- The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words edited by Michael Hofmann
NYRB, 518 pp, £16.99, November 2007, ISBN 978 1 59017 235 3
The two central facts about Malcolm Lowry are that he wrote and that he drank. He drank while writing – or possibly he wrote while drinking. When he died in June 1957 after downing a lethal mix of barbiturates and gin (the coroner’s verdict was ‘death by misadventure’), he left behind a trunk full of unfinished manuscripts and an impracticably ambitious scheme to develop all his work in progress and his two published novels into a complex sequence for which the projected title was The Voyage That Never Ends. The whole vessel, a many-layered, interrelated reflection on the writer’s fraught engagement with his art, would incorporate virtually everything Lowry had ever committed to paper: a revised and improved version of his first book, Ultramarine, published 24 years earlier; Under the Volcano (1947), his only critical and commercial success; Lunar Caustic, which would draw on his stay in a psychiatric ward; a two-part saga about an embattled author figure very much like Lowry himself called The Ordeal of Sigbjørn Wilderness; a trilogy about the writing (and drinking) life, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, Eridanus and La Mordida, again featuring this lightly disguised alter ego; October Ferry to Gabriola, based on Lowry’s experience of being threatened with eviction from his hideout in British Columbia; stories, poems, a play. It would be his ‘Life Work’, nothing less than a voyage into the interior, a meditation on the complex psychological elements at play in the writer’s impact on the world and vice versa. ‘All that remains,’ Lowry told his agent Harold Matson in 1951 when outlining the stages of this mammoth journey, ‘is to get myself into a material position where I can consummate the ordeal by the further ordeal of writing it.’ He never did.
Michael Hofmann’s The Voyage That Never Ends is not Malcolm Lowry’s, but it puts us as close as anything can to being in a position to assess whether Lowry’s ‘Life Work’, unconsummated and fragmentary as it is, really does have the unity he claimed for it. The problem, as Hofmann recognises while being careful not to admit it in so many words, is that much of Lowry’s surviving fiction is unreadable. After Lowry’s death, his widow, Margerie Bonner Lowry, began to piece together his manuscripts, producing passable versions for publication from notes and drafts (one gets a measure of the task when one considers that Lowry wrote on anything that came to hand, including menus, cigarette cartons and, according to his first wife, empty condom packets). As a result there are posthumous editions of La Mordida, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, October Ferry to Gabriola, a Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry and two volumes of short stories, but in their uncertain state they are of interest mainly to scholars and hold little appeal for the ordinary reader, who invariably comes to Lowry after discovering the masterful Under the Volcano, in the hope that there will be more of the same. There isn’t, and knowing this, Hofmann wisely gives us only excerpts from the rest. His admirably concise Voyage contains seven short stories, a handful of poems, carefully selected chapters from the unfinished novels, and a judicious sampling of Lowry’s punning, impassioned, sometimes plaintive letters. That we will already be familiar with Under the Volcano is assumed; Hofmann’s ancillary and not unrealistic expectation is that the highlights of the literary hinterland will satisfy our curiosity ‘to read something else by the same hand’.