Ultra Writer

Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry

edited by Harvey Breit, edited by Margerie Bonner Lowry
Lippincott, 459 pp., $10.00

Under the Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry, Reissued with an Introduction by Stephen Spender
Lippincott, 377 pp., $5.95

Malcolm Lowry
Malcolm Lowry; drawing by David Levine

The bare facts are that Malcolm Lowry was born in England in 1909 and died there in 1957. Most of his adult life was spent in Mexico and British Columbia. We know little of those years, except that they were often miserable. Even now, an alcoholic haze surrounds his name. But a book emerged from that wretched time: Under the Volcano.

In the first chapter, a film director named Jacques Laruelle opens at random a book of Elizabethan plays and reads of Faustian despair:

Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! it will not harbour me!

Two sheets of notepaper fall from the book: headed Hotel Bella Vista, in the Consul’s drunken handwriting, a letter to Yvonne:

No, my secrets are of the grave and must be kept. And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.

In 1946 Lowry, at 24 Calle de Humboldt, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico—“the very tower which was the original of the house of M. Laruelle,” wrote to the publisher Jonathan Cape: “There are a thousand writers who can draw adequate characters till all is blue for one who can tell you anything new about hell fire.”

This is Lowry’s world, where the line between fact and fiction is impossible to find, the air is heavy with the memory of Faustus, Dante, Lazarus, Melville, Ishmael, Mexico, and mescal, and what hurts the eye is the smoke of hell. The letters now collected spill over into the fiction; if whole paragraphs sound familiar, the explanation is easy, you have already read them in Under the Volcano and “Through the Panama.” Things said in one letter are repeated in another, presumably because there is nothing else to say; anything worth saying is in the fiction, or a story must be written to receive it. The longest letter is a painful elucidation of Under the Volcano, chapter by chapter. Virtually all the letters are cries of rage or despair sent to agents, reviewers, and publishers. Lowry was not a great letter writer. He was so engrossed in his own life and works that he could not lift his eyes to see that the world contained other things. These are the most self-embattled letters I have ever read; even Joyce’s letters, by comparison, sound nonchalant. Indeed, the nearest rival to Lowry in this respect is Baron Corvo, whose letters to the publisher John Lane are similarly enslaved by money, legalities, and pagination.

THE BEST way to read Lowry’s letters is to take them as footnotes to the novels. The early letters are written in the idiom of Ultramarine, that disastrous novel produced from the swell of Blue Voyage. At twenty-three Lowry was…

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