Malcolm Lowry’s Inferno: II

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.1 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. A cliché. A phrase. Yet associations such as these obsess him, compel him to run in front of his own blows, to fulfill prophecies as though they were threats, and promises as though they were designs against the self, since he will die by his own hand, too…by bottle and by pill…unsteadily…la petite mort.

Lowry is a one book author, everyone says, and the excellence of that book is accidental because he never learned how to write; he continually started and stopped, commenced and abandoned, caught in an endless proliferation of designs, so that the more evident it became that he would never complete his great work, the grander grew his schemes: everything he wrote would enter into them, one vast voyage, long as his life, just as confusing, just as deep, with ups and downs to rival Dante; yet he was wholly absorbed in himself and consequently could not create even an alter ego able to pull on socks ahead of shoes; at the uncork of a bottle he would fall into long dull disquisitions on the powers and bewilderments of alcohol; he hammered home themes like someone angry at the nail, yet buttered his bread on both sides and every edge; then, as if determined to destroy whatever mattered most, left manuscripts about like half-eaten sandwiches, and emptied Marjorie of everything except the carton she came in.

However when one thinks of the general sort of snacky underearnest writers whose works like wind-chimes rattle in our heads now, it is easier to forgive Lowry his pretentious seriousness, his old-fashioned ambitions, his Proustian plans, his desire to pump into every sentence such significance as a Shelley or a Shakespeare had, to bring together on the page, like fingers in one fist, sense, sensation, impulse, need, and feeling, and finally to replace the reader’s consciousness wholly with a lackaday magician’s—drunk’s—a fraud’s—his own.

It was not glory or money, as a writer, Lowry wanted. He simply wanted masterpieces. He had no politics, particularly, no religion, no fastidious monkey-groomed morality, no metaphysics which would fancy up for him a world with more worth and order than a shelf of cheap sale books. It is hard to believe he believed in much, though he read Goethe and Dante, dabbled in the occult, and used the Cabala as a symbolic scheme, though its choreography was an after-thought.2 Attitudes he had, but attitudes aren’t philosophy. He was too eager to make use of what he read to be serious about it, and like Joyce he carried back to his books every tinshine thought he came across the way jackdaws beak bright buttons off one’s wash. He was not profoundly acquainted with literature, either, though he was quick to namedrop: Marlowe, Maitland, or Cervantes. He is certainly contemporary, too, in expecting the most silent creatures of his reading to be loud on every tongue. And again like Joyce, like Rilke, he idolized certain irrelevant Scandinavians.

The writers he really took to…well, he absorbed Conrad Aiken’s books, unabashedly plundered his conversations, copied his life-style, both served and assaulted his person, competed for his women, occupied his home, borrowed his figure for a father. Lowry was sufficiently conscious of this habit often to deny himself any originality, and felt he had stolen from or exploited others when he had not. Still, we must remain suspicious of these exaggerated claims of crime, inflated and misplaced to encourage our discounting or excusing them as so much talk, just as the Consul, about to be shot, hears himself accused:

Norteamericano, eh?

Inglés. You Jew.

What the hell

you think you do around here?

You pelado, eh?

It’s no good for your health. I shoot de twenty people.

and then dying gorges on the accusation only as conscience can.

Presently the word “pelado” began to fill his whole consciousness. That had been Hugh’s word for the thief: now someone had flung the insult at him. And it was as if, for a moment, he had become the pelado, the thief—yes, the pilferer of meaningless muddled ideas out of which his rejection of life had grown, who had worn his two or three little bowler hats, his disguises, over these abstractions: now the realest of them all was close.

And although the account seems to be carried away by itself, as Cyrano was by his nose, it is nevertheless true that the Consul is an exploiter, because an alcoholic, in the best old sense, depends: depends from his wives like their drooping breasts, clings to his mistresses, his friends, as moisture trembles at a tumbler’s edge; depends upon the mercy of the world…relies, requests, requires…yet in the devious way the hopeless loser hopes to win by losing big, the thorough soak employs all the brutal ruses of self-rightous helplessness, and by chemically keeping himself confined “in that part used to be call: soul” makes the world seem, so subversive is this stratagem, rather to depend on him…yes, and this isn’t difficult because consciousness is the thief par excellence, removing the appearances of things without a trace, replacing the body with the spirit.

