Lowry’s Volcano

February 19: On this day in 1947 Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano was published. The novel had been a difficult decade in the making — a handful of rewrites, many handfuls of rejections, a house fire, a divorce, and a struggle with alcohol so desperate that Lowry would at one point drink a bottle of olive oil in the mistaken belief it was hair tonic — and Lowry wanted to be on hand for publication day. Sent money by his publisher to travel from his squatter’s shack outside Vancouver to New York, Lowry and his wife made the most of it: they flew to Seattle, took a bus to New Orleans, boarded a cargo ship to Haiti, flew to Miami, and took a final bus north in order to arrive, after ten weeks, many misadventures, and one hospitalization for alcoholism, on the morning of the day of the book’s release. The occasion did not disappoint, with many first reviewers praising the novel highly — comparable to Thomas Wolfe, better than Hemingway, second only to Joyce. Whether read as a study of modern despair, or of “magical and diabolical” Mexico, or of alcoholism — “drunkenness recollected in sobriety,” said Martin Amis (via Wordsworth) — it remains near the top of most ‘books of the century’ lists.

Thirty-seven-year-old Lowry hoped that Under the Volcano might be the first book in a seven-novel “drunken Divine Comedy,” but the idea, and the author himself, did not get much past the drunkenness stage. It is almost impossible to persevere in reading about Lowry’s last decade, or possible only with Amis-like detachment: “Towards the end, even Lowry’s freak accidents and cluster catastrophes are assuming an air of the dankest monotony. An average hour, it seems, would include a jeroboam of Windowlene and Optrex, a sanguinary mishap with a chainsaw or a cement-mixer, and a routinely bungled attempt to guillotine his wife.”

Not that Lowry, his wife, and his doctors did not try for a cure. Having failed with electroshock therapy, he agreed to “apomorphine aversion treatment” — ten days in isolation on apomorphine and all the alcohol you can drink. It took Lowry twenty-one days to reach his limit, or appear to: he then escaped the treatment center and went on a two-day bender. The final eighteen months saw more of the same, the end coming in the village of Ripe, Sussex, from a bottle of gin and most of a bottle of sleeping pills.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.