The Passionate Egoist


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.


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.

She has returned to him, yet although he has done nothing but miss her in her absence he can’t reach back to her from the world of drink and elaborate self-absorption he has constructed in the interim, and no doubt was at work on before. He can’t act on whatever love he has for her, and since one can’t live without loving, he dies. The last words of the novel are: “Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”

Well, these are not quite the last words, because we have still to read another inscription, one we have seen before in a public park next to the Consul’s house, and again in the memory of the Consul’s brother Hugh: “¿Le gusta este jardin, que es suyo? åÁEvite que sus hijos lo destruyan!” Literally the phrase says, “Do you like this garden that is yours? Do not allow your children to destroy it!” The Consul, who certainly knows better when he feels like knowing better, sees the subordinate clause as a grim question and brilliantly takes evitar, to avoid, as meaning “evict.” For him, therefore, the inscription reads, “You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy!”

The Consul recognizes the Garden of Eden when he sees it, and above all when he lives in it. And in one of Lowry’s finest set-pieces of multiple wit and allusion, the Consul invents an extravagant version of the old myth: Adam’s punishment was not eviction but having to stay, with his sins, in that mercilessly beautiful place. “And of course the real reason for that punishment,” the Consul continues with tipsy emphasis, “might well have been that the poor fellow, who knows, secretly loathed the place! Simply hated it, and had done so all along. And that the Old Man found this out—” The Consul, without leaving Eden, has turned it into Hell, or would like to think he has. He has, he believes, converted residence into a form of eviction.

There are two bits of the story still missing, however. The Consul does not live without loving, and he does not die either of drink or of lovelessness. He dies in a stupid encounter with a group of para-fascist Mexican thugs. It’s true that he is too drunk to know what is happening or talk his way out of trouble, or even just run for it; but the drink doesn’t pull the thug’s trigger. This whole ending is beautifully set up, and Lowry wants us to see the Consul’s death as both inevitable, part of the horrible logic of his life, and purely contingent: he has to die, like all of us, but he doesn’t have to die now. The book evokes, after an initial chapter set a year later and focused through the memories of Jacques Laruelle and a doctor friend of the Consul, the last twelve hours the unfortunate man has to live, and everything points to his end. Except his own infinitely agile consciousness, which thinks that death can always be deferred and there is always another drink after the last drink.

At one point the Consul makes an absurd and touching distinction between tequila and mescal—there really is nothing to choose between them except the worm at the bottom of the bottle of the latter. Tequila is “healthful,” he says. “But if I ever start to drink mescal again, I’m afraid, yes, that would be the end.” It would be the end if the end were anything other than a threat or a story. In the last chapters of the book he is prolifically drinking mescal as if to damn himself but he doesn’t imagine he will have no tomorrow. When he gets shot he is “puzzled” and says out loud, “Christ, this is a dingy way to die.”

The fact that Yvonne also dies, in another part of the forest, trampled by a horse the Consul has kindly, mindlessly untied, represents everything that is wrong and overwrought about this wonderful book. The horse, Lowry told his publisher, “is the evil force that the Consul has released,” but the poor fellow doesn’t have the power to release evil, or even to do much evil. The tragedy here is smaller than that, and more moving. The Consul is not Dr. Faustus, and he doesn’t have much of a soul to sell. He is not Goethe’s ever-striving man, either, who appears in the third of Lowry’s epigraphs to the novel (the other two are from Sophocles and Bunyan). He is a man who lives in introverted commas, in the phrase from Ultramarine, the man who knows all the stories about Faust and about paradise, and would like to get into one of them. He longs for the dignity of myth, his fall is to be nothing less than the fall of man, or the Western world. “Something like a sort of velleity of meaning is trying to possess him,” Lowry wrote of a character in a short story. With the Consul it is not a velleity—a weak wish—but a disorderly project: his wish for meaning is the meaning of the life he knows he has lost. The situation was precisely identified, with a very different character in mind, by George Eliot in Middlemarch: “Everything is below the level of tragedy except the passionate egoism of the sufferer.”

But whom or what did the Consul love? Whom or what could he love more successfully than he loved Yvonne? If we turn to the admirable Companion to Under the Volcano, we find the full context of the phrase from Luis de León. “All men love,” the friar wrote,

both the good and the bad, the happy and the unhappy, and… one cannot live without loving… just as love for some men is the cause of their good fortune, so for others it is the fountain of their misery, and since love is in all men, it produces very different effects among them. [Translation slightly modified at the end.]4

The Consul loved Yvonne, but he loved drink more, and if it was the fountain of his misery it was also, it seems, the cause of pretty much all the happiness he knew. “This is like a nightmare,” Lowry writes in the story I have already quoted from, “but it is also extremely pleasant.” One of the great achievements of Under the Volcano is the evocation of the sheer pleasures of booze, both in the act and in the anticipation. “Everybody happy,” the Consul says in the short story “Under the Volcano” that was to blossom into the novel of the same title. He is translating the name of a Mexican cantina, Todos Contentos y Yo Tambien, “Everybody happy and me as well.” And the sentence continues: “the certainty that he would drink a million tequilas between now and the end of his life stealing over him like a benison and postponing for the moment the necessity for the first one….”

Disastrously for himself, but honorably in relation to his writing and his lived experience, Lowry never wanted to moralize the question of drinking, or treat it as mere escape or mere pathology. It was his life. It might kill him, and no doubt it helped to, although a lot later than many must have expected. But he couldn’t deny it, and he couldn’t betray its ambiguous joys. “Perhaps one deliberately courted hangovers,” he has a character think in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, a posthumously published novel excerpted in Hofmann’s book, “because it was the closest analogy of the feeling inspired by helpless love.”

