Malcolm Lowry
Malcolm Lowry; drawing by David Levine

The bare facts are that Malcolm Lowry was born in England in 1909 and died there in 1957. Most of his adult life was spent in Mexico and British Columbia. We know little of those years, except that they were often miserable. Even now, an alcoholic haze surrounds his name. But a book emerged from that wretched time: Under the Volcano.

In the first chapter, a film director named Jacques Laruelle opens at random a book of Elizabethan plays and reads of Faustian despair:

Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! it will not harbour me!

Two sheets of notepaper fall from the book: headed Hotel Bella Vista, in the Consul’s drunken handwriting, a letter to Yvonne:

No, my secrets are of the grave and must be kept. And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.

In 1946 Lowry, at 24 Calle de Humboldt, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico—“the very tower which was the original of the house of M. Laruelle,” wrote to the publisher Jonathan Cape: “There are a thousand writers who can draw adequate characters till all is blue for one who can tell you anything new about hell fire.”

This is Lowry’s world, where the line between fact and fiction is impossible to find, the air is heavy with the memory of Faustus, Dante, Lazarus, Melville, Ishmael, Mexico, and mescal, and what hurts the eye is the smoke of hell. The letters now collected spill over into the fiction; if whole paragraphs sound familiar, the explanation is easy, you have already read them in Under the Volcano and “Through the Panama.” Things said in one letter are repeated in another, presumably because there is nothing else to say; anything worth saying is in the fiction, or a story must be written to receive it. The longest letter is a painful elucidation of Under the Volcano, chapter by chapter. Virtually all the letters are cries of rage or despair sent to agents, reviewers, and publishers. Lowry was not a great letter writer. He was so engrossed in his own life and works that he could not lift his eyes to see that the world contained other things. These are the most self-embattled letters I have ever read; even Joyce’s letters, by comparison, sound nonchalant. Indeed, the nearest rival to Lowry in this respect is Baron Corvo, whose letters to the publisher John Lane are similarly enslaved by money, legalities, and pagination.

THE BEST way to read Lowry’s letters is to take them as footnotes to the novels. The early letters are written in the idiom of Ultramarine, that disastrous novel produced from the swell of Blue Voyage. At twenty-three Lowry was writing precocious fan letters to Conrad Aiken: “Ho, I am not Mr. Sludge the Medium, nor was meant to be.” Hence in Ultramarine: “I wish I were. I wish, I were—what? A pair of ragged clauses scuttling between two dark parentheses.” (Lowry read English at Cambridge University when the air was heavy with Eliot and I. A. Richards.) Ultramarine, first published in 1933 and reissued a few years ago,1 is a rich boy’s dream of sexual and nautical initiation; a rite de passage to gain entry to the “low” world of sailors and the sea. Most of it is an absurd deployment of adolescent fantasies, a thrill of aggression against Andy, a plea to be taken into the galley. The marine part is tolerable; what ruins the book is the ultra-prose and the boyish yearnings which incite it. Lowry knew, a few years later, that it was no good, a mere paraphrase of Nordahl Grieg, “an inexcusable mess,” as he called it, “not worth reading.” He tinkered with revisions, off and on, but the damage was done: The revised mess is still a mess.

When the letters reach Under the Volcano and the terrible years of that novel, the footnotes crowd the text. The precocity remains, the repeated jokes, the rage for money and acknowledgement. Lowry was now the anguished, patient explainer, telling agents and publishers what they were too stupid to see.

Note: the book opens in the Casino de la Selva. Selva means wood and this strikes the opening chord of the Inferno—remember, the book was planned and still is a kind of inferno with Purgatorio and Paradiso to follow, the tragic protagonist in each, like Tchitchikov in Dead Souls, becoming slightly better—in the middle of our life…in a dark wood, etc., this chord being struck again in VI, the middle and heart of the book.

There is also the cabbalistic significance, secreted in the numbers 7 and 12.


