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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

September Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

This 1947 second novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry is a dire, doomful Dantean descent into despair, despondency, doubt, darkness, and death. Set in the small Mexican town of Quahnahuac, nestled snug between two looming volcanos, the story unfolds over the course of a single day, November 2nd, 1938: the Day of the Dead. Our hero is Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, a man of only thirty, caught in the throes of both raging alcoholism, pushing him to an early death, and the dissolution of his marriage with his estranged wife Yvonne, a former actress whose love for Geoffrey fuels the fiery pain of heartache burning in her being. Hugh Firmin, Geoffrey’s half-brother, a journalist, has arrived on assignment, to report of the growing political unrest in the country, and set to leave the next day. But he soon becomes entangled in the intricate web woven between Geoffrey and Yvonne, with the latter of whom Hugh has a secret history, one of lust, limerence, and lies. Perambulations ensue–across dusty road and through darkened jungle, down perilous mountainside and over muddy riverbank; from hostel to restaurant, from cinema to bullfight; and from bar to bar to bar. It is the story of death, at once quick and slow, both physical and spiritual, but beyond all, devastatingly visceral.

One of my favorite literary critics, Michael Hofmann, has an incredible quote on Lowry’s masterwork, which, I think, accurately reflects the brilliance of this singular novel; he writes, “Under the Volcano eats light like a black hole. It is a work of such gravity and connectedness and spectroscopic richness that it is more world than product. It is absolute mass, agglomeration of consciousness and experience and terrific personal grace. It has planetary swagger; it is a planet dancing.” A planet dancing. That one will stay with me. And like a planet dancing, it is a novel whose hugeness, beauty, and terror are truly endless. Under the Volcano is unrelenting; it pushes readers to the edge and forces them to look down into an abyss of despair, desperation, inevitable destruction, like overlooking the mouth of a volcano, and keeps them there, never allowing even a short step back from the black hole. And somehow, magically, it accomplishes this by stretching the minutes, the seconds, not simply the temporal fractions of a single day, but those of memory, dreaming, intoxication. Impossibly, each page contains infinities within – a temporal paradox, at once a dilation and endless extension of time–an achievement which only the greatest writers (Proust, Joyce, and Woolf come to mind) possess. And yet still, that atomization of time is itself a drop in the cask that is this novel. I have read few novels whose content and form sing in such glorious harmony as this one – holding the length through, a plot whose mechanisms merge with the mental machinations of each character, flowing and fluctuating from internal to external and back again, entailing an endless stream of detail which lures the reader in, forcing them to experience, feel, live a sad and dangerous life.

Even fewer novels have so repeatedly forced me to stop my reading, halting my eyes in their motion, pushing them off the page in a grand, devastating awe and into quiet rumination, resuscitation. Like a novel that thwarts its own reading, it itself is a contradiction like all those which it holds. The Consul exemplifies such contradiction. Geoffrey’s agon is self-annihilation, a self-shirking from a world of love, justice, relation, and relatedness to a space beyond, a great awakened perspective of the true machinations which limn the veneer of complaisant order that few are able to attain. And his fall is not only a recognition of the futility in such an endeavor but the destructive means he takes to achieve it. The Consul believes himself outside the realm of humanity, and the greatest tension in the novel lies between his arduous attempts at liberation (methods made by mescal) and the gravity which inevitably pulls him back into the dirt. But gravity’s greatest strength is love, as it always is. And therein breathes a thematic shift. Chapters switch in narrative emphasis, each focusing on different character perspectives, and love manifests most saliently in Yvonne’s chapters: never, truly never, have I read passages weeping with greater longing, trying, dreaming; passages of pure desire and the sustained heartache that the unattainability of her dream wreaks on her poor soul. This is the mouth of the volcano, the black hole above which she stands, we stand, and into which she falls, and we fall, continuously throughout.

