Literary Daybook, Feb. 19

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 19, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

Barry accuses Judith of being an imbecile over the state of the refrigerator.
-- "Waverly Place" (1974)
by Susan Brownmiller

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1947, Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" was published. Lowry began the book where it is set, in the Cuernavaca region of Mexico in the late '30s, but it had been a full and difficult decade in the making -- a handful of rewrites, many handfuls of rejections, a nearly disastrous fire, a divorce, a desperate struggle with alcohol that would drive him to drink olive oil in the mistaken belief it was hair tonic -- and Lowry wanted to be there on publication day. Sent money by his publisher to travel from his squatter's shack outside Vancouver to New York, Lowry and his wife flew to Seattle, took a bus to New Orleans, boarded a cargo ship to Haiti, flew to Miami and took a final bus north, arriving after two and a half months and one hospital stay on the day of the release. The first reviews were mixed, but the novel is now near the top of most "books of the century" lists, read with admiration and horror as a portrait of "magical and diabolical" Mexico, or of modern despair, or of alcoholism. The poetic prose may be, as Martin Amis recently quipped, "drunkenness recollected in sobriety" (instead of Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility"), but within the free-fall of guilt, recrimination and suicide-by-mescal are higher longings:

"There the bird was still, a long-winged dark furious shape, a little world of fierce despairs and dreams, and memories of floating high above Popocatepetl, mile on mile, to drop through the wilderness and alight, watching, in the timberline ghosts of ravaged mountain trees. With hurried quivering hands Yvonne began to unfasten the cage. The bird fluttered out of it and alighted at her feet, hesitated, took flight to the roof of El Petate, then abruptly flew off through the dusk ... up soaring, with a sudden cleaving of pinions into the deep dark blue pure sky above, in which at that moment appeared one star."

Lowry had visions of "Under the Volcano" being the basis for a seven-novel "drunken 'Divine Comedy,'" but he died in 1957 -- the alcoholism and attendant mental problems culminated in an overdose of sleeping pills -- with little of this done.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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