Malcolm Lowry: A Biography
by Douglas Day
Oxford University Press, 425 pp., $10.00
Several leaves from one of Lowry’s little notebooks are reproduced in Douglas Day’s fine biography, and on one we can decipher:
The psychology & horror of the shakes. The real horror is in the hands. All the poison to go down into the hands, mental and physical. Burning hot. There seems almost a buzzing inside your hands. Fear of coming into dining room with shakes, especially with captain present.
Eventually he could not hold pen or pencil, not even to sign his name, and the hands which were so mysteriously stained, not like Lady Macbeth’s or Orlac’s were by the blood of murder, but—who knows?—by the masturbation of the bottle (the crystal phallus in Berryman’s phrase), these hands he placed on their backs on his desk, his weight standing into them as he dictated to Marjorie, hours at a stretch sometimes and of course day after day, until the knuckles became callused as an ape’s and the veins in his legs ballooned so badly he entered a hospital to have them stripped. They were swollen as if he’d had babies, although by then he’d only engendered Ultramarine, and the Volcano was still in utero.
These stubby clumsy hands which he hated and hid because they gave his condition away the way rings around the eyes, I remember, were supposed to, and which shook drunk or sober, often uncontrollably, were hands with their own mean will. While absent-mindedly fondling a friend’s pet rabbit, they somehow break its neck, and for two days Lowry carries the corpse of the rabbit about in a small suitcase wondering what to do with it. “Look what happens when I try to touch something beautiful,” their owner complains with a self-pity perfectly misplaced.
And before he will agree to enter Cambridge he persuades his father to let him go like London and O’Neill romantically to sea, so he is driven to the dock in the family Rolls while reporters watch:
they headline him. He goes aboard shamed and of course finds no romance in the fo’c’sle. He sleeps in something called “men’s quarters” instead. Predictably, he scrubs decks, scrapes paint, polishes brass. He observes the coolie longshoremen coupling with their women in the cargo holds. He paints a bunker black. He is despised and teased. Clumsy. Bored. He carries meals to the seamen. Is often drunk.
Perhaps life was a forest of symbols, as Baudelaire had said, but Lowry was no lumberman. He brought his shaping signs, as a priori as the best idealist’s, to his dreams, his drunkenness, his ordinary day to day concerns and his desires: sex, syph, stoker, bunker, fire…hand, shame, seaman. Eventually these hands refuse the vocation offered them. A poisoned brain burns there. Trapped flies buzz. Ashamed, stained, they blush, and terrified, enraged, they shake so violently the threatened air flees through their fingers. And he would live hand to mouth all his life …