Unlike good, which comes like a cool mist on a hot day, evil has something of the thickness of congealed gravy that oozes under the edges of a story and sticks to your brain. It takes endless malign shapes—people who follow you, a dog who trots at your heels, the blackish green rift that lies between the volcanoes—but has only one smell: the seductive ripe reek of vegetation that, in a matter of moments, will turn to rot. Evil is the thing that surrounds you, draws you into its embrace, leads you to the foxtrot before sending you tumbling to your death.
Rereading is something you promise yourself when young, what you do when you get older. My mentor, the late John Morressy, who had a long and distinguished career as a novelist—mainstream, then science-fiction, then fantasy (though I write in neither of those latter two genres)—would always amaze the younger me when he said that he never much bothered with contemporary fiction. “I’ve seen it before and better done,” he’d say, and it took me years to realize that for the most part he was right. Recently, when interviewed at the Hay Festival in Mexico, Martin Amis said, “I find another thing about getting older is that your library gets not bigger but smaller, that you return to the key writers who seem to speak to you with a special intimacy.” And I think he’s right. We return to the well that’s slaked our thirst time and again over the years. And each time it tastes just a little more delicious.
Years ago, having read it twice before—as an undergraduate English major, and then, more hurriedly, in preparation for my master’s orals as a grad student—I promised myself to reread Middlemarch, and did so last year. And because I was older, the book actually meant something to me. As did saving up Proust till I was in my thirties. Having read it in an English translation (in fact, in Scott Moncrieff’s flowery version), I decided to teach myself French and read it properly, in the original, which I did about two years later, discovering Proust to be much less limpid and far more muscular, sharp, darkly funny, and, yes, shocking, than I expected he’d be.
Recently I happened to notice my old copy of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano still on my shelves, in the original first-edition Signet paperback (95¢) I’d first acquired when I was an undergraduate, awarded to me as a result of a bet by my undergraduate academic advisor. He and his wife had become friends, and every Sunday I would arrive at their house, along with my current girlfriend, for dinner. We’d talk books, we’d drink wine and eat well, and then usually watch the latest “Upstairs, Downstairs” on their portable black-and-white TV. One Sunday he bet me on the World Series. As someone who followed absolutely no sports, I had no idea which side to choose. He bet on one team, so I naturally had to bet on the other, just to please the man. The award was a book of my (or his) choice, within reason, of course (meaning the $3000 first edition I’d had my eye on was out of the question).
I won (I’d like to add of course, but this was sheer luck, and I remained unenlightened as to why it happened), and we went to a bookshop in Cambridge, where I chose Under the Volcano, primarily because he’d recommended it to me months earlier. Thus, he was more than pleased to place a dollar on the counter for it. When a few years later I read it, I was very much under the spell of James Joyce (a young man’s writer if ever there was one), and felt Lowry was both an acolyte and severely wanting. But something of this rich stew of a novel lingered with me, and years later, when teaching in New York, I bought Douglas Day’s biography of Lowry and became interested in this book all over again. Something kept pulling me back to this tale of the last day on earth of a deeply-wounded, mescal-soaked British consul in the Mexican town Quauhnahuac—Cuernavaca—that lies in the shadows of two volcanoes. In fact, its very presence kept dogging my metaphorical steps.
As I worked at a private school—the very one from which I’d somehow managed to graduate—which in its long descent to bankruptcy and disorder allowed me to teach whatever I liked (I even managed to teach a two-seminar James Joyce course, the second half being devoted entirely to Ulysses—something that I could never get away with today with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds and their litigious parents), I offered a course entitled Novel Styles, which covered works by three or four authors, covering various periods in their life, to see how their styles and thematic preoccupations evolved. Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf and Lowry were the chosen authors. I drew on diaries, letters, essays, early works, middle works, late works—for a course that could probably, in retrospect, have been better thought out. Though I’d taught many of these students when they were younger, and managed to slip in short stories by Tolstoy, Nabokov, and even Henry James, Lowry was simply too rich a mixture for them. The novel struck me and them as turgid, middle-of-the-night ramblings by an author too desperate for publication and fame, too much in thrall to the bottle. And though I taught alongside it Lowry’s famous letter of defense to UK publisher Jonathan Cape in response to the publisher’s readers, I decided the book was just a drunkard’s nightmare set down on paper. And that maybe, just maybe, Cape’s criticisms had been just.
Recently I slipped it out of the shelf and began reading, and it suddenly made sense to me. It was as if time had washed it down, swept away my previous reactions and left it glowing and alive. The symbolism, the verbiage, the wanderings of this poor sod of a drunk—now I understood that Geoffrey Firmin, this failure of a consul in this sad Mexican backwater, somehow knew he was following the path to his own death, and that became the compelling ticking clock of this book. Everything in the novel, from the look of the sky, to the sideways glances of the men who follow him, to the portents that lay in his path, could only tell him that this day would end badly. Words (and God knows Firmin has lots of them) could delay it, but you could see that death, like sunset, was inevitable. Even the symbolism—the endless wheels, Ferris and otherwise; the posters announcing boxing matches that seemed more missals from hell than adverts for a sporting event; the sign in the public garden— ¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!—that Firmin mistranslates into a murderous threat and not the firmly gentle reminder that it is; the mangy dog that follows Firmin around like a mute familiar, the men who move into his shadow at one bar or another, constantly reappearing in the moments of his last day on earth: even all of that came together like intricate clockwork to produce what this novel, in fact, really is: a noir of a singular kind, the trail of betrayal leading to a tale of a murder.
Some years ago, when I was working on a screenplay with a co-writer based in L.A., we always discussed what we liked to call the DNA of a script—how even minor things seem to harken back to the main theme. It’s like the confection known as “rock,” popular in British seaside resorts, a stick of hard candy with the name of the locale embedded in it, so that no matter how much you eat from it, it’s always reading, say, Brighton. I’ll leave it to the reader to work out how this works in Graham Greene’s novel of the same name, but for Lowry, the DNA, the Brighton rock of the story and main character, occupies every level and layer of the work. Hence the impossibility to film it successfully, though John Huston tried and failed with his unfocussed 1984 movie starring Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin.
Though as a writer I’ve long outgrown the need to plant symbols in my writing, and as a teacher I disdained asking my students to hunt out what authors tend never to bother consciously putting in (as though writing were designed wholly to be dissected and de-clued by a gathering of eager young students), I can now see what Lowry was doing and how well he distilled this mad world through the consciousness of Firmin, alcohol-addled, trailed by his ghastly familiars, dragging after him the baggage and tin cans of his past. So that as you immerse yourself in the novel (in many ways like the works of Roberto Bolaño) you begin to dread the turning of the Ferris wheel, the appearance of the pariah dog, the utterly credible appearance and reappearance of the men who lurk and watch and follow one man as he staggers towards the last paragraph and sentence of his life.
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