Malcolm Lowry

views updated Jun 11 2018

Malcolm Lowry

Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) is best known for his one and only masterpiece, an autobiographical novel entitled Under the Volcano. It weaves together themes of alienation, love, political idealism, and myth. An uncontrolled alcoholic, Lowry's life was marked by self-destruction and desolation.

Lowry was born on July 28, 1909, in New Brighton, near Liverpool, England, the fourth son of Arthur Osborne Lowry and Evelyn Boden Lowry. His father was a wealthy Liverpool cotton broker who provided Lowry with a conventional English upper-class childhood. He was sent away to boarding school when he was eight years old and later briefly attended a public school where he wrote poems and stories for the Leys Fortnightly, the school magazine.

Later in his life, Lowry would lament frequently about his abysmal childhood. Most biographers attribute this to Lowry's tendency to embellish and fictionalize events to serve his own purposes. For example, he claimed that the noticeable scar on his knee, the outcome of a childhood bicycle accident, was the result of a gunfight during the Chinese civil war. Lowry did suffer from chronic constipation as a child and battled a bout of conjunctivitis as a preteen that affected the sight in both his eyes temporarily. He began abusing alcohol by the time he was 14 years old.

Although his father expected him to attend Cambridge and then take his place in the family business like his three older brothers, Lowry wanted some worldly experience to draw on for his writing. In May 1927, having finally secured his father's reluctant consent, Lowry set sail from Liverpool bound for Yokohama as a deckhand on the freighter S. S. Pyrrhus. He returned five months later with material for several stories that he would eventually expand into his first novel.

Lowry was particularly influenced by American writer Conrad Aiken and his 1927 novel, Blue Voyage. Precipitated by a fan letter, Lowry moved to Boston in the summer of 1929 in order to learn from Aiken. This apprenticeship financed by Lowry's father. Lowry was also very interested in the Norwegian writer, Nordahl Grieg, and his dark novel about a young man's adventures at sea entitled The Ship Sails On.

In the fall of 1929, Lowry attempted to placate his parents by enrolling at Cambridge University. His career as a student was unspectacular. He remained remote and aloof, spending most of his time working on drafts of his first novel Ultramarine. In his first term, he was deeply shaken by the suicide death of his roommate, Paul Fitte. Although the details of their relationship are unclear, Lowry was long haunted by the death. He later claimed responsibility for the tragedy and references to the incident appeared in his fiction. By the time he graduated from Cambridge in 1932, Lowry had earned a reputation as an excellent writer and a heavy drinker. Despite his unrelenting drinking, coupled with self-doubt, detachment, and despair, Lowry had a charm and a charisma that drew others to him, particularly in the barrooms.


Ultramarine, the first of two major works published in Lowry's lifetime, appeared in 1933. Lowry was 24 years old. It tells the story of an educated young man, Dad Hilliot, and his psychological and social development during his voyage to the Far East. Because of his upper-class background and sexual inexperience, Hilliot is rejected and ridiculed by the crew. Nonetheless, he is able to win their approval, after weeks of loneliness and internal anguish. The story is supposedly based on Lowry's experiences on the S.S. Pyrrhus, although he never achieved the level of acceptance his character did.

The reviews of Ultramarine were less than enthusiastic. According to critics, the main problem was a narrative line that could not sustain itself over the course of the novel. An additional problem was that Lowry attributed an undue significance to Hilliot's experiences. He also received criticism for his perfunctory treatment of the ports and countries encountered by Hilliot, preferring to focus on the inner psyche of his character. Although some critics saw evidence of Lowry's potential for extraordinary writing, Ultramarine was for all practical purposes a failure. Of the 1,500 copies printed, only half were sold. Later, Lowry would concur that the novel was not exceptional. He often spoke of rewriting it, but only a few minor revisions were ever made.

