I read the Picador Classics edition (1967) with an introduction by Stephen Spender. Unusually, I read the introduction first, then again after reading the novel, which I read in three sittings. I like Spender, and relate to his reading of the book.
Despite its dual reputations of being difficult and about alcoholism, it is neither. As for difficulty, it’s true that understanding Spanish would be helpful, but the saturated extratextual references to mythology, mysticism, history and so on can be taken as fragments of a disintegrating mind in a disintegrating world: the central theme is of stability versus instability, fragments against ruins, and from this erupts the permanent psychological divisions between desire’s positivity and its demonic twin of destruction. The characters are all one character, the places all one place, the times all one time, though an impossible time – that of a moment that is an ideal locus without nostalgia for past or future.
Alcohol is central of course because the character of the novel is alcoholic, and best read, therefore by an alcoholic – which is most people, for Firmin and his alternatives are merely further advanced into descent and ascent than most which makes his expression approach the ideal moment. The refusal to accept love is not a failure but an affirmation for love is part of the dreadful entanglement of contingent dual actions of affirmation and immediate denial, and it is this tangle (the novel is thick with imagery of entanglement) which is transcended by final descent into the (literal) abyss. Obviously for it could be no other, a novel of immense contradictions, impossible antipathies, and the realisation of being as antithetical to identity.
It is easy to read when one accepts its imagistic concentration. Films, stills, photographs, paintings, advertisements, thicken every paragraph to a flicker that has the paradoxical potential to, like a hollywood movie, enspectre a counterpart to diegesis – a clean, pure, fluid, immensely joyful….. illusion.
It’s a wonderful, exquisitely awful and painful novel of redemption.