Malcolm Lowry's Neverending Voyage

by Sten Johnson

The novel can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don't skip. It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera--or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining, and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie.

- Malcolm Lowry to publisher Jonathan Cape on Under the Volcano, January 2, 1946

Malcolm Lowry, who died at the age of 48 in 1957, published only two novels in his lifetime, and his works enjoy a mystique that their author would have encouraged. Aware of himself as a poete maudit, Lowry worked energetically to promote his own legend, and accounts of life are filled with inconsistencies, enigmas and evasions. Deeply superstitious, he imagined himself doomed, pursued by coincidence and fate, and finally by what he imagined to be a “daemon.” To the outsider, his misfortune can be attributed to the simpler problem of chronic alcoholism, a subject explored in the semi-autobiographical Under the Volcano, his 1947 masterpiece. The novel maintains an outré, mythic, aura; it lingers at the edge of the literary canon, retaining a countercultural, nearly outlaw appeal. After nearly 50 years, it remains both anachronistic, a modernist novel written past its era, and inassimilable, a hallucinatory vision from a pre-psychedelic era.

Born in Cheshire, England in 1909, Lowry grew up in a wealthy family of cotton brokers. Influenced by the literature of Melville and Joseph Conrad, he signed on as a deck hand at age 16 on the ship Pyrrhus, traveling to the Asia before returning to England to study at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge. The reality of seagoing life was a disappointment, far from Lowry’s naïve, literary expectations. Taunted endlessly by his working class shipmates, many scenes of humiliation appear in his debut Ultramarine, published at the age of 24. Only modestly successful and remaining in print only briefly, the novel is short and mildly eccentric, an unusual mixture of conventional sea adventure and sprawling introspection, heavily influenced by Lowry’s friend and tutor Conrad Aiken. But it evokes a uniquely insular, immaterial atmosphere; Conrad and Melville are clear predecessors, but Lowry’s modest achievement is distinctly modern.

As an undergraduate, Lowry ignored his studies in favor of writing and drinking, and in November 1929, became implicated in the suicide of Paul Fitte, a depressed classmate. Accounts vary, but Lowry either encouraged the already suicidal friend to take his own life or actively took part, helping seal up a room before the other student asphyxiated himself with gas. The event left a psychic wound and Lowry referred to it often in later life, often for dramatic effect. He spoke of dreading the month of November, and may have left an encoded reference to the event in the posthumously published short story “The Bravest Boat.” On June 27, Fitte’s birthday, protagonist Sigurd Storelson launches a model boat in the Pacific with a message intended for anyone who might find it; the letter returns to its sender years later, a piquant reminder of departed youth.

From Cambridge, Lowry traveled to London, France, New York, and to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1936, where he and his young wife, writer Jan Gabrial witnessed a fatally wounded Indian on a roadside. Forbidden by Mexican law to provide aid, fearing they might be labeled accessories, the couple was unable to assist, and later learned that the dead man’s money had been stolen by a “pelado,” an ostracized peasant. Lowry quickly wrote a short story titled “Under the Volcano” based on the event, in which an alcoholic British consul, his daughter Yvonne and her boyfriend Hugh witness a similar event; in the face of tragedy, estranged from the young love of his companions, the consul is preoccupied with his next drink. The fictional scenario, already partially autobiographical, was prescient. Abandoned by Gabrial, Lowry continued a self-destructive alcoholic binge in Cuernavaca, and was mysteriously expelled from Mexico before moving to Los Angeles, where he completed a draft of the novel in 1940. The original version was repeatedly rejected by publishers, dismissed as excessively literary, but Lowry continued writing in a squatter’s shack near Vancouver, where he remained sober and productive. A disastrous fire nearly destroyed the manuscript, although many of his other works in progress were lost. From 1940 until its completion in 1945, Lowry continued to expand the original material, reworking the story in an increasingly subjective style; the end result is a dense torrent of language that suggests Proust and Joyce in its frequent internal monologues, mythical references, and acute introspection. But in spite of its clearly identifiable influences, the work remains hermetic and sui generis, remote from literary trends. The narrative, particularly its existential drama of over-civilized Westerners abroad, recalls the contemporary novels of Paul Bowles and Graham Greene, but its modernist program, self-conscious technique and literary allusions are bold, even blind, anachronism.

