. A fiction writer who wrote plenty but published little, Lowry rarely earned enough to survive. So Arthur Lowry kept his son afloat with a stipend, to which stipulations, such as submitting to guardianships and staying away from England, were regularly appended.

Lowry’s sponsored mutiny against his background is exemplified by his pre-Cambridge “gap-year” adventure on the SS Pyrrhus. Arthur arranged a job as a deckhand for his son (Lowry’s being dropped off at the ship by the family chauffeur was not an ideal introduction to the crew). The Liverpool to Yokohama voyage failed to live up to the budding writer’s Melvillian notions about life at sea, but the gap between expectation and reality itself became fodder for fiction. Artfully repackaged in Volcano, the disillusionment is ascribed to Geoffrey Firmin’s half-brother, Hugh, who amusingly reflects that the accommodation and food provided to merchant sailors are far superior to anything found at an English public school.

The commitment to recycling experience as “material” would be integral to Lowry’s extreme approach to autobiographical fiction. And the traffic between reality and art went both ways. After reading Blue Voyage by Conrad Aiken, Lowry believed that his own shipboard experience had received a benediction from a like-minded soul. His self-identification with certain works was so fierce that he often sought to befriend their creators (as he did with Aiken and another hero of his youth, the Norwegian Nordahl Grieg). He also absorbed talismanic texts into his own prose. The line between homage and plagiarism was often blurred, and Lowry was acutely aware of laying himself open to charges of literary theft. According to Gordon Bowker’s authoritative 1993 life, Pursued by Furies, he was reluctant in later years to acknowledge his first novel, Ultramarine, dismissing it as a “cento of quotations and allusions to the writers he found most impressive”.

It was while holidaying with Aiken in Spain that Lowry met the American Jan Gabrial, who would become the author’s first wife and the model for Yvonne, the estranged spouse of the consul. Later, Gabrial would bluntly ascribe the failure of the union to the fact her husband had wanted “a mother who was a good lay”. In contrast, for Lowry the dégringolade of their relationship while living in Cuernavaca, Mexico between 1936 and 1938, became the foundation myth for Under the Volcano

The end of a marriage is familiar ground for the novel. And the plot of Volcano, stripped of linguistic scaffolding, appears conventional, indeed sometimes trite. Geoffrey Firmin is in the midst of a binge on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, November 1938, when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the relationship. The possibility of a reconciliation is complicated by the presence of Hugh, a supporter of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War who is guilt-ridden over abandoning comrades on the verge of defeat. (Lowry remained in Canada for the duration of World War II.) It is implied that Yvonne has had a fling with Hugh in Paris. She has also been involved with Jacques Laruelle, a French filmmaker living in the town. Consumed by cognitive dissonance ‑ hoping for a reconciliation while realising its impossibility ‑ the protagonists spend a listless morning in Quauhnahuac before Geoffrey, Yvonne, and Hugh make their ill-fated journey to nearby Tomalín.

This incident-thin story is supercharged by structural and stylistic innovation. One device involves rearranging the linear narrative, so the opening chapter actually unfolds on the Day of the Dead in November 1939, exactly a year to the day after the events described in the rest of the book. Laruelle and Dr Arturo Vigil (dispenser of unheeded medical advice to the consul) are sharing a drink in a semi-abandoned hotel overlooking Quauhnahuac and obliquely reflecting on the tragedy that occurred before the outbreak of a new global war: “When an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué.” As the narrative voice anchors itself in Laruelle’s perspective, the reader gradually learns that a terrible fate has befallen characters named Geoffrey and Yvonne.

Shifting the end of the story to its beginning is a device shared with noir novels and films of the period (think of William Holden floating face-down in the pool at the start of Sunset Boulevard). In Volcano, by informing us that the central characters are deceased before we meet them in the second chapter, the novel establishes an atmosphere of proleptic dread, in which the action is viewed through the lens of “last things”. Thus even the act of smoking a cigarette becomes a catastrophe in miniature: “Hugh put one foot up on the parapet and regarded his cigarette that seemed bent, like humanity, on consuming itself as quickly as possible.”

