This review appeared recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.
THE VOYAGE THAT NEVER ENDS:
Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words
Edited by Michael Hoffman
New York Review Books, 512 pp., $24.95
Malcolm Lowry has a reputation as a one-book wonder, even though he published two novels in his lifetime, and volumes of stories, poems, letters and uncompleted novels followed his death. But as he wrote in a poem titled “After the Publication of ‘Under the Volcano,’” “Success is like some horrible disaster.”
If Lowry regarded the success of “Under the Volcano” as a disaster, it was because he dreamed of a larger success, in which that great novel would become part of a multi-volume magnum opus based – at least in one of his imaginings of it – on Dante’s “Divina Commedia.” “Under the Volcano” would be the “Inferno,” to be followed by a “Purgatorio” and a “Paradiso.”
But Dante’s epic was a voyage with an end in view. Lowry’s voyage, as the title of Michael Hoffman’s artfully selected collection of stories, poems, drafts and letters suggests, was not the kind to have an ending. Even Lowry’s death in 1957, when he was only 48, has something inconclusive about it: The coroner ruled it a “death by misadventure,” unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally.
In two of the stories Hoffman includes in this collection, Lowry alludes to a now mostly forgotten play by Sutton Vane, “Outward Bound,” which takes place on board a ship. An alcoholic young man is the first to recognize that he and the other passengers are all dead and facing a judgment whether their voyage is to heaven or to hell. Vane’s sentimental fantasy seems to have stuck with Lowry as a metaphor for his own wanderings, which took him not only to the Mexico that provided the phantasmagoric background for “Under the Volcano,” but also to a beachfront shack near Vancouver, where he did the finishing work on that novel.
Many of the stories in Hoffman’s book are about journeys, including the original “Under the Volcano,” a short story that was reworked into Chapter VIII of the novel, in which Hugh, Yvonne and the Consul take a harrowing bus ride through the Mexican countryside. In the story “Through the Panama,” the novelist Sigbjørn Wilderness, Lowry’s improbably named alter ego, travels from Vancouver to Rotterdam via the Panama Canal; in the Atlantic, the ship is caught in a terrible storm, and much of the voyage is narrated with side-notes in the manner of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
But the story titled “China” perhaps best underscores the sense of futility that underlies so much of the restless journeying in Lowry’s stories. The young narrator is obviously modeled on the young Malcolm, who postponed his entrance to Cambridge University to work as a deck hand on a ship bound for Asia. He tells us “I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. … Haven’t you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else … it is always you.”
For Lowry, the means of breaking down the wall between the self and the world was alcohol. He disastrously came to rely too much on the muse in the bottle, but not before she inspired him to literature’s best-known portrayal of the D.T.’s – or as Lowry put it, in one of the Joycean puns he delighted in, “delowryum tremens.” (He also referred to one of his journeys as a “tooloose-Lowry-trek.” ) But the alcoholic writer is caught in a bind, as Lowry himself observed: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can’t put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. … When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”
Lowry did find a brief spell of peace and stability in the middle of his life, when he and his wife, Margerie, settled in a shack on a coastal inlet near Vancouver. The experience there is beautifully recounted in the story “The Forest Path to the Spring,” an idyll that evokes Thoreau and, in its fascinated and lyrical observation of nature, D.H. Lawrence – without Lawrence’s incessant sermonizing. The story contrasts remarkably to the tragic course of “Under the Volcano.” Lowry’s narrator says that he writes about the experience “in the Montaigne-like belief … that the experience of one happy man might be useful.”
One doesn’t usually think of Lowry as a happy man. But thanks to Hoffman’s collection, we can now think of him as sometimes just that. And also as a deeply insecure man, fretting about the fact that another novel about alcoholism, Charles Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend,” had appeared before the publication of “Under the Volcano,” or boasting in a letter asking his brother, Stuart, for money that he was “the only Canadian writer ever to be placed in the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He was English and never became a Canadian citizen. It may have pleased him to be a big fish in what was then a very small literary pond.) He could be proudly defensive, as in his long, brilliant letter to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape, in which he responds to the criticisms of the manuscript of “Under the Volcano” set down by one of the publishing house’s readers. It’s an essential companion to reading that novel.
But most of all this anthology reveals Lowry as writer – a witty, tormented, frustrated, keenly observant writer, engaged with the world and always compelled to account for his painfully uneasy place in it.