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(Clarence) Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957)


English novelist, short story writer, and poet, who is best known for his book Under the Volcano (1947), a 20th century classic. Like many of Lowry's publications, the novel is highly autobiographical. An alcoholic, Lowry spent his post-Volcano years drinking and planning a cycle of novels built around his masterwork. He lived from 1940 to 1954 in a primitive cabin in Dollarton, British Columbia, and then in Italy and England until his death.

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.
The printer had it tavern, which seems better:
But herein lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears and dearth.
So it may be that God's word was distraction,
Which to our strange type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.

('Strange Type', from Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry, 1962)

Malcolm Lowry was born in Birkenhead, Chesire, England, the son of Arthur Lowry, a wealthy cotton broker, who owned plantations in Egypt, Peru, and Texas. His grandfather from his mother's side was a Norwegian sea captain. At the age of sevent, Lowry went almost blind from a disorder of the corneas, but recovered his sight four years later after an operation.

Like his three brothers, Lowry attended public boarding schools. He was educated at Caldicote School, Hertfordshire, and at the Leys school, Cambridge. At the age of fifteen, he won a championship in golf in junior series. Rebelling against his bourgeois upbringing, Lowry interrupted his academic studies, and run away to sea to work as a deckhand on a freighter bound for China and on a ship sailing to Oslo. One of Lowry's affairs in Norway was to meet the writer Nordahl Grieg. Later he continued his studies at the University of Cambridge, where he gained fame as a promising young writer. Lowry obtained a first-class degree in English.

Lowry's first novel Ultramarine (1933) drew material from his voyage to Yokohama on the S.S. Pyrrhus. It was accepted for publication in 1932, but after the original typescrift was stolen Lowry rewrote the work from the penultimate version. The story of a mess-boy on the freighter Oedipus Tyrannus bound for Bombay and Singapore received a mixed critics. Ultramarine was inspired by Grieg's novel The Ship Sails On (1924), and also showed debt to Blue Voyage by his friend Conrad Aiken, in whose autobiography Ushant (1952) he was to appear as Hambro.

Lowry lived in London and then in Paris until 1935. He travelled to Spain with Aiken and met there the American writer Jan Gabrial. They married in 1934 and moved in 1935 to the United States. He spent some time in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York City. After writing the novel Lunar Caustic, publishded posthumously in 1958, he went to Mexico, which became the settings of Under the Volcano. In Cuernavaca and the nearby volcanoes he found the perfect landscape for his novel. The snowy peak of Popocatepetl was for him a symbol of aspiration, and the deep woods in the surroundings formed the opposite, lower depths.

In Oaxaca Lowry was thrown into a jail - he was considered a Spanish spy. Once he forgot the first draft of his manuscript in a bar. By the time Lowry left Mexico, his first marriage was in ruins. Later, in her book Inside the Volcano (2000), Jan Gabrial wrote that "He would drink anything. I had thrown out the rubbing alcohol I'd used to massage his back, but he gulped the contents of a bottle he thought contained hair tonic but which Josefina had refilled with cooking oil..." His second wife, the novelist Margerie Bonner, Lowry met in Los Angeles. He moved in 1939 to Dollarton, British Columbia, where he built for himself and for his wife a squatters shack to live. The hut burned down in 1944, but Margerie Bonner managed to save his manuscript from the fire.

After a short visit to Mexico in 1945, the Lowrys returned to Canada, where they stayed until 1954, then moving to England. During his last years Lowry planned a modern, "drunken Divine Comedy," a sequence of seven novels built around Under the Volcano, titled The Voyage That Never Ends. He had already written the "Purgatory" part, "Paradise" had been destroyed in the fire. Simultaneously Lowry worked on a number of manuscripts, unable to bring his plans to completion. Under the Volcano was for a short time on a best-seller list in the United States, but according to the author, the book sold in Canada only two copies. In France is was a critical success and hailed immediately as a classic. Efforts to adapt the book into a film had failed in the United States, but when Lowry's German publisher began to negotiate about a movie version, perhaps Peter Lorre playing the role of the Consul, the author said that he "would rather have it produced in Germany than in any country in the world." He had a real regard for Lorre's art–"there couldn't be a better part for him than the Consul". Lowry also offered his help in the script development.

"Neurosis, of one kind and another, is stamped on almost every word he writes, both neurosis and a kind of fierce health. Perhaps his tragedy is that he is the only normal writer left on earth and it is this that adds to his isolation and so to his sense of guilt." (from Hear Us O Lord heaven thy dwelling place, 1962)

By 1940 Lowry had written an early, unpublishable edition of Under the Volcano. He had sent it to his agent Harold Matson, but after twelve publishers had rejected the manuscript Matson returned it. The next five years he spent rewriting and deepening the magical and mythical elements, especially after meeting a Cabbalist, Charles Stansfield-Jones, spiritual son of Alesteir Crowley. The novel went through innumerable revisions, many with Margerie Lowry's help, and was eventually published by Jonathan Cape ten years after the author started to work on it.