The achronological texture is deepened by extended flashbacks throughout (the consul’s childhood as an orphan, Hugh’s shipboard fiasco, Yvonne’s experience as a starlet in Hollywood). Yvonne desperately tries to divert Geoffrey from his suicidal spree by holding out the prospect of the two of them escaping to a cabin in the Canadian wilderness. This putative future ‑ in the purifying chill of the North ‑ is depicted so vividly that the reader is brought up short by Yvonne’s deluded belief in its realisation: “And it was possible. It was possible!” As always, biography gave the fiction its deep-focus verisimilitude. Following the break-up of his marriage to Gabrial, Lowry escaped from Mexico and ended up in Dollarton, a village north of Vancouver. There he worked for years on Volcano, which was ably edited by his second wife, Margerie Bonner. The utopia so richly imagined by Yvonne is a portrait ‑ right down to the wooden pier Lowry built himself ‑ of the real location that made the book’s composition possible. 

Although narrative strategies impart extra heft, the novel catches fire at the level of sentence and paragraph. Lowry’s vocabulary, by turns mandarin and histrionic, creates a fever dream in which horrors are conveyed through incantatory prose. So the consul’s memory of drinking in a hotel bar after Yvonne’s departure is punctuated by the nightmarish recollection of when “a man with the look of an executioner came from the street dragging two little fawns shrieking with fright into the kitchen”. The dying breath of a mugged Indian discovered on the roadside sounds like “the sea dragging itself down a stone beach”. And vultures circling the sky on a blazingly hot afternoon become “xopilotes, who wait only for the ratification of death”.

If Ultramarine was overburdened by its source material, Volcano’s scope and stream-of-consciousness style allow a myriad of influences to be integrated with no damage to fluidity. The consul’s tequila-soaked brain, in which the senses are thoroughly deranged, is a perfect medium for the mixing up of past and present, esoteric knowledge and the stimuli flooding a jangled sensorium. And it is not only the consul who is permitted to shift registers ‑ at the opening of chapter six, for instance, Hugh’s self-disgust is encapsulated by his stretching the meter of the Inferno’s opening line:  ‑ Nel mezzo del bloody camin di nostra vita mi ritrovai in …

For Hugh’s line to work, you must be able to understand the Dante quote and its cultural context. A heuristic for categorising a work of literature as “Modernist” is whether most readers need auxiliary texts to make sense of it. Just as Ulysses and The Waste Land were furnished with glosses to help mortals retrieve meaning from the skein of allusions, A Companion to Under the Volcano was published in 1984 with the aim of providing a “commentary, page by page and point by point […] to clarify the many difficulties which the text presents”. Those difficulties stem largely from the challenge of identifying and deciphering the frequently arcane references that Lowry employs. To name just the more conspicuous ones: the legend of Faust; Dante’s Inferno; the Jewish Kabbalah; the Mahabharata, the plays of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and other Elizabethans; Greek mythology; the Second Mexican Empire; recondite studies of the Atlantis myth; the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy; and Oswald Spengler’s theory of history. As well as wading through high culture, the reader is asked to translate from Spanish conversations with the natives as well as the street posters (for bullfighting, boxing, and the Peter Lorre film Las Manos de Orlac) that snag the narrators’ attention.

What justifies this strategy of obfuscation ‑ dragging in Goethe and Dante to prop up a story of drunkenness and infidelity in a provincial Mexican city? Clearly, Lowry had in mind the model of Ulysses, which adopted classical themes to suggest congruities between the novel’s lowly protagonists and figures such as Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope. Thus the everyday was elevated, even if it was only to the level of the mock-epic. Similarly, though in a more portentous vein, Geoffrey Firmin, a drunkard who has failed both personally and professionally, is nevertheless locked in a Faustian pact which has resonance for all humanity. The poet Stephen Spender recognized the book’s yearning for the epic when he declared: “Fundamentally, Under the Volcano is no more about drinking than King Lear is about senility.”

