Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (filmed by John Huston, 1984)
1 November – The Day of the Dead. A great festival, we gather, but our interest is naturally aesthetic, and as background to that superb Malcolm Lowry novel, Under the Volcano. And a terrific film as well, the last great John Huston picture, featuring Albert Finney’s best performance since Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Lowry takes this single day, the Day of the Dead, and its doomed British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, and has them represent western enlightenment in decline, with Firmin as a dissolute diplomat who can see the Nazis coming, through his alcoholic haze. Mexico and its cohorts represent the barbarians inside the gate. Late 1930s – England seems on the wane; Nazis in the ascendant.
Under the volcano (the signifier of the coming conflagration), Firmin decides to descend to the inferno first, throwing away every sense of decency in a booze-fuelled bender of epic proportions. Like the worm in a tourist-only pint of Mezcal, he is an outsider, and soon to be pickled one way or the other, as he reverberates suicidally from one deadly tavern to another.
The initial reception to Lowry’s book was universal indifference. The author wrote to Conrad Aiken in 1945, “My novel-the Volcano-seems to have gone smack into the void, no intelligent comments so far or encouragement.”
But then word spread that he’d done something pretty special.
Albert Finney gives a bravura performance of a hopeless case – he sees inevitable decline and doom and hurls himself into the inferno via tequila, champagne, any libation he can get his hands on, really. The Mexican settings are superb, the supporting cast solid, but don’t go see this to cheer yourself up!