- 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’.
Lowry’s own shambolic and anguished voyage as a writer – which he, with wry Joycean jocularity, called his ‘ToolooseLowrytrek’ – begins on page 371, with a fan letter to Conrad Aiken written in 1929. Aiken, a crony of Eliot and Pound, was by then an established novelist and poet (he won the Pulitzer Prize the following year). ‘Sometime when you come to London, Conrad Aiken,’ writes the 19-year-old Lowry loftily, newly returned from a six-month-long stint at sea undertaken to gain some necessary writerly experience, and dazzled by Aiken’s The House of Dust, ‘wilst hog it over the way somewhere with me?’ A few months later he wrote again, less cheekily, to offer the impecunious Aiken ‘5 or 6 guineas a week … if you would tolerate me for any period you like to name … as a member of your household’. Aiken accepted the role of literary mentor, and Lowry’s father, a Methodist Liverpool cotton broker who was already alarmed at his youngest son’s taste for alcohol and eager to see him usefully occupied, willingly came up with the money to send him to Massachusetts. Thus began Lowry’s lifelong career as a remittance man (his father later paid him generous sums to stay in exile) and as a disciple of Aiken’s elaborately scrolled, symbolically weighted, psychologically compacted prose. Hofmann does not include an excerpt from Ultramarine (1933), the Aiken-inspired, lushly introspective first novel that Lowry based on his sea trip, but a short story from the same period, ‘China’, gives the measure of Lowry’s painful adolescent idealism, his hopeless longing for an escape from the familiar, and the beginnings of his tendency to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality, fiction and lived experience: ‘China’s like a muddle to me, it’s just like a dream,’ he muses. ‘For though I’ve been there it takes on a quality sometimes that my imagination bestowed on it before I went … Haven’t you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else … It is always you.’
There is a sense in Lowry that it is this very self that is being both courted and fled from, a wooing and a flight that involve a willed and reckless search for extreme experience (early on in their friendship Aiken said that Lowry reminded him of ‘a small boy chased by furies’). Through Aiken, Lowry came to identify with Melville, another novelist of the sea; but his interest was chiefly in Melville’s doom-fissured life rather than his work, and he took from it a particularly corrosive belief that a plunge into misery was crucial to a writer’s chances of producing great art. Alcohol was Lowry’s preferred method of submergence. He would subsequently attribute his lamentable lack of output to ‘Youth plus booze plus hysterical identifications plus self-deception plus no work plus more booze’, an economy in which writing and drinking very soon became interdependent. Still, we do not actually know why Lowry began to hit the bottle. Was it a bid for inspiration? Just for fun? A way of overcoming his innate shyness? An attempt to put as much distance as possible between himself and his teetotal father (with typical irreverence, Lowry implied that his father’s disapproval of an alcoholic neighbour made him determined, as a schoolboy, to become a drunkard himself)? In any case, addiction has its own momentum, and after a while the original cause is of historic interest only. By the 1930s it would be true simply to say that Lowry drank because he drank. One of the catastrophes of alcoholism, as M.C. Bradbrook has pointed out, is that it arrests the growth of personality, and Lowry’s relationships with his wives, friends and family were often marked by childlike rages and startling abreactions. It is hard not to see his writing as an attempt to reintegrate himself. When writing he could surprise himself being himself, and it seems that he could approach a sense of wholeness only by translating experience into the written word: he had an intuitive and unfuddled acceptance of the fact that for him daily life, however inebriated he might be, existed solely as a vehicle for the expressive urges of the creative self (the painter Julian Trevelyan once told Lowry that he didn’t need therapy: he needed to write).
The alcohol, of course, finally killed off the writing, but not before this ultimately poisonous symbiosis had produced Under the Volcano, Lowry’s black masterpiece about the horrors of alcoholic disintegration, which took him nine years to complete. Hofmann reprints a version of the short story of 1936 that provided the germ of the book (as Brian O’Kill demonstrated in the Times Literary Supplement in 1974, this is in fact not the original short story text, as is commonly thought, but Chapter 8 of Lowry’s 1941 draft of Under the Volcano), and he also gives us Lowry’s magnificently pugnacious, colossal letter to Jonathan Cape, composed in furious response to a standard request for cuts and revisions to the manuscript of the novel. This communication has rightly been described by Lowry’s biographer Gordon Bowker as ‘probably the most subtle and revealing letter ever written by an English author about his work’.