It is easy to view the consul as a Lear. Yvonne and Hugh can be surrogates for the faithless children with the cantina proprietors, speaking comical English, sharing the role of the Fool. Firmin may also be more sinned against than sinning ‑ despite the absurd quantities of booze consumed, the consul never descends into animalistic oblivion. He certainly displays more aplomb than his creator ever did under similar circumstances. Bowker’s biography unmasked a subject who was capable of appalling violence, both physical and sexual, towards women while drinking. Once, while Gabrial and Lowry were visiting friends in Los Angeles, “[A] drunken Lowry knocked her [Gabrial] down in the bedroom and raped her.” In the interval between breaking up with Jan and meeting Margerie, he was briefly involved with a Miss Auer. One night he flew into a rage and viciously assaulted her:

Apparently Lowry had hit her with all his might on the left eye, which was now closed and swollen, as was her nose, and had then kicked her in the ribs as she lay on the floor. The whole left side of her face was bruised, swollen, and turned black. She had also sustained two cracked ribs and was continually spitting blood.

During his final, chaotic years, Lowry’s assaults on Margerie included attempted strangulation. It has been suggested that Margerie pre-empted her husband’s finishing the job by surreptitiously feeding him the sleeping pills that contributed to his fatal overdose (the coroner reached a verdict of death by misadventure). 

Anglo-Saxon textual criticism and French theory manage to agree that it’s a gaucherie to examine a writer’s biography too closely when evaluating the work. And when pushed to accept that authors’ lives and views are tangentially connected to their output, we have plenty of practice of equivocating so as to allow, say, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Knut Hamsun and Ernst Jünger to remain on our shelves. If we can make excuses for dyed-in-the-wool fascists, then surely it’s permissible to keep Lowry’s solo masterpiece in the canon? But when dealing with a writer who mined his life so intensely, even pathologically, does it become an exercise in bad faith if we decide to overlook Lowry’s decision to erase his inexcusable behaviour from his greatest fiction? There is no easy defence against the charge. Moreover, an awareness of Lowry’s gross deficiencies as a human being heightens one’s sensitivity to Volcano’s outmoded sexual politics (for example, near the book’s end there is an emetic scene in a brothel, in which we are expected to sympathise with the sated consul rather than the young prostitute he has just exploited).

Salvaging Volcano’s reputation as a significant work may require focusing less on its author and more on how we as an audience can exploit it, as both model and text, when reacting to contemporary conditions. The novel is dense and challenging, requiring, as noted above, serious exegesis if readers want to plumb the depths. It is extraordinary that someone as chronically disorganised as Lowry was able to keep such a sprawling work under control. (Michael Schmidt explicitly poses the question in the introduction to the Penguin paperback edition: “How could a writer who himself suffered from alcoholism write so complex a novel?”) The isolated location and the support received were propitious factors: The sojourn at Dollarton was perhaps the only extended period of stability and sobriety in Lowry’s adult life. This was a time when he worked in relative harmony with Margerie, whose input in crafting the book’s final form should not be underestimated. Before and after Dollarton, nothing much of lasting merit was achieved. Volcano was atypical: It was Lowry at his best.

The capacity to undertake work that transcends ephemeral utility is a modish concern. Writers such as Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, and Cal Newport have raised the alarm about how the combination of smartphones, social media, and always available Internet has made us hooked on distraction. This addiction gravely hinders so-called “deep work”, extended periods of focused effort that enable us to complete major projects. In this context, Volcano has a two-fold relevance. First, it is a case study that demonstrates how the right environment, discipline and powerful self-belief are indispensable to durable achievement. It prompts us to wonder what individuals ‑ those of us lacking Lowry’s brilliance but also unencumbered by his “furies” ‑ can accomplish if they really buckle down?

Second, simply reading Volcano is itself an antidote to the aimless grazing that characterises the media diet of many of us. It is a demanding, sometimes baffling process. Nevertheless, the aesthetic and emotional rewards for sustained attention cannot be gainsaid ‑ take the astonishing section describing Yvonne’s death. In about four pages, a vortex of motifs ‑ the stampeding horse, the storm, the constellations as enumerated by Yvonne, and an imagined blaze consuming the longed-for house in the north ‑ spiral together as the narration describes something like a secular Assumption.

Slowly exhaling after such a passage, the still-ambivalent reader struggling to sum up Volcano and its deeply flawed author may reach for Goethe’s Faust, which provides the novel with its third and final epigraph:

Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen.
Whosoever unceasingly strives upward … him we can save.

1/9/2017

Shane Barry lives in Dublin and works as a technical writer for an international software company. He is a frequent contributor to several online publications and blogs.

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