restricted access The Making of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (review)
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Reviewed by
Frederick Asals. The Making of Malcolm Lowry’sUnder the Volcano. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1998. 476 pp.

Malcolm Lowry was an inconsiderate writer. The half-century of research that has followed his Under the Volcano is as complex a text as the novel itself. From those biographical critics who both celebrate and deplore Lowry’s legendary excesses at the expense of his work as a [End Page 1067] writer to those who would render unreadable critical cartographies of the book, which only make Under the Volcano resemble a catalogue of footnotes, most Lowry scholars harbor the same wish: why couldn’t Lowry have revised the novel in a straight line? That is, why couldn’t he have simply rewritten the book from beginning to end?

One of the refreshing aspects of Frederick Asals’s study is that the author seems undaunted by the enormity of the task of determining the conception and subsequent ordering of Lowry’s drafts of the novel. Although Asals’s introduction recalls his initial confusion and trepidation at approaching these seemingly infinite versions, he seems finally to embrace the novel’s chaotic draft history and is able to provide a useful and surprisingly readable analysis of Under the Volcano’s textual evolution.

Asals’s study arrives on the heels of Gordon Bowker’s massive critical biography of Lowry, Pursued by Furies, which through its many references to Lowry’s letters to such authors as Conrad Aiken and Jonathan Cape provided instant connections between Lowry’s state of mind and the construction of the novel itself. Asals’s book supplements these connections rather handily, and though he insists in his introduction that biographical concerns are largely secondary, it is the picture of Lowry himself which seems the most resonant.

The Making of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is a history of a singularly gifted writer’s dedication to a work of art, one that he defended and fought for at great personal cost. While many Volcano scholars use the 1940 version as the earliest point of reference, Asals cannily penetrates the book’s shrouded origins, assembling an Ur-text made up not only of notebook versions of the novel which Lowry assembled in Los Angeles and Mexico in 1937–38, but also the maps, menus, telegrams, and other written texts Lowry used as aids in composing the novel. The notebooks themselves are perhaps most intriguing, as Asals reproduces some of Lowry’s early projected scenes that include characters who do not appear in even the 1940 version of novel, much less the 1947 edition.

Perhaps more interesting is Asals’s attempt to approach Lowry’s text through the evolution of the main characters rather than simply observing chronology. Although he provides extensive draft dates in his appendices, including not only dates that reveal when Lowry began work on a particular section of the book and when he finished, but also the kind and color of paper Lowry used for each draft, Asals’s [End Page 1068] unique and highly readable approach culminates with his observation of the development of the Consul, Hugh, and Yvonne. Asals shows how Lowry was able to better express the consciousness of his characters simply by rewriting a single word or phrase, by having a character step or look in one direction rather than another, by repeating a particular line, or by hesitating or listening.

One of the most important missions of this study, however, is Asals’s recovery of Lowry as a serious writer, hardworking, methodical and thoughtful—characterizations which have not been made due to the Lowry mythmaking industry, which reduces him to the role of a brilliant drunk unable to let go of an already messy book. Asals observes that the writing of the novel was informed and complicated by the Spanish Civil War as well as the German occupation of France, and that Lowry’s awareness of and intellectual involvement with these events demanded certain changes in the scope of the novel itself. Similarly, Asals shows how Lowry’s conscientiousness as a writer also allowed him to function as a collaborator with his wife Margerie Bonner, who, Asals suggests, was not only...