Since the cantina is the very image of the head, the world-within which is the single subject of Malcolm Lowry’s life and work, all those anxieties and adjectives, verbs of inaction, prepositions, copulations, shadowing names and paranoid suspicions, which obsessed his creator and pursue Geoffrey Firmin—Consul, pelado, and borracho—apply perfectly to the tragedy of the Volcano: the progressive loss of consciousness which we call “getting on” and should call simply “passing out,” instead.

To his editor, Albert Erskine:

Dear old Albert….

I am going steadily & even beautifully downhill: my memory misses beats at every moment, & my mornings are on all fours. Turning the whole business round in a nutshell I am only sober or merry in a whiskey bottle, & since whiskey is impossible to procure you can imagine how merry I am, & lucid, & by Christ I am lucid. And merry. But Jesus. The trouble is, apart from Self, that part [which] used to be called: consciousness. I have now reached a position where every night I write 5 novels in imagination, have total recall (whatever that means too) but am unable to write a word. I cannot explain in human terms the incredible effort it has cost me to write even this silly little note, in a Breughel garden with dogs & barrels & vin kegs & chickens & sunsets & morning glory with an approaching storm & a bottle of half wine.

And now the rain! Let it come, seated as I am on Breughel barrel by a dog’s grave crowned with dead irises. The wind is rising too, both on the ocean & in the stomach. And I have been kind to in a way I do not deserve…. A night dove has started to hoot & says incessantly the word “dream, dream.” A bright idea.3

The bus windows were like mirrors—looking out, one saw in—and Marjorie and Malcolm were always on buses, or perhaps a plane, some mode of travel, a ship, a train, and even on foot they window shopped, the glass passing them, holding its images oddly upright like bottles on a tray, though they were moving, in Lowry’s insistently recurring word, “downhill,” since the world, for him, was always on edge, the land like his work running up and down, never nicely along, even when they found a path that had taken itself pleasantly through the woods, and every journey was mostly a descent, or rather, decending was a spatial metaphor for “going in.”

The sense of speed, of gigantic transition, of going southward, downward, over three countries, the tremendous mountain ranges, the sense at once of descent, tremendous regression, and of moving, not moving, but in another way dropping straight down the world, straight down the map, as of the imminence of something great, phenomenal, and yet the moving shadow of the plane below them, the eternal moving cross, less fleeting and more substantial than the dim shadow of the significance of what they were actually doing that Sigbjørn held in his mind: and yet it was possible only to focus on that shadow, and at that only for short periods: they were enclosed by the thing itself as by the huge bouncing machine with its vast monotonous purring, pouring din, in which they sat none too comfortably, Sigbjørn with his foot up embarrassedly, for he had taken his shoe off, a moving, deafening, continually renewed time-defeating destiny by which they were enclosed but of which they were able only to see the inside, for so to speak of the streamlined platinum-colored object itself they could only glimpse a wing, a propeller, through the small, foolish, narrow oblong windows.4

The paragraph encloses us like the fuselage of the plane. We progress down narrow overlapping phrases toward the bottom of the page, pushing our way through adjectives which gather like onlookers at an accident. Though feelings persevere, logic is lost like loose change. We suffer symbolic transformations (soul: shade, window and eye, cross: plane, hell-bent); endure sentences which have the qualities they were constructed to account for, our reading eyes, as Sigbjørn’s and the shadow of the plane, flitting over the ranges the way thought in its sphere, ourselves in our cylinders, pass like ghosts on schedules, wraiths with aims.

And if he had not been born, mistakenly, a Leo, he would have made a perfect Pisces: swimmer, sailor, soak, souse, sponge—all that absorbant—oral, impotent, a victim of undifferentiation and the liquid element, shoreless like his writing, wallowy, encompassing, a suicide by misadventure, bottle broken, drinker, diver, prisoner of self….

Thrice doubly indented then, Lowry’s books in consequence have no boundaries. They are endless wells down which in a deepening gloom that is its own perverse illumination the reader passes; therefore every effort to give them the shape and normal accelerations of the novel is as futile as flailing air; and you remember how deeply into Tartarus Uranus hurled the rebellious Cyclopes?…an anvil and a petal: nine days.