The finished work, taking place on the Day of the Dead of 1938, retains the plot of the original short story: Yvonne, recast as the consul’s ex-wife, arrives in Quauhnahuac, a thinly fictionalized Cuernavaca, in an attempt to rebuild their broken marriage. Hugh now appears as the Consul’s brother and Yvonne’s ex-lover, having recently arrived from Spain, where he fought for the Republican cause. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, which also takes place in a single day, intricate descriptions of daily routine merge with flashbacks, reflections on love, acute regret, and the consul’s suicidal impulses as the characters travel the barren Mexican landscape and wander towards inevitable destruction. Drunk, unresponsive to those he loves, the consul’s journey begins in intoxication and ends in desperate hallucination. Perspective shifts from character to character, internal voices combining with omniscient commentary, the prose stylized but lucid, poetic in force:

Parián!...It was a name suggestive of old marble and the galeswept Cyclades. The Farolito in Parián, how it called to him with its gloomy voices of the night and early dawn. But the consul (he had inclined right again leaving the wire fence behind) realized he wasn’t drunk enough to be very sanguine about his chances of getting there; the day offered too many immediate—pitfalls! It was the exact word…He had almost fallen into the barranca, an unguarded section of whose hither bank—the ravine curved sharply down toward the Alcapancingo road…Ah the frightful cleft, the eternal horror of opposites! Thou mighty gulf, insatiate cormorant, deride me not, though I seem petulant to fall into thy chops.

In spite of its modernist ambitions, Under the Volcano displays a solipsism that Joyce might not have accepted. Unlike Ulysses, Lowry makes little attempt to connect his characters with a mythical, universal mode of experience; where Joyce’s Leopold Bloom serves as an archetypal everyman, Lowry’s consul is a tortured ubermensch, a “frustrated great man,” as Stephen Spender observes. He is disconnected from the world, lost in self-involvement, paralyzed by inaction, a victim of a spiritual acedia. Yet, in exploring the minutiae of self, the novel offers a desperate, negating flight from life and experience, a catharsis or therapeutic exercise that Lowry considered “a moral act.” It is also a novel that shouts its symbolism from the rooftops: a barranca described as hell, a riderless horse with the number 7 branded on its rump, a “hideous pariah dog” that follows the consul as a herald of tragedy to come. But the images are functional metaphors, tied to the specificity of immediate events. Joyce’s Bloom may be an everyman elevated to universal heroism, but Lowry’s consul is the victim of a precise chain of events, their dread heightened by the expressive language of myth.

Under the Volcano’s most potent mythology may be Lowry’s own. The novel strains with unalloyed autobiography: His trip on the Pyrrhus, recast as Hugh’s service on the Oedipus Tyrannus; his broken marriage to Jan Gabrial, whose autobiographical details are recognizable as Yvonne’s; his occult interests and superstitions, the image of Canada as a benign delivery from a Mexican inferno, his abject alcoholism and morbid impulses. Lowry was notorious for excessive and unreliable storytelling; his autobiographical details, literally recast as fiction, take on a greater multiplicity: shifting, encyclopedic, filtered through a veil of densely suggestive language. Predictably, Under the Volcano’s imagistic approach has inspired cinematic comparisons. The opening sentence, which positions the town of Quauhnahuac, describing its relationship to other world landmarks, has often been discussed as a long shot; a camera appears to frame the scene, moving from general to particular details, lingering over distant objects before focusing on the consul’s friend Jacques Laurelle on a veranda overlooking a valley outside the town. But the idea is specious; for all of its expressionistic power, Under the Volcano remains immaterial, ethereal in its hyper-real, uniquely expressive intensity. The world of the novel is, if anything, too exhaustive for the more literal world of film. The Cuban author Cabrera Infante, who wrote a film script of the novel, claims to have considered suicide after reading Under the Volcano, and cinematic challenges might easily have inspired the impulse. Sixteen different treatments of the novel had been attempted before John Huston directed a 1984 version starring Albert Finney as the consul, Anthony Andrews as Hugh and Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne. The resulting film is admirable but unsuccessful; shedding the novel’s flashbacks and focusing on surface detail, the result is static and middlebrow in spite of Finney’s outstanding performance. The essential soul of the novel, Lowry’s vast mind and domineering presence, remains on the page.

