Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Lowry's Volcanic Eruptions of the Soul

Review by Trevor Carolan

The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry in his own words. Michael Hofmann, ed. New York Review of Books.

Why does Malcom Lowry still fascinate us? One might well ask. Undoubtedly, and in large part, it is because Lowry is a great failure, as opposed to a minor success which is always less alluring. Like Artaud or Delmore Schwartz, he had a genius for a great vision which eventually remained unfulfilled, and in this he failed magnificently. If you were a young poet in the 1920s when Lowry was on his way up, you were either in Eliot’s camp or Conrad Aiken’s camp. Unfortunately, Aiken who arguably had greater range as a writer, was unable to sustain his early promise and lingered on the precipice of depression and alcoholism. It was to Eliot that fell the crown of high modernism — odd for a poet with a yen for High Church Anglicanism, enthralled by monarchy and social convention.

Lowry was clearly in Aiken’s camp, and as his protégé, he continued in that other tradition of modernism which is actually fulfilled by grand and “magnificent” failure. It is interesting to think of modernism as divided into two streams, or lineages—one, the Apollonian tradition of success and self-control, exemplified par excellence by Eliot; the other, a Dionysian tradition of grand failure and chaos, read Lowry. That is why the Liverpuddlian continues to interest us, the way that his fellow Merseysiders John Lennon and Arthur Dooley, the artist and sculptor, interest us: all their work is tinged with a great “What if..?”

Published by the New York Review of Books as a tribute volume, and commented upon in newspapers and reviews from New York to London to Toronto and back again, weirdly, this hefty volume makes little critical mention of Dollarton, North Vancouver, where Lowry found solace for 14 long years. This is also where the bulk of his major writing, such as it is, and the eventual final manuscript of Under The Volcano was undertaken. Certainly his novella “The Forest Path to the Spring”, the loveliest work he ever wrote, is one long homage to the shoreline forest home he knew there. And we know from Lowry’s closest Canadian friend, the late Harvey Burt, that the novelist still yearned desperately for his beloved shack at Dollarton immediately before his death in Sussex, England

Lowry arrived as a confirmed alcoholic in Vancouver in 1939, where he hoped to be joined by his wife, Margerie. As they had a habit of repeating themselves wherever he lived, things had not been working out for him in Mexico where he’d begun Volcano. In August, 1940 the Lowrys took a squatter’s shack in North Vancouver and it was here that much of what we know as the Lowry corpus was created. Earle Birney described the Lowrys’ cabin as “a twenty-square foot dwelling”, and the echo here of Kamo-no-Chomei’s Hojoki from medieval Japan or Bai Juyi, the popular poet from Tang dynasty China, is obvious: the Asia-literate Birney was acquainted with both and paid Lowry the honour. Dorothy Livesay, the poet and longtime social activist, was also Lowry’s neighbour for a time and it is interesting to speculate on the extent that the two Canucks had on Lowry’s modest, but still significant poetic output which was published by City Lights after his death.

This particular addition to the Lowry industry is comprised of chapters of fiction from his finished books, poems, letters, and fragments of this and that. Borrowing the title from Lowry’s self-conceived grand cycle of works he intended to complete, but never could finish, it symbolizes what editor Michael Hofmann, a fair poet and translator in his own right, sums up as “three or five or however many novels in search of an author.” With the exception of the hard to love shorter early works Ultramarine and Lunar Caustic, little Lowry wrote after his one big book “Volcano” ever really got nailed down tight. Yet the man could write.

As a ramble through this collection confirms, Lowry was essentially a landscape painter and internal monologist. His epistolary style frequently reads like a long letter to a friend—god knows, he had the experience, as examples of his message-in-a-bottle correspondence to Jonathan Cape, David Markson, Aiken, and his brother Stuart reveal here. Peppered with a good knowledge of jazz, traveller’s conversational gambits, international literature, booze, and the bible, it is disciplined prose. No stranger to the weaving eight-line sentence with its qualifiers, non-restrictive clauses, and unusually light punctuation—the natural ammunition of a seasoned raconteur—like Hemingway, whom we are told considered him a fierce rival, Lowry uses short, declarative paragraph-ending motifs like a middleweight’s jab: “Their starry night and sea wind. Their love.”

But then he was well-travelled, had known the high life, and had succeeded in wooing a minor Hollywood cinema beauty. With his drunkenness and family remittances, this is what made him a target. Yet in his way, he gave a damn. He tried to enlist for the war, unsuccessfully, and with more than a passing care for what would come to be known as human rights, his Volcano in particular radiates affection for Mexico’s impoverished campesinos. He cared for Dollarton’s local Sleil Waututh aboriginal people too, and they cared for him. His writing is imbued with all of these things.

Sloppy rich-kid drunk or unfulfilled genius? Neither really fits. Who but a prodigal might write, “As a bird wandereth from his nest, so is man who wandereth from his place. Now they understood the meaning of this proverb” (from October Ferry To Gabriola). Neverwasbeen or poet maudit? Perhaps, but his insight is frequently as compassionate as anything in Alice Walker or as corrosive as Gore Vidal:

Success is like some horrible disaster
Worse than your house burning, the sounds of ruination
As the roof tree falls following each other faster
While you stand, the helpless witness of your damnation.

Fame like a drunkard consumes the house of the soul
Exposing that you have worked for only this…

(from “After Publication of Under the Volcano”)

In the end, it is fitting that Hofmann’s edited volume lets Lowry’s work do the talking, leading us, as ever, to ask the overwhelming question, “What if only…”

Trevor Carolan is the international editor of PRRB.