The story is set in Quauhnahuac, Mexico. It depicts the last twelve hours on November 2, 1938, in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an ex-British Consul in a Mexican city situated under two volcanoes. Firmin is an alcoholic. He has rejected the love of his wife and friends, and taken to drink as an escape from the inhumanity of the modern world and his own sense of failure. Other central characters are Jacques Laruelle, a failed filmmaker and adulterous lover, who looks back on the dramatic events of the Day of the Dead, and Hugh, the consul's half-brother, an anti-Fascist journalist, much preoccupied by the Spanish Civil War. The novel - partly written in stream of consciousness - shows influence of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce. Despite the gloomy subject matter, the book is written in a lyrical style and is full of humour.

--...Sigbjørn realized that he really must be pretty tight if he was talking as lightly as this, could dismiss that dreadful incident as lightly as that. 'Still I made my Consul get into enough trouble here for ten.'
--'Your Consul. What did you do to him?'
--'My Consul in the book.'
--'What happened to him?'
--'Someone shot him and then they threw him down a ravine.'
--'Bad luck always waits you in the barranca,' Eddie said grimly. 'How did he come to get in that spot?'
--'He drank. Well, Hippolyte knows all about the Consul by now.'
--'Yes. I liked him very much. I was sorry to see him go. I fact it was my opinion that your character Yvonne should have gone over the ravine and the Consul and his half-brother lived happily ever afterward, the house and the mescal and everything to make them happy.'

(from Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, 1968)

Lowry's alcoholism and mental disorders shadowed much of his writing career and starting a new novel was for him very difficult. The last ten years of his life he spent in and out of hospitals. Accidents followed him everywhere, broken bones, dog bites, blood poisoning. Lowry died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in a boarding house in Ripe, Sussex, England, on June 27, 1957. He was buried in the graveyard of the village church. A number of Lowry's works has been published posthumously. In the unfinished novel Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (1968) the protagonist, Sigbjørn Wilderness, is Lowry's alter ego - a writer unable to write, but whose voyage of self-destruction ends against all odds with a possible happy ending. Lowry finished the "first of the first draft" of the novel in 1947, resumed the work in Canada in 1951. He thought the novel as part of a trilogy. The collected edition of Lowry's poetry was published in 1992. His poems were highly autobiographical and record his personal problems, probing such themes as desperation and guilt.

Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukelele.

(from 'Epitaph')
For further reading: Inside the Volcano: My Life With Malcolm Lowry by Jan Gabrial (2000); A Darkness That Murmured: Essays on Malcolm Lowry and the Twentieth Century, ed. by Frederick Asals & Paul Tiessen (2000); The Making of Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" by Frederick Asals (1997); Forest of Symbols by Patrick McCarthy (1994); The 1940 "Under the Volcano", ed. by Paul Tiessen and Miguel Mota (1994); Pursued by Furies by G. Bowker (1993); Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days by Sheryl Salloum (1987); Lowry, a Biography by Douglas Day (1973); Lowry by Tony Kilgallin (1973); Lowry: the Man and His Work by G. Woodcock (1971)

Selected works:

  • Ultramarine: A Novel, 1933
  • In Ballast to the White Sea, 1936
  • Under the Volcano, 1947
    - Tulivuoren juurella (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1968)
    film: Under the Volcano, 1984, dir. by John Huston, screenplay by Guy Gallo, starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews. Ignacio López Tarso, Katy Jurado
  • Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, 1961
  • Selected Poems, 1962
  • Selected Letters, 1967 (edited by Harvey Breit & Margerie Bonner Lowry)
  • Lunar Caustic, 1968 (edited by Earle Birney and Margerie Lowry, with a foreword by Conrad Knickerbocker)
  • Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, 1968 (unfinished; edited by Douglas Day & Margerie Lowry)
  • October Ferry to Gabriola, 1970 (edited by Margerie Lowry)
  • Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs, 1975 (edited by Margerie Lowry)
  • The Letters of Malcolm Lowry and Gerald Noxon, 1940-1952, 1988 (edited by Paul Tiessen)
  • The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry: A Scholarly Edition of Lowry’s "Tender is the Night", 1990 (edited with an introduction by Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen)
  • The Letters of Conrad Aiken and Malcolm Lowry, 1929-1954, 1992 (edited by Cynthia Sugars)
  • The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry, 1992 (edited and introduced by Kathleen Scherf; with explanatory annotation by Chris Ackerley)
  • The 1940 Under the Volcano, 1994 (edited by Paul Tiessen and Miguel Mota with the assistance of Frederick Asals; introduction by Frederick Asals; assistant editor: Deborah Harmon)
  • Sursum Corda!: The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, 1995-97 (2 vols., edited with introduction and annotations Sherrill Grace)
  • Malcolm Lowry’s "La mordida", 1996 (edited by Patrick A. McCarthy)
  • The Voyage That Never Ends: Fictions, Poems, Fragments, Letters, 2007 (edited by Michael Hofmann)
  • Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World, 2009 ( edited by Bryan Biggs and Helen Tookey)


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