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The Passionate Egoist

1.

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”1 ), 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 of the mind that is always saying, Do not take me quite so seriously…. Lowry was often miserable, all right, and with ample justification; but he was also capable of watching Malcolm Lowry being miserable, and laughing at the sorry spectacle.2

He probably managed to be miserable, in turn, about this very laughter, but the sense of spectacle seems never to have ended. It is what we see very clearly in the following passages from Ultramarine, where the hero says, “I am a strange man, or I would like to be a strange man, which is nearer the truth,” and even more tellingly perhaps, “I was bitterly hurt when my supervisor in his last interview with me before I left the college said, ‘You are not nearly so unusual a type as you think you are!’” In the end Lowry was about as unusual as a man of his time and class could be, but he was always crippled by his fear that he wasn’t, couldn’t ever actually be, as unusual as he thought he was. He made his art out of this disability; and lost it to the same condition.

Lowry was born in 1909 in New Brighton, near Liverpool, and died in 1957 in a village in Sussex. Before his sea adventure he attended the Leys School in Cambridge and after it went to St. Catherine’s College in the same town. He drank a lot, played the ukelele, wrote some popular songs, and, on the evidence of the later writing, stored up a prodigious knowledge of English literature, although his formal organization of this knowledge didn’t get him better than a third-class degree. He knocked about in London and Paris; published Ultramarine in 1933; married Jan Gabrial, who left him, Michael Hofmann’s chronology tells us in the book under review, “almost immediately.” He followed her to New York and Los Angeles, and the couple spent nearly two years in Mexico before the marriage was finally over.

Back in Los Angeles in 1938, Lowry met Margerie Bonner, whom he married and lived with happily, it seems, for most of the time until he died. The couple spent fourteen years living in a sequence of shacks on the beach in British Columbia, with various breaks for travel, and then moved to England in 1955. Together they wrote a screenplay, never filmed, based on Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Lowry seems not really to have recovered from the late, extravagant success of Under the Volcano—“success is like some horrible disaster,” he wrote in a poem—and died in miserable and mysterious circumstances. The coroner charitably delivered a verdict of “death by misadventure” and Lowry was buried in the country churchyard of Ripe, the village where they were living.

Margerie said she and Malcolm had been drinking, had violently quarreled, and she had fled to the next-door neighbor’s house for sanctuary. The next morning she found Lowry dead. For a long time the story was that he had choked on his own vomit. Then it emerged that he had taken a massive dose of sleeping pills. Taken them or been given them? Margerie told different stories to different people, evoking and revoking the theory of suicide. Many of Lowry’s friends refused to believe in this theory anyway, and in 2004—Margerie had died in 1988—Gordon Bowker, author of a substantial biography of Lowry,3 suggested in an article in the Times Literary Supplement that Lowry’s wife had killed him.

This suggestion is the chief thread of a recent piece by D.T. Max in The New Yorker, which doesn’t have much new to offer apart from some good atmosphere but does provide some fine quotations. Sherrill Grace, a Canadian Lowry scholar, said, “Gordon’s right,” and added, “She should have done it sooner!” David Markson, author of a thesis and a book on Lowry, who knew him well from 1951 onward—there are five letters to Markson in Hofmann’s selection—said, “What do I think? What I think is he was a drunk and then he died.”

Michael Hofmann shrewdly says that Lowry became “a sort of wandering expert” on his own book Under the Volcano, its best interpreter and its continuing victim. It was, Hofmann says, “the only novel he cared to and knew how to write, and at the same time its achievement was unrepeatable.” The title The Voyage That Never Ends was Lowry’s own, and he planned to give it to the sequence of novels with which he would one day surround his inescapable masterpiece. Hofmann’s book includes three early stories; three late ones; the piece called “Under the Volcano” that later grew into the novel; twenty poems; patches from three unfinished longer works; and a fine selection of letters. And as we read, the title becomes a kind of prophecy, even a diagnosis: the potentially extensive picture of an unending journey becomes an unending picture of a journey going nowhere.

The Lowrys, thinly or not at all disguised (as Sigbjorn and Primrose Wilderness, for example, or as Ethan and Jacqueline Llewellyn), live their lives on the Canadian beach; take a ship through the Panama Canal; take a bus across America. They write endless descriptions, often very beautiful, and sometimes just give themselves instructions: “describe sunlight.” The method is not a method, only a hope, and the reverse of much modern writing: stay as close to reality as you can, let it dictate its terms to you, find the finest language you can for it, and perhaps it will give up its secret.

This logic is confirmed by the most achieved of the later works, a long story called “The Forest Path to the Spring.” The narrator is a composer rather than a novelist, but the whole thing reads like an elaborate, much-meditated journal entry, a celebration of the simple life on the edge of the Pacific as a form of happiness all the more moving because it is so fragile and so in need of celebration. “Strange magnificent honeymoon that had become one’s whole life,” Lowry writes. And “now the joy and happiness of what we had known would go with us wherever we went or God sent us and would not die.” In the previous paragraph, as if to show how strange this condition is, Lowry writes of being “charged” with having gone to heaven, implicitly picturing their fortune as some sort of offense. And in a characteristic move he adds that if they “had been charged with formerly having been in hell for a while we would probably have had to say yes too.” Well, more than that, they would have said “that on the whole we liked [hell] fine, as long as we were together, and were sometimes even homesick for it….” The homesickness is a fine touch, a flicker of the dark appetite that dominates Under the Volcano.

Lowry, with Margerie’s help, and sometimes with her words, is not so much writing a novel or a sequence of novels as trying to get the natural and social world to talk to him, to write its novel in his style. Lowry must have known, I think, that the world was not much of a novelist. But he was willing to settle for another, as yet unknown genre if it were granted to him; a form of quest narrative, perhaps, uncertain of the quest and without a recognizable plot.

2.

One cannot live without loving,” Fray Luis de León, the sixteenth-century Spanish poet and theologian, told us. Without loving something or someone, is the force of the grammar in Spanish. The phrase haunts Under the Volcano, its first appearance a memory of an inscription made by Geoffrey Firmin, the Consul, on the house of Jacques Laruelle, a filmmaker and at one point the lover of the Consul’s wife. “‘No se puede vivir sin amar,’ M. Laruelle said…. ‘As that estúpido inscribed on my house.’” The Consul presumably had a complicated sarcasm in mind (both you and my wife, it seems, can’t do without sex), but the larger force of the phrase applies to the Consul himself, and his continuing condition throughout the novel. He desperately loves his wife Yvonne, who has left him because of the erratic and cruel behavior caused by his drinking (or was it the other way around?), and has now returned to him in Mexico, to the town of Quauhnahuac, a version of Cuernavaca tinged with Lowry’s memories of Oaxaca.

  1. 1

    Margerie Lowry, “Introductory Note,” Ultramarine (Overlook, 2005), p. 7.

  2. 2

    Douglas Day, Malcolm Lowry (Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 98.

  3. 3

    Gordon Bowker, Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry (HarperCollins, 1993).

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