Tracing the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, the dipsomaniac British consul in Mexico, as he grapples with and succumbs to his mescal addiction, Under the Volcano is not only a baroque study of terminal delirium but a tormented, brilliant and often grimly comic appreciation of the human craving for transcendence (‘The disaster might even be found at the end to contain a certain element of triumph,’ the dying consul suggests). It is also – as Cape’s reader failed to spot, and as Lowry proceeds to explain in forty tense pages – meticulously crafted, an intricate, many-storeyed structure that draws on Genesis, Dante, the Faust legend, Buddhism, the Kabbalah, astrology and black magic to raise the significance of its anti-hero’s tragedy from a purely personal to a universal level, to that of ‘open myth’. ‘It is hot music,’ Lowry protested, ‘a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce … it can even be regarded as a sort of machine; it works too.’ The superimposition of a wider philosophical dimension on the book’s hyperreal setting is particularly skilfully handled, and Lowry was incensed that this scrupulously worked effect had been dismissed by Cape’s reader as ‘Mexican local colour heaped on in shovelfuls’ – as if, Lowry growled, he had invoked the aid of ‘some large yet long-handled scoop-like implement’. As the consul’s ragged psyche coalesces to stand for that of Everyman, the symphonic effect of the book’s contrapuntal motifs and interwoven symbols (the pariah dog, the eternal wheel, the lost paradisal garden, the barranca or ravine that stands for the Abyss) is reduced to something surprisingly simple, to a melody in the key of six sharps. This is what makes Lowry a fundamentally different sort of writer from the urbanely allusive Joyce, to whom he is often compared: unlike Joyce, as Lowry himself saw, his interest always lies in ‘simplifying, as far as possible … what originally suggested itself in far more baffling, complex and esoteric terms, rather than the other way round’.
Just as there is an agonised intensity to Lowry’s prose that is utterly unlike Joyce’s detached irony, so Lowry failed to erect those boundaries between himself and his fiction which Joyce seemed to be able effortlessly to construct. Joyce chose Daedalus – an artist who is able to devise an escape from the maze he has designed – as his fictional prototype; Lowry, on the other hand, liked to describe himself as Laocoön, enfolded and strangled by his art. And if ever a writer was destroyed by his own book, Malcolm Lowry was destroyed by Under the Volcano. Its long-desired literary success was something from which he was unable to recover: he never completed another novel, and for the rest of his life he would be known, since Ultramarine had long since sunk without trace, as a one-book wonder. The praise poured on Under the Volcano comprehensively sabotaged his efforts to develop as a writer: it was, as Hofmann says, ‘in one weighing pannier; he himself, jumping up and down, was in the other. It hardly budged.’ Even to himself Lowry became the author, merely, of this one work, fated to retell the story of its genesis and construction over and over. ‘Ah,’ he complains of his success in the poem ‘After Publication of Under the Volcano’, reprinted here, ‘that I had never suffered this treacherous kiss/And had been left in darkness for ever to founder and fail.’ He was, as he liked to lament, ‘Joyced on his own petard’.
If Lowry’s work does have a unity it lies in his obsessive attempts to bring the grinding experience and sheer achievement of having written Under the Volcano to heel. The extended sequence of novels, with Under the Volcano at its heart, which Lowry envisaged as The Voyage That Never Ends would be both a way of capitalising on and subsuming the success of the book. Its main theme would be the author’s struggle with the writing process itself. Hence the device of the improbably named Sigbjørn Wilderness, who has written a book reminiscent of Under the Volcano and is now writing a novel series about another Lowry-like character, Martin Trumbaugh, who is himself a writer who draws on his own life for his fiction and so comes to find himself ‘enmeshed in the plot of [his] novel’. Lowry defended his scheme to his editor, Albert Erskine, as a search for a new metafictional form, something along the lines of Six Characters in Search of an Author or The Seagull: this would be fiction in which the protagonist is ‘not so much a writer as being written’. But Erskine was not impressed, justifiably expressing ‘some misgivings about the outcome of writing a book about a man who had written a book about writing a book …’
The letters Lowry sent to his agent and publisher during the six years in which he laboured, fitfully, on the project, during sojourns in Mexico, Italy and Sicily and at his squatter’s shack in Dollarton, near Vancouver, chronicle its inevitable staleness and futility. Outside Under the Volcano there are, as Hofmann observes, some marvellous sentences in Lowry, and some of the prose excerpts and stories included here – notably ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ and ‘Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession’, another Sigbjørn Wilderness story – are poised and self-aware in the best sense. The exultant ‘Forest Path’, in which the furies briefly become mercies, achieves that fusion of the physical world and an inner conflict that Lowry had delivered in Under the Volcano and never would again. Here the progress is from fragmentation to integration; the story’s hero, a jaded jazz musician, retreats from urban life – ‘so portentous in its prescriptions for a man of imaginary needs that were in reality his damnation’ – to a delicately drawn rural idyll where he is at last able to confront his own appetite for self-destruction.
