Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

published 1947  chapter 6

Yvonne, bare-legged, was wearing instead of her yellow slacks a white tailored sharkskin suit with one button at the waist, and beneath it a brilliant high-necked blouse, like a detail in a Rousseau; the heels of her red shoes clicking laconically on the broken stones appeared neither flat nor high, and she carried a bright red bag. Passing her one would not have suspected agony. One would not have noticed lack of faith, nor questioned that she knew where she was going, nor wondered if she were walking in her sleep. How happy and pretty she looks, one would say. Probably she is going to meet her lover in the Bella Vista! – Women of medium height, slenderly built, mostly divorced, passionate but envious of the male - angel to him as he is bright or dark, yet unconscious destructive succubus of his ambitions – American women, with that rather graceful swift way of walking, with the clean scrubbed tanned faces of children, the skin finely textured with a satin sheen, their hair clean and shining as though just washed, and looking like that, but carelessly done, the slim brown hands that do not rock the cradle, the slender feet – how many centuries of oppression have produced them? They do not care who is losing the Battle of Ebro, for it is too soon for them to outsmart Job’s warhorse. They see no significance in it, only fools going to death for a –

observations: Sharkskin is quite safe for vegetarians, being a kind of material with a very distinctive texture, but no teeth.

Another visit to this wonderful book, but we should stress that this is a stream of consciousness, these are the thoughts of Hugh, brother to Geoffrey, the main character. He is having his rather strange ideas about Yvonne – his sister-in-law, with whom he had an affair. He’s worried about the Battle of the Ebro (an important engagement in the Spanish Civil War) because he feels he should be there fighting it himself.

The setting of the book is key, and very real, but there’s something about books set in Mexico by non-natives: it is hard to take them seriously, the local colour is very off-putting. In a long-lost Mexican thriller (by this author) there is this line:

‘Salud’ I said. ‘Why have you come? Things didn’t go too well between us at the bullfight.’

-which is somehow the archetypal bit of Mexicana (This Dud Avocado post has another bullfight quote, but that’s in Spain). It would be good to read more books by actual Mexicans to see how they cope with the local customs.

Lowry is much better than some, but even he gets bogged down in listing the dishes on the menu  **, and ‘under the trees… a little girl was playing with an armadillo.’ To be fair, he puts in all kinds of other irrelevancies, like a list of some of the elements in the periodic table. And, still being fair, Under the Volcano is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Links on the blog: Other entries from this book here and here. Red shoes are important in Proust.

The picture is from a collection of photos of racegoers at the Powerhouse Museum in Australia.

** Added later: a comment, below, says firmly that Lowry had good reason for every word he wrote.... and points us in the direction of this website, which gives the most detailed notes on a book I have ever seen. (See below for the commentator's  specific link to the explanation for the menu listing).


  1. I really must practice, when next wearing heels, to click laconically.

  2. Moira - I must agree with you about the authenticity issue when it comes to Mexico. But I also agree that this is a great book. It's not for every mood I admit, but it's a great slice of life I think at a momentous time.

  3. There is a reason for every word that Lowry wrote in UTV. It may seemed boggy (the menu items), but there was intention to every item.


    Chapter ten, section 290

  4. Thanks Dee and Margot - and thanks, anonymous, for your helpful words - I have added a note to the blog entry.


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