Two of them thought he was a genius, and the third a misanthropic degenerate.
I probably never would have heard of him myself if I hadn’t lived in Kazakhstan for a year. There I was limited to a diet of library books, very few of which were in English, and one of which happened to be the posthumously published short novel, As Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid. I picked it up purely based on the title.
They also had a copy of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and his more modestly titled first novel, Ultramarine, and I absorbed those, as well. However, it wasn’t for some years that I finally got my hands on Under the Volcano. This was before the Internet, and finding editions of obscure, out-of-print authors was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Nowadays, not only are used copies of Under the Volcano a mouse click away, but it’s also readily available in nifty new edition.
Although challenging, I could not help but admire this grim, gritty, fascinating novel that slams closed with one of the most harrowing and brilliant final pages of any book I’ve read before or since. The Guardian UK recently ran an article recommending that “more people just read the thing.”
An atmosphere of difficulty cloaks the book like the thunderheads that hide the “immense flanks” of Popocatepetl, one of the two volcanoes in whose shadows the doomed alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh confront their fates. First published in 1947, Volcano had the troubled early life typical of unique books. It sold well in the United States, but in Britain it was remaindered and in Canada, where it was written (Canadians are proprietary towards Lowry, who spent the happiest period of his life there), it sold only two copies between the end of 1947 and 1949. Its reputation grew over the years following Lowry’s death in 1957, but it remains a book that deeply divides opinion. Not because of the book’s “what,” which is fairly straightforward, but its “how”: tangled time schemes and a Faulknerian stream of consciousness are just two of the prominent challenges with which Lowry tests readers.
Nevertheless it is well enough loved to have inspired a John Huston film starring Albert Finney, and lent its name to Creative Writing Workshops in Tepoztlán, Mexico and to London’s Original Mexican Restaurant. (And a lot more than that, actually.) In fact, In 1998 it was rated as number 11 on the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century compiled by the Modern Library.
The New Yorker featured a fascinating retrospective on Lowry’s life and work a few years ago.