Lowry’s Planet

Michael Hofmann

  • Pursued by Furies: A life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker
    HarperCollins, 672 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 00 215539 7
  • The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry edited by Kathleen Scherf
    British Columbia, 418 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 7748 0362 2

Quauhnahuac, his Cuernavaca, is overlooked by the two volcanoes, but Malcolm Lowry’s life is ringed by non-events and no-shows that were even more spectacular, things that might have happened or threatened or promised to happen, but never did: such things as financial independence; a regular relationship with an editor, a publishing house, a landlord; a modus vivendi with alcohol; Jungian analysis in Zurich or lobotomy in Wimbledon. Above all, there is The Voyage That Never Ends, the cycle of novels that he mooted but never wrote, or wrote but never finished, with fantastic, phantom, harpooning titles like In Ballast to the White Sea, La Mordida, Swinging the Maelstrom. All these things – books, changed circumstances, surgery – are cures of one sort or another, for as Stephen Spender remarked in his introduction to Under the Volcano, ‘with Lowry one is never far away from the thought that although there is an illness there may also be a cure.’ They obtruded and impended like the gods in the life of a Greek, but when it came down to it, they remained offstage, sat on their hands, and he gave his life to their absence. He is the one whom the gods did not save. Despite the offer made to Faust in the third of Under the Volcano’s three epigraphs, ‘wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen’ – ‘whoever unceasingly strives upward ... him can we save’ – the gods did not come for him. And yet strive he did, indubitably. Passim. Even a graphologist would have to agree:

At first glance it did not appear a letter. But there was no mistaking, even in the uncertain light, the hand, half crabbed, half generous, and wholly drunken, of the Consul himself, the Greek e’s, flying buttresses of d’s, the t’s like lonely wayside crosses save where they crucified an entire word, the words themselves slanting steeply downhill, though the individual characters seemed as if resisting the descent, braced, climbing the other way.

There I think is Malcolm Lowry’s Fable – to use Edwin Muir’s word for the mythic shape of a man’s life. He is the one whom the gods did not save. This is what gives his life its irredeemable sadness, its suspenseful struggle, its promise that was never cancelled and only once – with the Volcano – fulfilled, superbly for the reader, catastrophically for himself, as witness the poem ‘After Publication of Under the Volcano’ (‘Success is like some horrible disaster’) and the ten last lost years he had to live through after it. But Lowry’s life is full of Muir-ish hinges, cruxes, palpably brighter alternatives, all ready to swing on its axis if only the right point were touched, the right word spoken. Even his death, choking on his own vomit, seems the most fickle and unnecessary way to go. A proud and terrible loneliness emerges from Under the Volcano – that of the Consul its hero, a man severed from every conceivable tie, and that of the book, all alone in what without it hardly deserves to be called an oeuvre. Lowry stands unexampled to me as ‘a great author who happened to have written only one great book’, in the words of Douglas Day, his first biographer. Faced with a three-book deal and the prospect of becoming his own assembly line, all he could think of was Under Under the Volcano. Robert Lowell writes:

I memorised tricks to set the river on fire,
somehow never wrote something to go back to.

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