Its 450 pages consumed me for more than two weeks, enamored, distraught. Under the Volcano was a novel that, like so few have done in the past, made me, at multiple times(!), think to myself, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that with literature.” And in the case of those few others that have achieved such a feat, now I have a before-the-Volcano and an after-the-Volcano.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This 1847 first and last novel by English writer Emily Brontë is a bleak, tragic whirlwind of unfulfilled loves, missed opportunities, and the ghostly ramifications which befall those caught in time’s cold, wintry tempest. Set in the darkened, desolate moors of Yorkshire, England between two estates, the Thrushcross Grange and the titular Wuthering Heights, the novel follows our frame narrator, Mr. Lockwood, as he embarks to a journey into the past to learn of the passionate and destructive love between Heathcliff, our Byronic hero and landlord of Wuthering Heights, whose defiance and obstinacy not only define his reputation but foment his undoing, and Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff’s childhood friend and long-lost love, who reluctantly marries another man and seals a different fate than what could or should have been. Mr. Lockwood, enticed by the tragic story narrated by Nelly the longtime housekeeper of Wuthering Heights, slowly learns that Catherine, in marrying Edgar Linton, a man of considerable better standing than Heathcliff, has unwittingly set off a chain of tragic events, the drastic ripples of which have reverberated across generations. Embittered by Catherine’s marriage, Heathcliff plots revenge: he grows cruel, vengeful, inflicting pain and suffering on both foe and friend alike. And as the frozen layers of the past are carefully melted away, revealed are the consequences of the vengeful Heathcliff, the irreparable effects and indelible marks carved into walls and windows of Wuthering Heights.

Emily Brontë died a year after her novel was published, never seeing the extent to which her work would affect its readers, never knowing the legacy which would outlast her final pen stroke upon the page. In her introduction to the novel, English writer and literary journalist Lucasta Miller writes, “The fact that Wuthering Heights has attracted so many layers of cultural accretion can be seen as a response to its unsettling nature.” It is a deeply disquieting novel, and this pervasive sense of disquiet, like the greatest of literary works, stems from the novel’s content, form, and the interplay between the two. It is a story of missed chances, misunderstandings, missingness, and misanthropy, a plot more Romantic than romantic, and steeped with several incestuous relationship that consistently strike a dissonant chord whose echo never dwindles. The characters drive the plot; each, in his or her own way, embodies the best, the worst, as well as the mediocre, the ineffectual, the lame. Each character is impossible grasp entirely, as their caprices entail their slipperiness–an elusiveness that keeps the reader outside, at odds, and in a dreamlike state of uncertainty, an effect only amplified by Brontë’s prose. She blends baroque ornamentation, a trademark of the Victorian pen, with the contemporaneously colloquial–dialogue, mannerisms, insults, attacks, each manifested in the witty repartee and seething back-and-forths which seem to define so many character interactions. But also, the novel is a near entire frame narrative, structured with a distance already wedged between the characters and the reader, a barrier that I imagine was quite innovative for the time. I love picturing the initial responses from the first readers. It is a work which explores the nature of time, memory, and love, as well as cruelty, violence, and vengeance, and sewn into those disparate themes is a social critique that I have to imagine ruffled some feathers upon publication. This is a book that inspires other books, not only novels but works dedicated to unearthing all the secrets Brontë buried in this singular novel more than a 170 years ago. And I truly doubt all will or even can be unearthed, which is why Wuthering Heights will remain an undisputed and timeless classic.

