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.

Lowry was the absolute opposite, no tricks and a work he was unable to get away from. He described himself as ‘a sometimes subtle if not good carpenter etc’, the builder of a pier, projecting into the Vancouver inlet where he squatted, the Volcano by other means’. Alternatively, in Lunar Caustic, he was the ‘SS Lawhill’, ‘a windjammer that survived more disasters than any ship afloat’. Granted, these things are all out of Lowry’s myths about himself, but my point is that one has to use them; everything else would only diminish him. In terms other than those of myth, Prometheus can hardly be seen as a success, and Lowry was a Promethean figure. Appreciating Under the Volcano is easy, but one has to bring something like belief to the rest of his life and work, admire Lowry for the discipline of failure and suffering, and believe that The Voyage That Never Ends might actually have come to something. The dead titles and the posthumous publications – dreary, foot-slogging reads and ever-diminishing rehashes of Under the Volcano, novelising the novelist who wrote it, ‘six authors in search of a character’, he said – are articles of faith.

Clarence Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909 to a Liverpool cottonbroker, the youngest of four sons. His father was already comfortably off and became more so over the years. (He was also, in 1904, ‘England’s Best Developed Man’, but no worries there: his son inherited his physique, was a block off the old block, except he had short arms, small hands and, apparently, a tiny ...) As a boy, he looked like I imagine Richmal Crompton’s William looking, tousled, grinning, pugnacious. He was sent off to the Leys School, where one of his teachers was W.H. Balgarnie, the model for ‘Mr Chips’ (I don’t know what that means in practical terms, but both Day and Bowker tell you so). A teacher remembers Lowry as ‘a rather shaggy, laconic boy, “a cat that walked by itself”’. His style was already emerging. To thank his mother for some cushions, he wrote: ‘The study now resembles the bibliothèque of an Armenian professor of down.’ No biography can explain that, so much courtliness, imagination and wit in a 17-year-old; it’s the mystery of genius, attested to by Conrad Aiken, who never knew a writer (Eliot included) ‘so visibly or happily alight with genius’.

Lowry finished at the Leys, spent the original ‘gap’ on ships to the Far East and back, giving him the material for Ultramarine, the original ‘gap novel’. With help from Aiken and others, he scraped into St Catherine’s, Cambridge, did English in a desultory way – but all his life he had a wonderful and well-exercised Latinate vocabulary: the word ‘tabid’ is already something, but to use it of music, as Lowry does in Under the Volcano, is something else. He impressed his Cambridge contemporaries (with sea-songs and drinking), but as normal, not the English staff, always more deadhand than deadeye. He collected his Third in 1932, Ultramarine was published in 1933 (but not before the manuscript was stolen), and he stayed with the Aikens, and in London and Paris, sometimes in temperance hotels, more usually not. Neither Day nor Bowker can resist mentioning one of his rooms, which you had to enter through a missing door-panel. In 1934, in Paris, Lowry married Jan Gabriel, the first of two American wives, and followed her to New York, where he did a short stint at the Bellevue (see Lunar Caustic), which he later claimed was purely voluntary and fact-gathering. On 30 October 1936, the day before the Day of the Dead, the Lowrys arrived in Mexico. He began writing the first draft of Under the Volcano, a short story about a man and his daughter witnessing a murder on a bus. Jan – not for the first time – left Lowry, and Mexico too turned nasty on him: he spent Christmas in jail and was finally thrown out of the country. In LA he met his second wife, Margerie Bonner, a writer and one-time silent movie actress, and they moved up to Canada, initially so that Lowry could renew his visa, and then for keeps. They moved to a ‘squatter’s shack’ outside Vancouver, in 1940 bought one of their own for $100, and worked and re-worked on Under the Volcano, and on Margerie’s writing. In 1946, with Lowry and Margerie touring the old sites of the book in Mexico, they had news of its acceptance, and in 1947 they went to New York, via Haiti and Miami, for the publication. The Dollarton squatting life was hard to get back into, and Lowry lost his energy and focus among fears and fires, broken limbs, three books and a screenplay of Tender is the Night. In 1954, his publishers, Random House, pulled the plug on him, and the Lowrys went to Europe, finishing up in England, in a village by the South Coast.

As a writer’s life of a certain kind – centrifugal, ‘simple’ in its attempted self-sufficiency – it is formidable, exemplary. For the biographer, it has a deal to offer: a subject with a cult following, but also with a certain amount of slack in his reputation (‘almost certainly Lowry is the least-known British literary genius of the 20th century,’ Bowker says, a little flatly); action (or its substitute, relocation); eloquence and wit in its subject’s presentation of himself, a human noise at all times; medical detail (alcoholism); a flaw (ditto); a commanding presence in photographs; and the alternative conundrums of success or failure – how did Lowry ever manage Under the Volcano; why did the author of Under the Volcano fail to finish another book? On most of the things that matter, I prefer Douglas Day’s 1973 biography to Bowker’s, for all the latter’s greater detail and accuracy. Day’s subject is Lowry: Bowker writes about Lowry’s life. Day organises, presents and mediates the man, a little crashingly at times, but what the heck; Bowker glories in recounting sequences of events – drinks, legal proceedings, extradition, Lowry’s death – in such detail that they become hard to follow. It was Day who said, ‘one must begin by understanding that Lowry was not really a novelist except by accident’ – as helpful a sentence as has been written on him; who presents his slapstick charm; and who describes the extraordinary ripening of the Volcano through its miserably unpromising drafts. Bowker, whose misfortune it is of course to have a predecessor, offers the Furies as a big idea. Lowry pursued by remorse over Paul Fitte, the undergraduate he apparently egged on to suicide; over Burton Rascoe, whose short story he plagiarised; over his mother and his bad angel, Conrad Aiken. This material is new and diligently researched, but it isn’t itself the main story. And too often Bowker turns out inadequate biography sentences and biography paragraphs, ragbags of mood and events, faintly risible shards of facts: ‘It cannot have helped his self-confidence as a writer to have received a letter from Evelyn [his mother] just before Christmas warning him to remember what happened to rolling stones, and saying: “How much I would rejoice to hear of your success in life. Well! I shall just go on hoping.”’ Or: ‘Upset by the assassination of Gandhi at the end of January, he disappeared for a day into Rouen.’ Or: ‘Margerie gave him for Christmas a copy of Kafka’s diaries, a writer he enjoyed because he fed his heightened sense of persecution.’ To all of which as a reader I say ‘ – ’. Why the suppositiousness, the skating over one’s essential ignorance of another being? Why should Lowry not have giggled at his mother’s letter, used Gandhi as a pretext, or found Kafka an absolute hoot (which he is, the funniest thing until, well, Lowry)?

