Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“Good prose is like a window pane.”

– George Orwell

homageThe above quote is a framed print on my wall. Orwell proves it fully with Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a window into a very particular point in time, a baleful precursor to World War II. It went far beyond my previous understanding of the conflict, which in American schooling boils down to Franco = Bad.

The chapters of the book follow two different paths. The first is Orwell’s direct experiences on the front and later in the street fighting in Barcelona. This is largely a tale of privation. Both sides of the war were drastically undersupplied. No guns, no bread, no tools, and eventually no tobacco. Plenty of lice. It’s ironic that my mid-century version of the book has a bloodied bayonet on the cover because the Republican forces did not even have those. Indeed, their guns were 30-40 years old, often from the previous century, and as like to lock or blow up in their wielder’s face as shoot anything. Furthermore, the fronts were so far apart and in such hostile terrain, there was very little fighting at all for much of Orwell’s tenure. Endless boredom and sleep deprivation instead.  

It’s a vivid retelling. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told that trench warfare was abysmal and some of the very worst humanity has inflicted on its own. To hear it in Orwell’s crisp prose is to be re-acclimated with just how miserable the whole experience was. Worse, how absurd and pointless. Orwell barely sees any action, certaintly not anything that can be claimed a military victory, but plenty of good men are wounded or die and George gets a bullet through his throat for good measure.

The alternate chapters are Orwell’s summary of the politics of the war, from his position a few months after he left. I just learned in newer copies of the book these are actually appendices placed at the end, which is a grave injustice if you ask me. The war and its politics must be intertwined. Orwell joined the war under a specific party, the P.O.U.M., without giving it a second thought. There to fight fascism, he assumed a unity amongst the opposing republican parties. But an ominous note early on bodes ill when he asks someone about a fellow acronym-based group and is told “they’re the socialists”, to which Orwell replies “Aren’t we all socialists?” 

Turns out there’s some majorly important distinctions between the political groups of the republic. There’s socialists of various kinds, communists, and anarchists, which should share many of the same tenets, but Orwell goes at length to show that this version of communism is based entirely on the military interests of Russia (the only party supplying the government with guns) and not much on ideology. This becomes essential later, when the communist-backed government clashes with the P.O.U.M. while George is on leave in Barcelona and the city devolves into street fighting. The end game is complete disillusionment with the war as he watches all his friends thrown in jail and escapes to France by the skin of his teeth. He has a particular hate for the misleading foreign journalism abroad, and the rampant censorship and harmful propaganda within Spain. You can almost see 1984 being written.

Something of a side note that I found fascinating was the political anarchism that briefly gripped Spain. Orwell writes that capitalist hierarchy was eliminated in Catalonia. In the militia, officers pulled the same pay as raw recruits and enjoyed the same social status; if a grunt didn’t like the order his ‘superior’ gave him, he had the right to question it. Land ownership was abolished and food freely distributed. It’s easy to think of political anarchism as nice in theory but totally impractical and before he engaged with it, Orwell thought the same. It’s fun and a little bittersweet to ponder what might have happened in Spain had the anarchists prevailed.

George Orwell is from a different era. It’s easy to forget. His writing, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, are still widely read and relevant today. Big Brother is a concept rooted in international parlance. I write this because his mentality on joining the war in the first place is thus: he thought it was the only decent thing to do. To go to Spain and fight fascism by killing some fascists. To modern eyes, the idealism and sense of duty present is almost shocking. He infuses the book with a certain violent moral force. Amidst the war is an appraisal of human decency, which through individual interactions he maintains a high opinion of, regardless of the widespread hate and oppression swirling around.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

time of giftsOK, I don’t think you can truly appreciate this book unless you’re European. Or at least have a knowledge of European art and history, an overall aesthetic sensibility that I do not possess. I’m going to spend some time backing this theory up, but first let me tell you what A Time of Gifts is about.*

When the author was 18, which was 1933 or thereabouts, he was kicked out of school for stealing time with a woman, though really it was a culmination of havoc caused by his inveterate trouble-making that got him the boot. So he decided to walk across Europe, from London to Constantinople. This book — written in 1977 with Fermor’s remarkably acute memories plus a few diary excerpts from the walk itself — details just about half of that journey. I don’t plan to read the rest, so jolly, naive teen Fermor will be gallivanting across Europe forever as far as I’m concerned.

Post World War I, the Old World is supposed to be dead. But, at least in part to being a precocious and over-literate student, Fermor is greeted with non-stop hospitality. People he seems to know for a few minutes put him up in their flats (or estates or castles or couches) for the night. Then call all their friends and set up free stays for his foreseeable future. The world around him is snow capped villages, lumberjacks, barges, peasants. There’s a middle Europe village lifestyle awash with aromatic stews and freshly churned butter and cold ale and pipe-smoking lumberjacks that makes it jarring when modern tech like automobiles or telephones launch into focus and you remember it’s the 1930s, not the 1630s.

The descriptive prose is generally excellent. Even though I honestly didn’t like the book all that much, I kept reading because of how entrancing and memorable certain passages were. I could feel young Fermor crunching through the snow above the Danube, could just about see the magnificence of mountain peaks in the distance. His enthusiasm is often infectious and some of the people he befriends and describes, and the little narratives that surface — Fermor runs out of money and with the assistance of a Don Quixote-esque personage starts going door-to-door selling his portrait-sketching skills to the people of Vienna — are engaging.

So far so good, but here’s where this book, written in a dense style of English filled with many words I did not understand starts failing for me. Fermor, a certain kind of old-school English intellectual, thinks I can read Latin. And French. Or at least this is what I am to assume from all the untranslated Latin and French in the book. German is mercifully translated. He also assumes a knowledge of European art that I lack. Watch my eyes glaze over, sticky and dry, during the lengthy passages where he pontificates on old paintings he assumes the reader is familiar with and how they relate to his surroundings. Indeed, he has this whole notion that painting and travel are inextricably linked because you often see places in paintings before you visit them. This idea is so foreign and counter to my real life experiences (where I might replace ‘painting’ with ‘film’ or ‘tv’ or ‘literature’) that I cannot but guess this is intended for a different generation or culture than the one I presently belong to!

Historic assumptions are rife within this book too, though less bothersome. I don’t have Prague and Vienna built up with such mystique as young Patrick does, so his wonder does not quite resonate with me. The middle European empires I know only in murky, half-forgotten shades. Certainly nothing to match Fermor’s musing on the Hapsburgs. The thing that kills me are the times he engrosses me in some historic element and then completely abandons me out at sea. While stomping through Germany he meets all kinds of different politically minded people, plenty of which want to know why England doesn’t like the Nazis. Fermor responds that his people aren’t so keen on:

  1. Burning books.
  2. Concentration camps.
  3. Persecuting Jews.

Then, instead of telling us what the Germans’ responses were, he says:

Anyway, the reactions and arguments are too familiar for repetition.

Ahh! No they are not familiar to me, Patrick! I wanted to know what the average people of Germany had to say in response. This is the sort of half-brilliant, half-complete drudgery I found this book to be.

*Note all the glowing reviews on Goodreads, many written by Americans, show I’m more-or-less completely wrong about this. But whatever. I’m sticking to it.