The Consul’s spiritual domain in this regard is probably the Qliphoth, the world of shells and demons, represented by the Tree of Life upside down—all this is not important at all to the understanding of the book; I just mention it in passing to hint that, as Henry James says, “there are depths.”

The allegory involves the Garden of Eden, with talk of snakes, guilt, and The Ancient Mariner. And Melville persists from Ultramarine: the Consul is largely identified with Melville, “partly because I had sailed before the mast, partly because my grandfather had been a skipper of a windjammer who went down with his ship—Melville also had a son named Malcolm who simply disappeared.” Melville’s “failure,” Lowry says, “fascinated me and it seems to me that from an early age I determined to emulate it.”

THESE MIDDLE letters, repetitive and tedious as they are, throw a continuous light upon the novel. There are enormous gaps, the story is told only in snatches, but a pattern emerges. Page by page we can feel the “migraine of alienation” which Lowry invokes in a later story, “Present Estate of Pompeii,” and discloses in Under the Volcano. But many problems remain unanswered. There is probably some relation between Lowry’s psychological condition and his failure to conceive characters, in the fiction, independent of his consciousness. But it is hard to be more specific. He himself argued that Under the Volcano is not the kind of novel in which “character” is important. But the argument is special pleading. Sometimes, making a virtue of necessity, he insisted that all the characters in the novel are one, “aspects of the same man, or of the human spirit.” Hugh and the Consul are, in a special sense, “one.” “I suggest,” Lowry says, “that here and there what may look like unsuccessful attempts at character drawing may only be the concrete bases to the creature’s lives, without which again the book could not be read at all.” It is a delicate argument. True, Lowry could point, if he wished, to poems like The Waste Land and to Eliot’s note on Tiresias:

Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.

But Eliot can get away with this precisely because Tiresias is an artificial consciousness, rather than a character, and there is no question of identifying Tiresias with the historical T. S. Eliot. Lowry’s problem is that his characters are mere functions of himself. There is more of Lowry in the Consul than in Yvonne, and more of him in Yvonne than in Hugh or Laruelle; but this only means that—to emphasize one aspect of it—the terminology of Action which Hugh embodies in his mediocre way was Lowry’s idiom, but fitfully and in a mist. In Lowry’s world there is the self; and, by derivation, there are the structures of its need. To each of these Lowry gives a local habitation and a name. Even in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place2 where the anguish is often eased, the characters are all Malcolm Lowry, alias Roderick Fairhaven in “Present Estate of Pompeii,” Sigbjorn Wilderness in “Through the Panama,” Kennish Cosnahan in “Elephant and Colosseum.” The woman-figure who inhabits these stories, Tansy or Primrose or whatever, is a function of Lowry’s desire, his need of an answering voice.

But if Lowry is weak in the creation of character, if he is unable to conceive of people distinct from himself, he has many other resources. He is remarkable for the plenitude of his sensations; this is clear in Under the Volcano and some of the short stories. Many scenes in the novel, in “Strange Comfort” and “The Forest Path to the Spring,” are almost entirely static. They do not lose the name of action, for the sufficient reason that they have never had it. But they are extraordinary in the richness of their sensations. We think of the Consul searching for the bottle, Laruelle’s vision of the riderless horse, Yvonne examining the menu at “El Popo” while Hugh, recalling Sir Walter Ralegh, gives an applied reading of “The Lie,” the Consul’s flood of memories while lying drunk on the road. None of these occasions has the “disinterestedness” which Keats ascribed to the greatest art, that energy of independent existence. But the sensations released are remarkable. Lowry found it hard to discriminate between one sensation and another: He was not impeccable in judgment. Under the Volcano was re-written several times, but the final version contains pages of “Pure Poetry” which read like anyone’s loose imaginings. The fact that most of them are assigned to the Consul is neither here nor there. And there is a certain amount of residual “Lowromancing,” as Lowry called it in a severe moment.


