Monday, 21 December 2009

Transcription: Under the Volcano, Analysis 1.

I apologise for the slight rambliness and the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes of this post but I’m not writing an academic essay here. I’m just getting my thoughts of the novel out of my head and transferring it into something physical. For this analysis I will just give a general outline on the book and how it relates back to the life of Malcolm Lowry the authour. It’s possibly more important than you think, especially in terms of understanding why the book was written. In fact it is probably easier to understand the themes of the novel if you relate it back to Lowry’s own life.

I should’ve started out by saying that there are whole thesis’s and books dedicated entirely to this just this single book and its relationship to the life of Malcolm Lowry. Whatever I write is probably going to be a very simplified take on things, after all Lowry even said you have to read it 20 times before you can truly understand it. I have read it once and am currently on the second and to be honest I don’t intend on reading it another 18 times in 5 weeks. However I have read numerous articles on the book and Lowry’s life. There is also an excellent documentary entitled Volcano: An Enquiry in to the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry which provides a lot of analysis of the book. There is also a fairly competent film adaptation directed by John Huston which captures the feel of the novel quite well, however it comes nowhere near to achieving the depth of the novel but it could provided useful reference material in terms of capturing the look and feel of 1930’s Mexico.

So I keep talking about Lowry in relation to the book as if I’m going to transcribe his life and well that is sort of what I’m going to do, I can’t help but not do it really. Even though the events in the novel are portrayed through fictional characters it is a very autobiographical book. Geoffrey Firmin is Malcolm Lowry, Yvonne is Jan Gabriel (Lowry’s ex-wife) and Hugh is the man that Jan Gabriel left Lowry for. Quauhnahuac is actually the real Mexican city of Cuernavaca. Just to make it clear, even though I’m talking about the characters in the book a lot, I want the Transcription project to be environment orientated rather than a Character Design piece. That doesn’t mean that the characters in the novel are redundant in terms of the things I want to portray in these envisioned environments, the themes that the book explore through these characters is something I feel can be translated into the conceptual process of creating these environments, if that makes sense.

Ok, so a very brief summary of the plot of Under The Volcano. The book describes the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul. It is set in Mexico during the Day of The Dead festival in the town of Quauhnahuac 1938. Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne returns in order to try and revive their marriage, however it is a hopeless cause as Geoffrey is drunk throughout and the situation is not aided by the return Hugh his half-brother, the man Yvonne had an affair with. This all leads ups to the end where he is shot and killed by Fascist Banditos and then left in a ravine.

The actual book itself was first published in 1947, however it took Lowry almost a decade to write. During which Lowry lived in Mexico by a sewage system. He was arrested a put in jails numerous times for alcohol related incidents. His wife left him for another man. He was deported from Mexico. After Mexico he lived in a squatters shack for many years before it burnt down completely and almost took the manuscripts for Under The Volcano with it.

In fact his life before Mexico was no less dramatic. He was put into mental hospitals as an extreme case numerous times. He was deathly afraid of catching syphilis and sexual diseases from the men he found himself waking up to after a night of bar crawling. During his teenage years he inadvertently caused the suicide of a boy whose advances he rejected, which plagued him for the rest of his life. He married a woman hastily and once she realised what she had gotten herself into, decided to run away and leave the country.

You can probably see the types of symbolic themes the book explores. His drinking, his bitter relationship and break-up with his wife, the strained diplomatic relations, the foreign landscape and many more. The absolute biggest theme that the book explores more than anything else is Alcoholism. Other than being a writer being an alcholic was Lowry’s main occupation and hobby, and now that in the book the diplomatic relations between Mexico and Britain have been broken off that is Consul’s only occupation, to wander between the many Cantina’s and drink himself sober with the local Mescal.

The problem that many people have with the book and Lowry’s writing style in general is that it is so convoluted particularly in the way it is constructed. That’s not to say it’s badly written, far from it, but a single monologue from the Consul can go on for pages at a time, during which time hops back and forth between with no prior warning. All while he is using densely packed and very obscure symbolism to portray his thoughts. To be honest, yes, maybe it is a bit of a mess and many can barely get past the first three chapters where in absolutely nothing happens for 70 pages. It’s a slow burn to say the least. So before I go any further I want firstly to do a bit more research and also to do some more reading of the book.

Also here is the trailer of the film, like I say it’s not perfect and it feels very unfinished but it is a fairly accomplished adaptation of an extremely difficult book.

6 comments:

tutorphil said...

Rich stuff, Tom - so, are you looking at creating some kind of uber-subjective depiction of Malcom Lowry's experience of his surroundings? The world you describe recalls the imagery of William Burroughs and Timothy Leary: in terms of creating the 'worlds' or concept art, perhaps you could build in some Dada-esque randomness into the visualisations? Dadaists used to create poetry by cutting up texts and re-compiling them into new 'stream-of-consciousness' verse; perhaps you could allow some of this randomness/bricolage into your creative development. Of course, I could be way off base, but perhaps you could combine collage + digital painting to generate images with a genuine sense of the 'subconscious-at-work'...

tutorphil said...

you've probably clocked these already, but some other artists you might want to look at:

Frank Auerbach
Franz Marc
Max Ernst

also - check out

ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZO2VkKKR7o

it's footage of Silvestre Revueltas's Sensemaya - Mexician contemporary musical expressionism! It's amazing what you can dig up... pretty evocative stuff - it might inspire...

tutorphil said...

http://www.grahamcolliermusic.com/recordings/Dead

Tom Beg said...

Since we're posting music and audio...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9EFkTKx0So

The film has a great soundtrack, very hard to track down though.

Tom Beg said...

And that Graham Collier album seems pretty interesting so I've gone and bought it. It could be that I do a transcription of one of the pieces of music on that CD.

tutorphil said...

Absolutely - if you were to take a peice of music from that recording you a) get a finite running time for your animation; you get 'boundaries' - b) you're instantly working in the abstract because you're responding to non-visual source material (but with clear recourse to your image-analysis of the original text. It gives you a platform - or rather, an envelope to fill...