No sign yet of any major features on Malcolm Lowry, born one hundred years ago on July 28th 1909 (see a blog about him in December), although this is being written a couple of days beforehand. And yet Lowry has a claim to be one of the great twentieth-century novelists, even if it is by virtue of the one novel, Under The Volcano (1946). He published very little in his lifetime (nothing else other than a rite-of-passage first novel, Ultramarine (1933), which is all right, and a smattering of short stories. Other fiction, a selection of poetry, and huge volumes of letters are all posthumous). He had a huge master-plan, to write a seven-part cycle called ‘The Voyage That Never Ends’, but he became too entangled in the process of writing about writing. One of the posthumous novels, Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, which is disappointing, is about writing Under The Volcano, and there is even a short story in which Lowry has a writer writing what is patently Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid.
When I was younger, I would have defended the whole lot – what Lowry called, in a nice pun, his ‘too-loose Lowry-trek’: October Ferry To Gabriola, Lunar Caustic, the fragment La Mordida. But I have to admit this was sentimental of me. My literary hero had shoes of cardboard when it came to following in his own footsteps (that looks like a very mixed metaphor, and I’m still trying to work out if it works).
But Under The Volcano is a gem. No matter how many times you read it, you find more stories hidden in the stories. It is written under the influence of Ulysses, but it is ten times more accessible, and it is may be about death, but it is also very much about love. It mythologises his own life to an extent, although how much he based Yvonne, one of the four central figures, on his first wife Jan Gabrial (who successfully hid herself away for a long time before being persuaded to write a memoir in about 2000), and how much on his second wife, Margerie Bonner, is anybody’s guess. She was his amanuensis and his helpmeet, and just possibly the one who finished him off, as well (much debate surrounds his death at the age of 47 in the little village of Ripe near Lewes in Sussex). But he was an uncontrollable alcoholic, and his death may equally have been an accident, or even a shot at unsuccessful suicide which went wrong.
Lowry is often overlooked because he wrote Volcano in Canada, and lived there, in a squatter’s shack in Dollarton, not far from Vancouver. The Penguin Book of Canadian Poetry claims him as Canadian (he is a decent poet, too): but he was born in the Wirral into a prosperous family, on whom he depended financially for much of his life. The success of Volcano came as a kind of shock – there is a great poem which starts ‘Success is like a horrible disaster’ – which more or less scuppered him as a creative force.
There is a violently sentimental streak in Lowry which attracts me. I had a teacher who was a Lowry buff, and had been out to Dollarton, and to Mexico, to the towns where Volcano is set. He had a tale about Lowry, from where I don’t know, in which Lowry, watching a film (a passion of his) objected violently to two people sitting in front of him laughing at a screen kiss. Lowry was also, alas, a consummate liar, and constantly re-invented himself. But he did me a posthumous good turn. Thirty years ago, I wrote a poem imagining Lowry at 70 (anything to do with seven being in his view unlucky), and sent it very speculatively to the then brand-new Literary Review. By a coincidence of which he would have been proud, its editor, Anne Smith, was – unknown to me – a Lowry scholar, and she printed the poem, the first one I ever had published in a national magazine. Which means that this is a sort of anniversary for me, too. So here it is:
on your best behaviour, and the Sunday
supplements parading some partly-faded snaps,
elbows a jetsam of abandoned manuscript (‘One day,
my Voyage That Never Ends!’) The claps collapse,
offscreen, in a hubbub of reverence.
round the rocks of an addled palate, speaking Aiken’s
name, forgetful, in the present tense,
probably sobbing (‘He called me Hambo’).
A snatch of taropatch – your battered ukelele – awakens
one terrorised eyelid. Seven log-jammed
decades have flooded clumsily under its busted bridge.
Seven: the number unnerved your nerves, damned
your doppelganger heroes. Now your vigilante,
Dante, beckons you back, a salt-eyed
bosun berating you, atone for your numberless crimes.
And holystone the deck.
A sentimental Redburn, the sun sunken on your shrunken wreck,
rogue steamer, puffing out asthmatic genius – yet you died,
eyes dry as ink. The place was Ripe: unlike the times,
you’d say – such puns would gurgle through your verse
and sink – and, as if to rehearse
once more the doleful, doggerel epitaph
you wrote, you launch a lifeboat down your runway throat, and laugh.