THE EXPLANATION seems to be that he was tempted to load every vein with ore. If you have reduced the whole world to your own sensations, you can’t afford to slight even one of them. This is why Under the Volcano, remarkable as it is, gives the impression of being overwritten. After a few chapters we long for something casual, even a mistake, anything to relieve the pressure of deliberate significance. In the event, the only relief from the demand of one sensation is the arrival of another. Everything is so knowingly placed, the “depths” so carefully enforced, the mysteries so Eleusinian, the names so cunningly chosen, that only the inescapable density of the writing keeps us going. And because Lowry acknowledged the stress of independent existence so rarely and ambiguously, he could not rely upon its power. This is why he seized upon Baudelaire’s remark that life is a forest of symbols. It had to be; otherwise it was nothing. If a tree was just a tree, how dreadful; Lowry had to rescue it from its finitude. Charles Tomlinson has a poem about “the proper plenitude of fact.” This is not Lowry’s idiom, ornithologist or not. To him, plenitude was the virtuosity of sensation, a conjuror’s flair. If facts are not significant, you must ensure significance by surrounding them with a halo of your own desire. It is easier if you get the Cabbala on your side. So Under the Volcano is a forest of symbols: the Ferris wheel, the garden, the vulture, snakes, number 7 again, the Laurentian horses, even the film Los Manos de Orlac with Peter Lorre. “It’s all about a pianist who has a sense of guilt because he thinks his hands are a murderer’s or something and keeps washing the blood off them.” And Yvonne is killed in a thunderstorm by a riderless horse (the same one) frightened by the bullet which kills the Consul. Every street is Via Dolorosa. The Mexican landscape received the tragedy and expresses it; the exotic plants the Consul sees in Chapter 3 are staggering against one another, “yet struggling like dying voluptuaries in a vision to maintain some final attitude of potency, or of a collective desolate fecundity.” Nothing is ever wasted. In these rituals Lowry endows the objects with the wealth of his own sensation: They return his favor by appearing, thus accoutred, in his book. When the pace is easier, in the short stories, he puts himself, under various disguises, in a landscape already indisputably animated; as Sigbjorn Wilderness has a rush of sensibility at the Keats house in Rome, and Roderick at Vesuvius.

AFTER THE SUCCESS of Under the Volcano Lowry seems to have had a period of relative ease and contentment. But it was brief. Soon he was drinking again, his letters full of whiskey, sonoryl, and phenobarbital. But in 1950 he was writing again, sending his agent “a comic classic,” the story “Elephant and Colosseum.” Much of it was picked up from Ultramarine. A lesser man would have consigned it to hell. Lowry held the stories of this time so intimately linked in his mind that he thought of them as parts of a new kind of novel, a work “of an odd aeolian kind.” The structure of the new book is planned in musical terms, with a nod in the direction of Hermann Hesse. But Dante is still there. It is a noble conception. Indeed, “Forest Path” is the Paradiso-fragment of Lowry’s projected masterpiece, an idyll of married love. The scene is Dollarton, a shanty-town in British Columbia where he lived for many years with his splendid wife. In the story it is called Eridanus to get in the mythology. I take the narrator to be Hugh, saved from the volcano so that the name of action will not die. Much of the prose sounds like Delius in A Walk to the Paradise Garden. It is hardly a story, more a sketch, a dream of peace after the dark wood; and, it seems, a garland for Margerie Lowry.

There is a good deal of Lowry’s fiction still unpublished. I hope it can be saved, and edited with more care than that given to the Letters. Meanwhile, leaving aside a book of poems of little interest, we have at least a few chapters of Lowry’s life. The last chapter is his death, June 1957, with all the symbols flying in a place called Ripe, Sussex, England. The Coroner’s verdict was Death by Misadventure. And hovering like a vulture over the whole story there is the Consul’s letter to Yvonne, that part where he speaks of “a desire to destroy myself by my own imagination.” And then, outside the cantina, Laruelle hears the bell: “dolente…dolore.”

This Issue

March 3, 1966