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: ‘The Thames, in the half-light, seemed not unlike the Yangtze-Kiang.’ (In the Letters there is Port au Prince ‘like Tewkesbury, set against the rolling, mysterious mountains of Oaxaca’.) How full of geography, vegetation, talk, drink, books, stars, birds. It is a novel that has swallowed an encyclopedia. Everything is shuffled, intercut, larded, expanded. ‘You have a line there I wrote in Africa 15 years ago,’ a friend told him; others like John Davenport and Aiken merely kept score. And yet there is perhaps nothing in it as impressive as the first page and a half, a completely orderly progression of six paragraphs, massive and thrilling and utterly well-made, until the first line of dialogue takes up the story. When Lowry follows similar magpie/mosaic procedures later on, though, one merely fears for the results and imagines Albert Erskine, his New York editor, hearing how many hundred pages Lowry and Margerie had knocked out on whatever work was in progress, before some sheepish bona fide accident – a broken ankle going to the well, a broken back plunging into the sea. Lowry, of course, would rapturously incorporate the subsequent hospital experience into his work-in-progress. How could the voyage ever end? And yet this is how the Volcano was written.

So many things might have made a difference. Focusing on one particular work after Under the Volcano; an editor closer at hand, and more prepared than Erskine to put on gumboots and wield a pitchfork; a more complete or less distracting success than Under the Volcano enjoyed in New York – launch, parties, razzmatazz, author flown in specially (although he came by ship and bus, being Lowry), everything but talk-show appearances. Surely it was the earliest and most calamitous instance of modern book publication. I had to wonder if it might have helped Lowry not to be English, not to have to return to England, the one place where the reviews were curmudgeonly and sales were disappointing. It must be hard to be a 45-year-old prophet returning to your own country, especially if the country is England and the prophet English. From Bowker:

‘The wild scarlet windflower of Greece is blooming in the garden and the cemetery is a riot of henbane. The stinking goosefoot is out, the mobile frying fish shop is advancing from the southwest, and there are two swallows nesting in the woodshed.’ Soon they would have a cat and the landlady had lent him The Psychic Life of Jesus.

Or perhaps it’s possible to write one masterpiece on packing cases, but not two. Perhaps we are just greedy.

The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry isn’t the missing masterpiece, but it does do something towards satisfying one’s desire for more. It is certainly worth having, a completely different experience from the little City Lights Selected. Poems to Lowry were many things: he wrote tight-arsed sonnets, gloomy humoresques, travel impressions, sound-painting, jazz lyrics, twee love-notes to Margerie. They are all here, all five hundred of them, complete with variants, sober notes from Kathleen Scherf on compositional methods and paper dating, and 80 pages of annotation by the champion Lowry-ologist Chris Ackerley, the pretty-damn-nearly-omniscient co-compiler of the Companion to ‘Under the Volcano’. The poems, as well as being of these various types, are also Lowry in the raw – the place-names, the rhetoric, the apocalyptics, the jokes, the vocabulary. It is the consciousness of Under the Volcano, but loose and purposeless:

Where is Oaxaca, Vigil, you ask, what annex,
Niche, pitch, is this? What age is it? What sex?
Mexico? Is it not the place of the lost?
Goal of all Americans who want to be divorced:
Of all Norsemen who want to be unnorsed:
Of all horsemen, already unhorsed:

If he had made it his major endeavour, and also let himself go, he might have made a poet like the Berryman of the Dream Songs, a cryptic spill, wild swings between thanatos and wit, the screeching and chattering of the brain. I think some of the smaller poems, like ‘Kingfishers in British Columbia’, ‘Happiness’ or ‘Hostage’ are purely good; in them he takes, as it were, Aiken’s advice to ‘put your complexity into reverse – and celebrate the sun’:

A day of sunlight and swallows ...
And saw the fireman by the fidley wave
And laughed. And went on digging my own grave.

More important, though, everything has something to commend it, the facetiae, the Learish nonsense, the poems-on-poems-and-poets, the liquored-up improvisations with their echoes of Crane and Stevens and others, but distinguished always by the Lowryan note of joyful corruption:

A dead lemon like a cowled old woman crouching
                               in the cold.
A white pylon of salt and the flies
taxying on the orange table, rain, rain, a scraping peon.
And a scraping pen writing bowed beggarly words.
War. And the broken-necked street-cars outside
And a sudden broken thought of a girl’s face in Hoboken
A tilted turtle dying slowly on the stoop,
of the sea-food restaurant, blood
lacing its mouth, and the white floor –
ready for teredos to-morrow.

These poems – and it is a strange thing for poems to be – are Lowry at his most unfinished, and unless and until we are given facsimile versions of his prose manuscripts, that gives them their fascination.