Increasingly unhappy, unable to remain sober, Lowry and his second wife Margerie traveled to Italy in 1954 and finally to the southern English town of Ripe in 1957, where he died on June 27 from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. To Lowry, obsessed with the mythical power of the calendar, the date may have had a particular resonance. It was the birthday of Paul Fitte, a coincidence that suggests but fails to prove suicide. His death was legally ruled misadventure, a distinction that allowed for burial in a local churchyard, but ultimately remains a mystery.

Lowry was productive in later years, but unable to complete or publish another project. Energies diffused, he wrote a range of novels and stories in various stages of completion and envisioned an interrelated series of novels under the title The Voyage That Never Ends. The sequence was to include Ultramarine, with Under the Volcano serving as the pivotal, Infernal sequence of a “drunken divine comedy.” Unrealized, the scheme can only be read in incomplete form, but Lowry had begun editing his earlier compositions into an inter-textual relationship: phrases, ideas and biographical references surface and resurface like Wagnerian leitmotivs across multiple works. The approach, when applied retroactively, often damages the integrity of older publications. The latest version of Ultramarine to appear in print contains a series of revisions, including falsely prescient references to Under the Volcano and passages written in a style that clearly postdate the original work. Other pieces, such as the long short stories “Through the Panama” and “Forest Path to the Spring” employ the approach more successfully; Lowry achieves a sense of resonant unity, artfully linking complementary fragments of lyrical autobiography. At times, he feints towards an emergent postmodern technique, offering self-reflexive commentary on the author’s task. In lightly fictionalized observations on the composition of Under the Volcano, often encoded under its working title In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a sense of passing tragedy emerges in the midst of an ephemeral, newly found calm.

Reconstructed and published posthumously, Lowry’s scattered projects make for challenging reading. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, edited by Marjorie Lowry and biographer Douglas Day, seems less a novel then a collection of unmediated and expressionistic notes, unsatisfyingly posing as fiction, combining the observational style of Under the Volcano with autobiographical travelogue. In his introduction, Day is nearly apologetic for the “formidable mess” of the original notes and manuscript, which largely appear in original form. October Ferry to Gabriola, edited by Margerie Lowry, does not benefit from the same level of scholarly restraint. Altered extensively, the novel was published to poor reviews in 1970. Enervated and lacking in dramatic interest, Lowry’s genius is visible only occasionally. In both cases, Lowry’s intentions are uncertain. The works closest to completion at his death, the short novel Lunar Caustic and the short story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, stand as his most successful outside of Under the Volcano.

Lowry’s later efforts often provide an antidote to the introspective density of his masterpiece. In particular, “Forest Path,” which Lowry intended as a counterbalancing Paradiso to Under the Volcano’s Inferno, draws from his happy and productive Canadian period. In this long, oblique yet rhetorical story, a jazz musician describes his life in a squatter’s shack, a life similar to Lowry’s own. The story contains meditations on nature, references to fires, lost manuscripts and other events in Lowry’s life, and ends on a note of hopeful irresolution; Lowry achieves something like the modern composers he evokes in the piece, a fluid, atmospheric rumination on life and art. True to his experience, the story makes frequent allusion to real estate development and the risks of losing his beloved shack. Today, the site of Lowry’s Dollarton home is part of Cates Park, where a plaque marks the location of the original building, and a Malcolm Lowry Walk preserves the immediate setting, which has otherwise changed little. A yearly, alcohol-free “Under the Volcano” music festival takes place on the site and the decaying Shell Oil refinery, described in “Forest Path,” still stands on the opposite shore of the Burrard Inlet. In Lowry’s account, the “S” had portentously burned out of the plant’s neon sign, leaving the words “HELL” behind, a reminder of an infernal past in the midst of a fleeting paradise, a discomfited intersection of life and art.

© 2005 by Sten Johnson.
Sten Johnson lives above the 510 Restaurant in Minneapolis, and occasionally eats there. His travel adventures include Paris, Peru, and Montana.