The biographer Douglas Day recounts an episode in the later life of Malcolm Lowry. The novelist visits a neighbor on the western coast of Canada, a carpenter. The man has several children, one of whom is severely retarded. Lowry stares at the child for a while and finally says to the father, “What kind of man are you if this is the sort of kid you produce?” The carpenter hits Lowry in the face and throws him out.
Lowry was drunk, of course, indeed at most stages of his life he was rarely entirely sober, and we can recognize and even understand the intricate self-loathing that lies behind such a remark. But then we also need to see the ugly old world of prejudice that it affirms, its roots in class and race and anxious privilege. Lowry could apologize for his behavior and repeatedly did. But he couldn’t stop being a rich man’s son, the wayward child of a health-obsessed English family.
He did try to escape this fate, with remarkable success in certain respects, as instanced by a spell in Bellevue and several nights in various Mexican prisons. But he couldn’t forget his privilege even as he squandered it, and he understood the mixed nature of his attempts to escape. He ran away to sea when he was eighteen, but with his father’s permission. When he wrote this story up in Ultramarine, his first novel, he was careful to include the detail of being driven down to the dock in his father’s (in the novel the hero’s guardian’s) car; and when the story appears again as the early adventures of Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s brother, in Under the Volcano, we learn that the runaway is “receiving every assistance from the very people he mysteriously imagined himself running away from.”
Ultramarine, later scorned by Lowry himself, although every now and again he would think about rewriting it (“I would come upon him,” his wife wrote, “with the battered copy in his hands staring at it angrily and making notes on the pages” ), is the work of a gifted writer trapped between delusion and self-knowledge, a sort of Stephen Dedalus whose irony keeps slipping, and it is a remarkable introduction to the later work, especially if you have come to believe, as I have, that Under the Volcano is a great book about missing grandeur, about the specialized tragedy that lies in the unavailability of the tragedy you want.
The hero of Ultramarine is said to be “a man who believed himself to live in inverted, or introverted, commas.” Lowry lived and wrote as if he wished to shed those commas, but he didn’t make it, and if they were his torment, as they certainly were, they were also a kind of salvation. Douglas Day says, in an important passage in his biography:
For anyone writing about Malcolm Lowry there is (or ought to be) a small voice in the back …