For some of us -- a small number -- Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano is the ultimate novel.
"Lowry's book ... remains the single most potent novel of the 20th century," wrote John Hartley Williams, in The Guardian this summer, on the fiftieth anniversary of Lowry's death.
"There is no death in recent literature with more significance" than Geoffrey Firmin's, the book's main character, writes William Gass in The World Within the Word.
The book transmits with infinite sensitivity the way it feels to destroy yourself. It also suggests ways in which collectivities destroy themselves. Written on the verge of the Second World War, Volcano "beats a drum," as Williams puts it, "for a civilization teetering on the edge." Volcano eulogizes Western cultural ideals.
Few people read Volcano. Its prose is stream of consciousness without a paddle:
The flare lit up the whole cantina with a burst of brilliance in which the figures at the bar - that he now saw included besides the little children and the peasants who were quince or cactus farmers in loose white clothes and wide hats, several women in mourning from the cemeteries and dark-faced men in dark suits with open collars and their ties undone - appeared, for an instant, frozen, a mural: they had all stopped talking and were gazing round at him curiously, all save the barman who seemed momentarily about to object, then lost interest as M. Laruelle set the writhing mass in an ashtray, where beautifully conforming it it folded upon itself, a burning castle, collapsed, subsided to a ticking hive through which sparks like tiny red worms crawled and flew, while above a few grey wisps of ashes floated in the thin smoke, a dead husk now, faintly crepitant...
No one's got time for sentences like this one anymore (it describes a man in a bar putting a match to some pages of writing), and Volcano, with what Williams calls "the spirit, nerve, and focus of poetry," boils over with them. Intellectually and emotionally hot stuff, it demands of the reader an intense engagement in its extremity of despair.
Firmin's alcoholism, interpreted page after page by his brilliant unsteady mind, dissolves the remorse he feels at the spectacle of his own and the world's failures. He's never able to learn the lesson played out all around him in Mexico, where he dies on the Day of the Dead: Compassion and forgiveness are what continue to make us human.