Clínica Dr. Vigil, Enfermedades Secretas de Ambos Sexos, Vias

Urinarias, Trastornos Sexuales, Debilidad Sexual, Derrames Nocturnos, Emisiones Prematuras, Espermatorrea, Impotencia. Guilty fears follow him everywhere. He is being watched. Espidered. Are those his father’s eyes behind those blackened glasses? In any case, his plans are known in advance. He is awaited at the border. He will be expelled from the country. He will be evicted from his property. He will catch the VD. How? Through his hands? He has contracted it. He believes. Long ago…as a sailor. It is hidden in his blood, this punishment. Any rash bespeaks its presence, since the soul contains the body. And a child….

At one or two or three or four he claims to have been molested by nannies. He is five when his brother takes him to an anatomical museum in Liverpool (on Paradise Street, inevitably) where he sees bleach-pale plaster casts depicting the ravages of venereal disease. In his father’s house there was no smoking. While six he suffers a fall from a bike which leaves him with a jagged scar on his knee, a wound he will later say he received when his ship was caught in a Tong war along the Chinese coast. A glass of port at Christmas was indulgence enough. When seven he complains of being bullied by the other cub scouts. But cold baths made men—made Englishmen—stiffened the sinews, restrung the nerves. As did tennis, rugger, swimming, shooting, golf, church, long strenuous walks. And Malcolm became good at them. Still he is teased about the size of his penis. Away at the Caldicote School, now nine, he is struck in the eye playing ball. The injury is neglected and an infection sets in which leaves him partially blind for four years. Or so he chooses to believe. He also imagines that his mother, unable to bear the sight of her half-sighted boy, refuses to let him come home on vacations, and that everyone has left him alone.

But he is becoming a touch-me-not. In America, visiting Aiken, he meets a young woman with whom he decides he is in love. He will convince her. “His attempt at this is remarkable,” Day judiciously observes, “and possibly unique in the history of erotic correspondence.”

I cannot kiss anybody else without wiping my mouth afterwards. There is only you, forever and forever: in bars and out of bars, in fields and out of fields, in boats and out of boats…there is only love and tenderness of everything about you, our comings in and our goings forth, I would rather use your toothbrush than my own: I would wish, when with you on a boat, that you would be sick merely so that I could comfort you. Nor is there one ounce of criticism in this. I do not conceal in my heart the physical repulsion which, not admitted to oneself hardly, exists usually in the filthy male. I would love you the same if you had one ear, or one eye: if you were bald or dumb: if you had syphilis, I would be the same; it is the love that one stronger algebraic symbol in a bracket has for its multiple—or complement…it cannot live without the other. [Day, Page 109]

Thief and exploiter: that’s what we’re told pelado means: peeled: barefoot, bald. Where in his unconscious did Lowry deposit what he knew? that pelada is a kind of alopecia, which means, in dictionary speech, a distempered state of the body leading to a patchy loss of hair, and arising from a venereal cause.

A resentment psychology is developing rapidly. In college a young man, presumably in love with Lowry, commits suicide, and this event, too, becomes one of the crimes which haunt his heroes. By now every crime which he conceives for himself is also another injury done him, and he is already drinking more than much.

Thus eyes, fires, follow him. Disaster. Ashes, ashes, all fall down. And it is true that he cannot competently manage his life. He does put himself in bad hands, the hands of exploiters (in photos his own are often in his pockets). His squatter’s shack at Dollarton does burn; a manuscript, not the first, is lost; he has constantly to fear eviction; he slips from the pier he’s built there, which means so much to him, and thereby injures his back; the cold drives him every winter into travel so that homelessness can continue his motto, and paradise return with the spring. He is kicked out of Mexico, in alcoholic horror held for a time in an Oaxaquenian gaol where he decides an unsuccessful attempt to castrate him has been made. He suggests through the mail that he’s been mistakenly imprisoned for spying, and that he must drink furthermore from his pisspot…probably.

