Malcolm Lowry

. . . The sky was blue again overhead as they went down into Tomalín; dark clouds still gathered behind Popocatepetl, their purple masses shot through with the bright late sunlight, that fell too on another little silver lake glittering cool, fresh, and inviting before them, Yvonne had never seen on the way, nor remembered.

“The Bishop of Tasmania,” the Consul was saying, “or somebody dying of thirst in the Tasmanian desert, had a similar experience. The distant prospect of Cradle Mountain had consoled him a while, and then he saw this water . . . Unfortunately it turned out to be sunlight blazing on myriads of broken bottles.”

The lake was a broken greenhouse roof belonging to El Jardín Xicotancatl: only weeds lived in the greenhouse.

Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

It’s possible that I should not be reading Malcolm Lowry, that he’s only ruining me for good writing that is also readable–but I can’t help it. The dude’s prose blows my mind. His main character, the Consul, is an obsessively literate roaring alcoholic who drinks in order to pretend to be sober. And the language supports that perfectly, jumping seamlessly, with no signposts, between now, five minutes ago, twenty years ago, and last night, between hallucination and cool rationality, paranoia, selfishness and love.

Look at the first sentence above: who writes like that? Each of the last three clauses changes the focus of the sentence, forces me to reevaluate what I thought to be its structure. What fell on the silver lake? Dark clouds–no, late sunlight. What had Yvonne never seen? The lake. So I get the image the sentence conveys only in these stuttering chunks, each of which I consume whole before being introduced to the next. And I’ve read the sentence through three times before I get it: the apocalyptic scene, and below it, this promising lake, hopeful, that has appeared out of nowhere. And only then can I read on to see revealed that this lake is just a delusion. The structure actually supports the effect, builds it up such that we get the tangible feeling of being inside someone who believes in something beautiful that can never come true. Which is exactly where we are: inside the Consul’s estranged but still loving ex-wife, who has convinced herself she can pull him away from his drinkng and together they can find some isolate paradise in which to live out the rest of their lives.

The Consul may be the first real tragic figure I have encountered in a very long time. The last one I can think of with as much depth is Raskolnikov.

The problem, though, with my reading Malcolm Lowry, is that inevitably I am going to try to write like him. And wouldn’t it be nice if I had the capacity to do so? And maybe someday I will, but not now, and as I’ve learned from trying to write like Borges, and like Dostoevsky, very little actually comes of it, and I just end up banging my head on my desk and wondering why I’ve sat here for four hours and done nothing but rewrite one paragraph eleven times. And even if I do manage it, who’s going to want to read it? Nobody I know. Or else maybe you’d have heard of Malcolm Lowry before this, wouldn’t you think?

Also, bad career model. Spend 14 years failing to sell your masterpiece, then get no attention when you do. Drink yourself to death. Woo.

Bent double, groaning with the weight, an old lame Indian was carrying on his back, by means of a strap looped over his forehead, another poor Indian, yet older and more decrepit than himself. He carried the older man and his crutches, trembling in every limb under this weight of the past, he carried both their burdens.

They all stood watching the Indian as he disappeared with the old man round a bend of the road, into the evening, shuffling through the grey white dust in his poor sandals . . .


  1. Tim Esaias and I were having a discussion yesterday about this very similar kind of thing, using structure and grammar to imitate that which you are portraying. However, we were discussing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which–after reading this post–I’ve decided you really need to read. Especially since you pay such close attention to grammar, structure, and style.

    1. Agreed on this point, as well as several of the points in the post.

      It’s quite a book. I read it over a year ago, and I’m not sure if “like” is the right word for my feelings about it. I, too, was fascinated by the way he writes, and the Consul’s inner dialogue; also, the book describes the events of one day, but it’s sort of an eternal day. Um. You’ll see when you get to the end.

      1. Hmm, so apparently it is only me who had never heard of this book or the author before.

        I’m kind of excited for the end, actually. I know he’s going to die–but who will kill him! Oh, the suspense.

        And yeah, I am aware that it is somewhat messed up for me to identify with the poor Consul so much given how hard Lowry works against himself to alienate me with his convoluted prose. But what can I say, I love existentialist brooding.

        1. Ha! It’s fairly obscure, have no fear. The fact that you and Pantlessjohnny appear to have read/be reading it doubles the number of people whom I know have read it, and that includes myself.

          From what I remember, the Consul is a very sympathetic character, and I didn’t find the prose particularly alienating; in fact, I think I found it refreshing. There’s nothing in particular that I disliked about it, either, it’s just the kind of book that doesn’t bow to like or dislike–I had a much more complicated relationship with it than with most books, particularly those in the drab world of modern mainstream publishing. But don’t get me started. 😛

          1. I think I read this book right after I graduated college. One of my favorite cartoonists at the time, Jim Woodring, wrote about it in one of his comic-strips. It’s one of those books that has stuck with me and I think about everyday.

            Quotes I copied out at the time:

            “I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least; my redemption is sure.”

            “It was if, out of an ultimate contamination, he had derived strength.”

            “How indeed could he hope to find himself, to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, forever, the solitary clue to his identity?”

          2. Just finished it this morning, sitting out in my garden. I really love the random chaoticness of the ending. The Consul is kind of like a modern day King Lear. He is frickin crazy, damned by his own stubbornness–but also the universe really is mucking him about.


          3. Did you catch the foreshadowing of the ending in the part where, hm, I think he’s looking at a picture in the library or something? I can’t remember exactly, but I remember there was a painting of a man or men falling down into the abyss, and a woman or women rising into the heavens, and, well. It foreshadows the ending. You probably caught that.

            That’s a pretty fascinating Mexico he writes about.

          4. I do remember the moment your talking about, when he’s in Larouelle’s house fuming at him and criticizing his decor–I didn’t think of it at the end, but yeah, now that you mention it I remember.

            Something I was wondering about that same scene–Larouelle’s house is architecturally similar to the house “shared” by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, where it was split down the middle and joined by a single catwalk between two towers. And there’s a reference to Rivera in that same chapter. So I wonder if he’s just trying to evoke that relationship for us or if there’s something more there I’m missing.

          5. I’m not sure about the Rivera/Kahlo connection. But talking about this makes me understand why, now that some time has gone by since I read the book, the painting that I described looks, in my imagination, like it was painted by Rivera. It’s very distinct, like I imagined it vividly from his description, but I don’t remember the description, just the image.


            …and it was a library copy, too, with a weird black and white cover; not a beer, or anything else, in sight.

          6. Yeah, this is one of those books I keep telling myself I should read again.

            If only I had the time…

  2. Isn’t the last line something like, “And they threw a dog down on top of him”?

    My copy had this Diego Riviera bar interior/Day of the Dead type picture on the cover. There was a man in a suit drinking while devils and peasants crowd in all around him.

    1. Yeah. The last line before the coda is “Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.” Which Lowry kind of sets up from the beginning, actually, in the eerie repetition with which he keeps mentioning the abundance of stray dogs in the town: “pariah dogs”.

      Your copy’s cover is way more kickass than mine. Not that I am particularly surprised, what with your superior, master angler’s eye for book bin shopping. My copy is just blue with gold writing and a hint of a Maya stonecarving around the border. At least it’s not the annoying modern Perennial Classics edition with the ethereal beer glass in the sky.

    2. That sounds like an extraordinarily appropriate cover.

      Right, I forgot about the dog. Meanwhile, there’s the horse, too, implicated in Yvonne’s destruction (right? Is my memory correct?). There’s probably some metaphor there. Dogs, horses…

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