One of his intentions, Lowry told a correspondent, “was to write one really good book about a drunk,” and Under the Volcano, among its many descriptions of the Consul’s destructive happiness, has a long prose hymn to the precise, material varieties of liquor that should bring tears to the eyes of the fiercest preacher of temperance. Even as he speaks of hiding himself, losing himself in a host of bottles and glasses, the Consul conjures up those bottles with a lover’s infinite tenderness. “Suddenly he saw them,” the sentence begins, “the bottles of aguardiente, of anìs, of jerez, of Highland Queen….” And it ends, more than half a page later, “the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal….” If this writing expresses remorse, it resembles the gloating remorse of Humbert Humbert trying to regret his tortured life with Lolita.

Lowry was careful with his literary allusions, in spite of his prodigality. “Against the charge of appalling pretentiousness,” Lowry wrote to his English publisher, Jonathan Cape, “I feel I go clear.” This is an unlikely claim, since most of those who do not like Under the Volcano name pretentiousness as its chief and glaring fault. But I think Lowry is right. He could be portentous and he could overwrite—it’s sad to think he was so pleased with the laboriously artful sentence “Over the town, in the dark tempestuous night, backwards revolved the luminous wheel”—but he always put his allusions to intricate and productive use. Every myth, we might say, is a revised myth; Lowry is conducting an argument with it. And even the most solemn moments in Lowry’s letter to Cape (“This drunken horseman is… the first appearance of the Consul himself as a symbol of mankind”) can be read as the language of an author anxiously trying to speak the idiom of an advertiser or an academic. And he wasn’t always solemn, even then:

The novel can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don’t skip. It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera—or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall.

Lowry didn’t think the book was without faults, but its main defect, he said, “comes from something irremediable. It is that the author’s equipment, such as it is, is subjective rather than objective, a better equipment, in short, for a certain kind of poet than a novelist.” Subjective, objective; poet, novelist. These are large, loose terms, but in context they say something very specific. Passionate egoism is looking for an impersonal form; a remarkable novel written with a (not very good) poet’s equipment is not the same as a good or bad novel by a good or bad poet. When Lowry says the “conception” of his book is “essentially poetical” he means the work is intensely structured and saturated with meaning—or better, with chances of meaning.


The chance of meaning is one of Lowry’s great subjects, and figures prominently in the story I have already quoted from, “Ghostkeeper,” first published in Ted Solotaroff’s American Review in 1973 and then collected in Psalms and Songs (1975). Day calls it “another of [Lowry’s] writer-being-written-about pieces,” Bowker echoes him with “another self-reflective story about a writer,” and Hofmann does not include it, so my own long affection for the story may be suspect. I do think it gives us, however, something different from yet another stab at ending the voyage that never ends.

It is written in a mixed mode: partly as a form of fiction rather more fully realized than Lowry’s later work usually is, and partly as notes on that fiction. It may be that reading Kundera and Coetzee helps to see that this mode could be an artistic mode and not just a half-baked project. A man and his wife—he writes an essayistic column for a local newspaper—walk in a seaside park in Vancouver. They find an old wrecked boat (“very narrow in the beam, blunt-nosed and blunt-sterned, about fifteen feet long, no paint left on it, salt-gray, battered, pock-marked”). Various coincidences involving watches occur (they have lost theirs, so has someone else they meet, a young Frenchman tries to sell them a watch, they find a watch and spend much of the rest of the story trying to return it to its owner). The king of England dies—the day is February 5, 1952. The writer (who is an English-born Canadian) jokes to himself about becoming an Elizabethan. The couple see some children throwing stones at ducks and are immeasurably distraught by this cruelty. The writer has a panic attack, expressed in the writing by a sort of high-speed parody of Dante: “Anguish trees stood about the suicide lake, apprehension bushes were dotted here and there….” And gradually we get the story of the story. The writer wants to write these events up, tell it all “just as it happened, or rather…just as it has not yet completely happened,” since they are still trying to return the watch to the mysterious H. Ghostkeeper, whose name is inscribed on it.

All these apparent messages from the inanimate world are irresistible but don’t add up. “For how could you write a story in which its main symbol was not even reasonably consistent, did not even have consistent ambiguity?” The writer finally manages a neat little story with a moral about how children should be nice to ducks, “a touching little conte,” but only by dropping everything that seemed to him eerie and important, “philosophical,” about the events of the day. The writer here, Lowry says in his own voice, “is now standing within the possibilities of his own story and of his own life.”

The point seems to be that all these possibilities of his story (and of his own life) wish in some way to fulfill themselves, but what makes it terrifying is that the mind or intelligence that controls these things, or perhaps does not control them, is outside…and not within.

There is no mind or intelligence controlling or failing to control these things, as Lowry and his character well know. There is only the accumulation of coincidence, the insistent apparent promise of meaning lurking in sheer accident. This is what a character in Pynchon’s V. describes as “life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”

The accidents are hard to acknowledge because we want them to be something else, and they keep pretending to help us out. “The mind is not equipped to look at the truth,” Lowry writes in “Ghostkeeper,” meaning this kind of truth: the sense that raw events talk to us, even if we are not novelists. “So finally even this story is absurd, which is an important part of the point, if any, since that it should have none whatsoever seems part of the point too.” Or the point is about multiple possibility, including the precarious implied literary balance between a cheap completion and an ongoing mess. Lowry never found the balance again after his great novel; except perhaps briefly here, in a story that both ends and doesn’t end. Its last words are:

But suddenly his fear was transformed into love, love for his wife, and that meaningless, menacing fear was transformed into a spring wood bearing with it the scent of peach blossoms and wild cherry blossoms.

Pray for them!

  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).

  4. 4

    Chris Ackerley and Lawrence J. Clipper, A Companion to Under the Volcano (University of British Columbia Press, 1984), pp. 273–274.