The list winds on like a bus on a mountain road. Wounds, bruises, broken bottles, suicidal gestures, blackouts, falls, fire: attacking the self he is alone in, he cuts a ridiculous figure, and Douglas Day has difficulty depicting Lowry’s redoubtable charm, for charm is evanescent and does not lend itself to anecdote. More than one friend describes Malc as puppy-like, refers to his infectious disarming grin, his amazing amusing memory, his simple devotion, the bulk of his chest, his strength, the jokes told on the soul.

Yet in Grenada, his huge head shaded by a great touristy sombrero, this borracho inglés, tailed by mocking children and eyed by the Guardia Civil, lurches shamefully through the streets, his trousers held up by a tie. During a friendly drunken tussle shortly after arriving in America to see Conrad Aiken, he tosses his new father figure into the fireplace and fractures his skull. “Look what happens when I try….” At Dollarton, in Vancouver, he has his paradise—drinks less, works more—yet he connives with circumstance, as though he beckoned to the angel, to drive him forth. Ashes, ashes, all….

And into every happening there entered, early, imagination like a liar and a thief, arranging reality as it ought and was felt to be, until sometimes it seemed to Lowry he was himself a fiction, and that the work he was writing was writing him. That enmeshment, itself, became a theme.

…the novel is about a character who becomes enmeshed in the plot of the novel he has written, as I did in Mexico. But now I am becoming enmeshed in the plot of a novel I have scarcely begun. Idea is not new, at least so far as enmeshment with characters is concerned. Goethe, Wilhelm von Scholz, “The Race with a Shadow.” Pirandello, etc. But did these people ever have it happen to them?5

It must have begun in the most ordinary way, Malcolm Lowry’s habit of making up life as he went along. It must have begun with little elaborations, lies as harmlessly decorative as those sugar flowers whose stony blooms enliven our birthday cakes. We all did it—added frills. We do it still: we penny-candle conversations, ice anecdotes, bake ourselves in cakes. When we were maybe a boy with a ball or a worm in a can, there was no entrance easier than of fact to fancy, because we were more likely to be living on the inside of our nature then, where distant skiers safely slid the hazardous slopes of our sheeted beds, and little facts came along like sticks in a stream to be snatched up. The garage’s broken window could become a bullet wound, a furtive peerpoint, violent eyecrash. The step seems a small one, but the difference between an imaginary world which flows around the real one and uses it, catch as catch can, and a real world which is hung each way one turns with dreams like evergreens by bagworms, is—

And if at first our daydreams merely close and open softly on reality like a convolvulus, we find it useful later, with our little fabrications, to make life move more centrally around us. Thus do we appoint ourselves a sun, to shine and tan in turn; we compel our inner shapes and outer shadows to coalesce; we speak sternly to experience in romantic German till der als ob ist, pointlessness becomes plan, sheer coincidence design, and it is no longer surprising that the wages of sin should be exhibited in plaster of Paris on Paradise Street.

The wormy ubiquitousness of the sign reminds many of Ulysses, but the similarity is deceptive because Lowry’s feeling for the world is in no way like Joyce’s, nor are his literary skills, although both pun. For Stephen Dedalus, walking along Sandymount strand, the world is a series of words which find their final connections in the mind, but for Lowry it is not simply that some grand Master moves each piece of life into a single sentence, it is rather that each piece has its own lung and legs, and a sign is, for instance, the advertising poster BOX! which follows the Consul like an urchin uttering itself. BOX! It shouts, to be sure, like one of the furies, like a messenger of the gods. It is itself alive and menacing, as full of private mischief as any chief of Rostrums or sub-chief of Migración.

Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it. No wonder he felt enmeshed. No wonder, too, that he had to revisit in order to revise; repeat the same difficult passage of existence in order to plunge further into it, make the necessary changes, get it right; and this meant only too often that he had to drink himself back into madness again, to resee what was to be rewritten: to fall down in a ditch, to find vultures perched on the washbasin, fold fearfully up in a corner like a pair of discarded trousers, or bruise his head between toilet and sink in some dirty anonymous john.

