On a rainy Friday morning, the Day of the Dead, I remember Malcolm Lowry.
Lowry's relentlessly obsessive novel of self-destruction," "Under the Volcano," takes place in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. I read the book, and a biography about Lowry, an incurable alcoholic like his protagonist Geoffrey Firmin, while traveling on trains through Europe.
Out of print before Lowry's mysterious death, "Under the Volcano" received posthumous recognition as one of the 20th century's greatest novels. The 1947 book about Firmin's doomed relationship with his wife, Yvonne Constable, has the ornate language of the 17th or 18th century. It denotes the last cry of a British culture smashed in the wars of the 20th century.
Like Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," it was a cult novel extolled by wild-eyed enthusiasts in dark corners at parties. In his reaction to modernism, Lowry looked back to earlier novelists like Laurence Sterne, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. Yet, its immersion in a foreign culture and its colonial themes recalled Conrad's modernist landmark,"A Heart of Darkness."
Lowry depicts the Mexican customs and rituals as primitive and uncaring about Firmin's civilized trappings. Yet Lowry doesn't condescend to the culture. Firmin's betrayal of his spiritual and intellectual endowment brings his downfall.
When I was a young man traveling through Europe and discovering Lowry in the early 1970s, the world appeared on the cusp of a new age. Sure, rock had died, disco was ascendant and oppressive forces were gaining power.
It was still the best of times. Environmental consciousness was rising, and my generation was bursting with creativity.
The world lurched forward. Reagan ushered in years of conservative hegemony. Greed and raging capitalism beat back the Earth's last wild places. Religious fundamentalism and a neocolonial American foreign policy begat a series of ugly wars. More and more abandoned faith in science, literature, the theater, music.
"Under the Volcano" has receded as well. Lowery sounded a prescient warning for the world to come.