This will be one of those stories that begins too long ago, meanders in too many directions, and entertains no one but me. It does entertain me though, so am going to tell it, even if it ends in tragedy.
Last year, at about this time, I was preparing for the Survey of Literature II course that I was to teach in the fall. I was frustrated because my course on the novel had been cancelled, and I was bored with the format of the Survey of Literature II course, and I was thinking about both these things together when it occurred to me that the two courses cover almost exactly the same time period. So, I decided to teach the survey course as if it were the novel course and to introduce some new methods of evaluation, including a wiki of several hundred important novels from which the students had to select five texts and in which they had to post assignments on their selections.
Of course, once I had assembled this list of novels, I was acutely aware that I had read only a very few of them, so I set myself the task of reading as many as I could before the fall, a task that I am still completing in a desultory sort of way. Among the many novels I read that summer, I particularly enjoyed Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The energy, the intensity, the near-poetry of the prose sets it apart from all but a few of the novels I have read (Dow Mossman’s The Stones of Summer and Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers have something of this quality also), and the layers of internal and external allusion gives it a gratifying fullness of weight and depth (the kind of effect I find in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or almost anything by Salman Rushdie). Lowry’s novel also contains one of the most extraordinary sentences in the English language, one I am tempted to quote in its entirety, but it is so long that it would make a post in itself, so I will show some restraint.
I did not think again about the book for some time. I still had others from the list that I wanted to read, and none of my students chose to read Under The Volcano that fall, so it merely drifted with so much else in the soup of my literary unconscious. Then, this past Christmas, Dave Humphrey gave me a little book called The Film Club, written by journalist and film critic David Gilmour. The book is an autobiographical account of the unique film club for two that formed when Gilmour allowed his son to drop out of school on the condition that he would watch three films a week with his father. It is interesting to me mostly for what it implies about the nature of learning, but it also made one of those literary connections that I sometimes feel as an almost physical pleasure. During a list of films that he and his son were watching during a particular stretch, Gilmour mentions a documentary called Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcom Lowry, directed by Donald Brittain. He went so far as to say that it was perhaps the best documentary ever made.
Since I teach a course on documentary, and since Under the Volcano had impressed me so much, I could hardly leave this claim untested. I immediately began looking for Brittain’s film, but I could not find a copy anywhere. None of the video stores, not even my local and favourite purveyor of oddities, was able to find it for me. A search of the internet revealed that it was no longer available. I was almost in despair until one of the search results lead me to the bonus features of the Criterion Collection edition of John Huston’s film adaptation of Under the Volcano. Apparently, although Brittian’s documentary was no longer available in its own right, it was readily available on the disc of bonus features that accompanies Huston’s film. More importantly, the edition was available for free from my local library, less than five minutes walk from my front door. I was jubilant.
When I returned with my prize, I only intended to watch the documentary, for at least two reasons. First, I usually find only melodrama in dramatic films, which is why I prefer films that are intentionally unreal and ironic. Second, film adaptations of novels, in my experience, while sometimes good in their own right, most often fail to capture the mood and sensibility of their literary ancestors. Despite the force of these reasons, I had heard that Huston’s film was supposed to be classic, and I had it in my hand already in any case, so I watched it.
I have rarely, if ever, found a film adaptation that is so respectful of its source novel, not necessarily of the novel’s exact narrative events, which are largely reduced in the film, but of the novel’s spirit and temper. I felt as though the film and the novel had been made with the same fabric, the same materials, that their difference of genre was a distinction less important than their unities of tone and disposition. They seemed to be different iterations of the same artistic act, extensions of one another. I have seen better films, but I do not think I have seen a better adaptation of a novel to film.
Brittian’s documentary was also very good. While I would not perhaps agree with Gilmour that it is among the best ever made, it has an easiness of narrative tone and pace that makes it a pleasure to watch. There is a strong sense of affection for Lowry, but it never becomes idolatry. It is an affection that is always well aware of Lowry’s many frailties, an affection that remains despite these frailties, and perhaps also because of them. After all, the novel is so much a product of Lowry’s personal tragedies that it is difficult to feel its emotional force without also feeling the emotional force of the life it reflects. In this sense, Brittian’s documentary makes a very good companion to the novel, and to Huston’s film as well, and I am currently formulating some possibilities about a course format that would allow me to use the three of them together.
Anyway, I did not have occasion to think about the novel or its accompanying films again until I noticed that my wife had brought Gilmour’s The Film Club on our recent trip south. As soon as I saw it, however, I recalled again how much I wanted to teach the three Volcano texts together, and I decided to buy the Criterion Collection edition when I next had a few dollars to spend. Then, the very next day, while browsing a DVD store in a Georgia suburb, I saw a used copy of the very thing: John Huston’s Under the Volcano, with all the extras that I wanted and more. I believe that I might actually have exclaimed audibly at the coincidence.
The price was $36.00. I checked my wallet, though I knew before I opened it that I had less than $20 left to spend. I contemplated using the credit card, but I knew that my wife would not approve of such a flagrant disregard for our budget, so I walked resignedly past the cash register, empty handed. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, a consolation of sorts, however inadequate. It is only appropriate, I reflected, where Malcom Lowry and Under the Volcano are concerned, that I should know exactly what it is I want and still be unable to obtain it. Of course, none of this will prevent me from ordering the thing when the budget next allows.