But he became conscious of something more frightening yet taking place in his mind. It was a feeling that permeated the high ill-lit yellow walls of the hotel beer parlour, the long dim corridor between the two beer parlours, on which the door now seemed to be opened by an invisible hand,…a feeling which seemed a very part of the ugly, sad, red-and-brown tables and chairs, something that was in the very beer-smelling air, as if—the feeling perhaps someway arising, translated to this surrounding scene, from the words themselves—there were some hidden correspondence between these words and this scene, or between some ultimate unreality and meaninglessness he seemed to perceive adumbrated by them…, and his inner perception of this place: no, it was as if this place were suddenly the exact outward representation of his inner state of mind: so that shutting his eyes for a long moment of stillness…he seemed to feel himself merging into it, while equally there was a fading of it into himself: it was as though, having visualized all this with his eyes shut now he were it—these walls, these tables, that corridor….6

Words, walls, percepts, feelings, this or that cantina, this small victory, that great defeat: all were one behind the colon, a line drawn through his writing to indicate a sum. As he merged with his environment the way numbers enter one another, disappearing entirely without losing themselves, he heard, as if in his own voice yet in a voice now no longer his, prophecies in labels, omens in emblems, spying eyes like whispers looking out of objects, threats in signs.

La persona que destruya Este jardin sera consignada a la autoridad….

And as his guilt grew and his terrors multiplied, as his hands refused to write and his fuddled head fell further toward his knees, he became more and more dependent on Marjorie, not only for mothering and other small corrections, but for experience itself, since they went everywhere together, suffered everything together, resolved to begin a new pier, new cabin, new journey, new book, new life together, the glass which poisoned all these plans, although he often drank from it alone, held jointly; so it was Marjorie’s fault he was such a sot, he felt, and he saw how the powers he possessed were slowly passing to her: he needed her to punctuate his prose; he needed her to smooth out the creases in his style; he needed her guidance and her notes; he would need her to publish his posthumous works. He lived, furthermore, in the presence—literally beneath the gaze—of the person he had most injured, before whom it was no longer possible to put on a new soul like a suit for Sunday—who knew his fears, his incapacities, so many of his secrets, who knew that so many of his lies were lies. He was intolerably uncovered, and there was nowhere finally to go…both petal and anvil had arrived.

In the little English town of Ripe (place names follow him snickering even to the grave)…Lowry chases his wife away with the shattered neck of a gin bottle.

It was a sort of suicide, a swallow larger and more reckless than usual, this death by misadventure, as the coroner kindly decides to call it, and dying in a scatter of food and glass was no doubt dingy enough to satisfy the Consul, though it had entelechy, like a habit which has finally completed itself. After this death, which Day describes so well, the weekly Brighton Argus headstoned and then columned him:

SHE BROKE GIN BOTTLE Found Husband Dead… Incurable

(This is the second part of a two-part article on Malcolm Lowry.)

  1. 1

    Dr. C.G. McNeil, “A Memory of Malcolm Lowry,” American Review 17, pp. 35-39.

  2. 2

    Apart from Douglas Day’s biography, the best general introduction to Lowry is Richard Hauer Costa’s book on him in the Twayne World Author Series (Twayne, 1972). There are biographical errors which Day corrects, and the book occasionally carries an unnecessary load of Jung, but it is balanced, sympathetic, and sensible. A useful collection of critical material on Lowry is contained in Malcolm Lowry: The Man and His Work, edited by George Woodcock (University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 1971). Perle Epstein’s The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969) explains his cabalistic references until you no longer care. In Lowry such stuff is supremely unfunctional.

  3. 3

    Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Harvey Breit and Marjorie Bonner Lowry (Lippincott, 1965), p. 165.

  4. 4

    This is the first paragraph of Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (New American Library, 1968), a posthumous novel edited by Douglas Day and Marjorie Lowry. There is an excellent brief introduction by Day.

  5. 5

    A quotation from “Through the Panama.” This profoundly self-reflexive novella was written in the Fifties, and although its concerns are now a commonplace, the fictional techniques employed remain in advance of our time. Lowry’s collection of short stories, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (Lippincott, 1961), contains another masterpiece, “The Forest Path to the Spring.” Marjorie Lowry is apparently gathering another sheaf of shorter pieces, and Lowry’s life as a dead author will soon be longer, as it is already more productive, than his life as a live one.

  6. 6

    From the astonishing “Wandering Jew” chapter of October Ferry to Gabriola (World, 1970), a work which, while now enclosed by covers, is no more than a pile of rusted and beautiful wreckage.