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham

This 1941 novel by English writer W. Somerset Maugham is a fast-paced, thrilling exploration into the intricate web of love and lust, desire and dilemma, and the consequences of an impulsive decision. Set in the 1930’s, our heroine is Mary Panton, a thirty-year-old widow who has traveled from England to the Italian countryside seeking solace and stability in the aftermath of her husband’s death, a futile endeavor as she soon comes to find. When Sir Edgar Flint, an older, very successful man and a family friend of the Pantons, proposes to Mary, she begins to weigh her options, grappling with her past and uncertain future. But at a dinner party she meets Rowley Flint, a boy her age whose promiscuity, wantonness, and caprice initially deter her, but with whom she eventually comes to be friends. During and after the dinner party, Mary also encounters a young Austrian man named Karl Richter, an aspiring art student who, having fled the Nazis, has lost all to his name. A simple invitation to enter the villa ends in an unfixable tragedy, propelling Mary, and Rowley Flint as well, into a night of nightmarish events, felonious affairs, and astonishing revelations.

It was a Friday morning when I picked up this novel, searching for something I knew would both enthrall and delight. And Maugham never disappoints. I did not expect to read the novel cover to cover in one sitting. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened, certainly years ago. From the beginning pages–an active exposition and character introduction, replete with the plenteous lines of dialogue, witty quips and repartee, thoughts filtered through free indirect style, a trademark of Maugham’s writing, working to convey an emotionally-charged undertone, a grave severity seeping into the corners of such beautiful terrain–to the midway plot twist, a scene which shocked me, sent me tumbling through the second half with reignited gusto, flipping the pages without notice, seeing, experiencing, being among the characters trapped in a fearful landscape wrought by fateful demise. Plummeting towards the finish, never once did the pace let up; I rode Maugham’s rhythm and cadences, the ups and downs of his prosaic flow, like joyriding through the Italian countryside, carving the curves of windy streets, floating over and down the rolling hills. Reading Maugham is watching a master at work. And though this novel spans barely 200 pages, written in short paragraphs and accessible language, it still stands among his finest works, and for me, also stands a testament to the versatility of his artistry. I highly recommend this one to anyone who’s looking to get into W. Somerset Maugham, or simply looking to a chaotic dash of a novel, a stormy story of suspense that will surely seize and enrapture the reader.

Hasen by Reuben Bercovitch

This 1978 novel by American writer and film producer tracks the dangerous journey of Ritter and Perchik, two adolescents, orphans both, furtively, precariously living in the forest bordering a concentration camp. The boys are indentured servants to one of the commandants at the camp, a man named Hoegel, and ordered to hunt for the man and trap his feasts. Subjected to brutal abuse, not simply from the hand and stick of Hoegel, but also the fierce conditions of the wilderness, the boys exist in a state of survival, weighing each and every move and keeping a constant eye on any perceived threat. However, it is not a threat which stirs the boys into planning and action. One day, a train pulls into the concentration camp and discharges villagers from Perchik’s home, one of whom is his younger brother, David. The boys’ rescue mission, punctuated with mercenary negotiations, surprising recognitions, and no shortage of violence, deception, and death, quickly turns dire, and the boys are propelled into, what clearly seems, a losing battle. What ensues is a unique and unforgettable coming-of-age story woven through the harrowing horrors of Holocaust.

I discovered this slim novel wedged between two others on a shelf in a used bookstore. The cover struck me; a strange piece of art; and the writer, a name I’d never heard, seemed alluring. The synopsis on the back sealed the deal; I bought this little book, thinking that I’d read something akin to Kosinski’s The Painted Bird or Kristof’s The Notebook, and while there flew similarities between those titles and this one, there also flew wild dissimilarities. Most striking about this treacherous tale is Bercovitch’s prose – a stark yet lavish lyricism touches each line; ornamental description that, at times, borders on the baroque, hollows the setting, pulling the reader into the pain-stricken world of fear in which the characters exist. And though brief moments of levity litter the story throughout, their number pales in comparison to the violence and despair which pour through the prose. And yet, the weight of words in a book like The Painted Bird seems restrained in Hasen, dampened by Bercovitch’s writerly temperance; though at many times, surely a reader will detect a waning resistance to indulge his impulses. It is a strange little novel, and one that seems to me grossly underread, despite winning the PEN/Hemingway the year after its publication.

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