‘Strange Comfort’ doesn’t quite approach the vitality of ‘Forest Path’, or its subtle interpenetration of the naturalistic and the transcendent, but nevertheless offers an effectively distanced perspective of a different sort on the creative life. Letters and other pitiful personal effects belonging to Keats and Shelley – which Sigbjørn sees in Keats’s house during a visit to Rome – remind him of similar memorabilia at Edgar Allan Poe’s home in Richmond, Virginia. An agonised plea for help sent by Poe to his foster father triggers Sigbjørn’s memory of a similar letter he once wrote, while at a low ebb, in an attempt to gain the sympathy of his disapproving family. ‘I feel I am on a sick bed from which I shall never get up,’ Poe writes. ‘I fear a complete mental collapse,’ Sigbjørn says in his letter. Yet even while being moved by the correspondences between his suffering and that of Poe, Shelley and Keats, Lowry-Sigbjørn remains ironically clear-sighted about the essentially selfish detachment from the world that is the hallmark of the true writer: ‘Even here at this extremity Poe must have felt that he was transcribing the story that was E.A. Poe’ – as if, he realises, Poe were thinking: ‘Damn it, I could use some of that, it may not be so hot, but it is at least too good to waste on my foster father.’ It’s a refreshingly unromantic take on the old romantic preoccupation with the writer’s relation to posterity.
The overriding impression in this collection, however, is of a slack repetition rather than a reinvention of the themes that give Under the Volcano its tragic stature: alcoholism, exile, mortality, the headlong flight from the self. Under the Volcano may not be here, but it’s nevertheless everywhere, in the shape of the dead dog that Sigbjørn sees lying on the pavement at Guadalupe in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid and the barranca-like ‘roughs and bunkers and traps and dog-legged approaches, and dongas and treacherous blind (and 19th) holes’ in October Ferry to Gabriola, motifs instantly recognisable from the novel; in the recycled Fawlty Towers-style attempt to order eggs from a foreign waiter in La Mordida (a scene, drawing on Lowry’s ear for puns and malapropisms, that is much funnier in Under the Volcano); in the tragicomic figure of the German who drinks himself to death in ‘Kristbjorg’s Story: In the Black Hills’. The book even lurks in Lowry’s sloshed, insouciant poems, in the ravine ‘whose name is hell’ and the slaughtered fawns in ‘Xochitepec’; in the Edenic ‘garden which evicts those who destroy’ of ‘In the Oaxaca Jail’; and in the ‘synecdoches of wheels’ that stand for time itself in ‘Thirty-Five Mescals in Cuautla’. It hardly matters whether the poems borrow from the novel or vice versa: these images now belong irrevocably to the latter, and the effect of encountering them in this depleted register is of hearing its harmonies being picked out, again and again, not as a symphony or even as a melody in six sharps but as a tinny tune on the ukulele (a lifelong passion of Lowry’s). The impression is heightened by the fact that Hofmann does not include an extract from Lunar Caustic, Lowry’s richly poetic account of his purgatorial spell in the psychiatric wing of Bellevue Hospital, New York, which he began to write in earnest in 1940 but abandoned as he began to navigate the other detours on his never-ending voyage.
Like Sigbjørn Wilderness, Lowry at forty was living the book he should have been writing. By now his chronic alcoholism had severely compromised his health and his judgment, though not quite his sense of humour. After diving at low tide, while drunk, off a ramshackle pier he had built at his shack in Dollarton, he fractured his spine and had to spend six months in a back-brace. (What happened? ‘I broke it … falling … off one of my own erections,’ he told Aiken.) The letters selected by Hofmann include several to the long-suffering Matson and Erskine, which would be amusing if they weren’t so poignant, cataloguing the pretexts for Lowry’s failure to submit anything resembling a finished manuscript: he is now attempting something even more elaborate than the scheme originally outlined in his contract; he is writing a classic; he has had to write so many letters explaining why the work is still incomplete that he hasn’t had time to complete it; he has broken his leg; his wife has had a sore throat and has been unable to type up his drafts; his wife has been bitten by a dog. There is no mention of what he privately called his ‘delowryum tremens’. Yet even though he couldn’t complete anything, Lowry’s compulsive identification of his life with his work increased rather than diminished: in Dark as the Grave, Sigbjørn Wilderness realises ominously that without the label of writer ‘his life, objectively considered, seemed to have no meaning at all.’ That Lowry was on some level aware of how badly he had mixed up the two sources of his self-divination, alcohol and writing, is suggested by his observation, apropos of the consul, that ‘the agonies of the drunkard find their most accurate poetic analogue in the agonies of the mystic who has abused his powers’ – or the writer, he might have added, who has abused his gift.
By the mid-1950s, Malcolm-Melville had become ‘old monster Moby’, violent, almost permanently bloated and red-faced, and regularly hospitalised by his wife, on whom he was physically and emotionally completely dependent. Margerie, who was drinking heavily herself and clearly at the end of her tether, was hoping to have him leucotomised – this is the shocking thrust behind Lowry’s meek observation, in yet another apologetic letter to Erskine written from London’s Brook General Hospital in 1955, that his brain has ‘been X-rayed and probably will be again to determine whether an operation is necessary’. Lowry’s friends, Erskine among them, were appalled, and managed to squash the plan. It was too late to save Lowry, however: the voyage of the drunken sailor had reached its natural end. He died less than two years later. Did he realise what the journey had cost him? ‘Like Columbus,’ he once wrote when assessing his life and career, ‘I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus also I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not.’ And like Columbus again, he added, ‘it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.’ As so often in Lowry, the self-pity hides a sharp self-knowledge.