After leaving Cambridge, Lowry spent several months in London where he developed relationships with other writers, including Dylan Thomas. In April 1933, his restless spirit took hold and he began traveling through Europe with friend and mentor Aiken. While in Spain, Lowry met American writer Jan Gabrial and, after a brief romance, the two were married in Paris on January 6, 1934. However, the relationship was marked with conflict. Eventually Gabrial left Lowry in France and returned to New York. He published two stories about their tumultuous marriage as "Hotel Room in Chartres" and "In Le Havre." During this time Lowry also wrote a 1,000-page manuscript titled "In Ballast to the White Sea," a story with psychological overtones about a Cambridge student and his relationships with those around him. He never found a publisher for the novel, and years later the manuscript was destroyed in a fire.

In 1935, Lowry moved to New York. His out-of-control drinking precipitated a two-week stay in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital. The next year Lowry and his wife reconciled. They moved to Los Angeles, where they lived briefly before moving to Cuernavaca, Mexico. By 1937 Lowry's obsessive drinking had fractured his relationship with Gabrial for good; she left him and they never saw each other again. Already suffering from deep emotional and mental turmoil, Lowry sank deeper into despair. His drinking went unabated, and Lowry was jailed in Oaxaca. When he was ultimately deported in July 1938, he returned to Los Angeles.

Although his time in Mexico had been exceptionally painful and disturbed, it was also a time of inspiration and insight. His anguish became the subject matter for his one and only masterpiece, an autobiographical novel entitled Under the Volcano, which he began working on in 1936. After completing three drafts, Lowry was still unable to find a publisher. In the midst of his struggles, and shortly after arriving in California, Lowry met and fell in love with Margerie Bonner, an aspiring American writer and former child-star of silent films. When Lowry moved across the border into Canada after his American visa expired, Bonner went with him. They were married on December 2, 1940. For nearly 15 years, they lived in a squatter's cabin at Dollarton on the Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver. The shack burned down in 1944, and the manuscript of "In Ballast to the White Sea" was destroyed, but other works in progress were saved. After a time living with friends, they returned and rebuilt.

Under the Volcano

On Christmas Eve in 1944, Lowry finished his final draft of Under the Volcano. It tells the tragic story of the last 12 hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin. The entire novel takes place on November 2, 1938, with the exception of the first chapter, set in 1939. An alcoholic consumed by his vice, Firmin had been the British consul in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, but was removed after Britain severed diplomatic relations in 1938, over the oil crisis. His crumbling life served to reflect the political upheaval in Mexico at the time. Yvonne, Firmin's ex-wife, returns unexpectedly, but their attempts to reconcile are undercut by Firmin's continued drinking and abusiveness. The scene is further complicated by the arrival of two of Yvonne's ex-lovers, Firmin's half-brother and one of his friends, a French film director. Firmin spends the last hours of his life drinking and reflecting on his life. At the climax, Firmin is gunned down by a Mexican fascist who mistakes him for a criminal, and Yvonne is trampled to death by a runaway horse.

Under the Volcano weaves together themes of alienation, love, political idealism, and myth. In defense of his manuscript to London publisher Jonathan Cape, Lowry explained the significance of Firmin's doomed state: "The drunkenness of the consul is used, on one plane, to symbolize the universal drunkenness of mankind during the [Second World] War, or during the period immediately preceding it, … and what profundity and final meaning there is in his fate should be seen also in its universal relationship to the ultimate fate of mankind." The novel is a story of the pathetic deterioration of an alcoholic and the view of those who love him; it is also a study of Mexico, its politics, landscape, and place in history during the 1930s.

Lowry spent the next year drinking heavily while awaiting word from the publishers about Under the Volcano. He and Bonner took a trip to Mexico. Lowry wanted to show his wife the places he wrote about in the novel and he wanted to renew his friendship with a previous drinking companion. The trip did not go well. Lowry received unflattering comments from the publisher, and he discovered his old friend had been killed several years earlier in a barroom gunfight. Once again in the depths of despair, Lowry attempted suicide. Finally, the couple was deported from Mexico when Lowry refused to pay a small bribe to an immigration official.

Under the Volcano was finally published in 1947. The publicity he received from the book did not inspire Lowry to develop his talents. Although he continued to write and rewrite previous manuscripts, Lowry would not be published again during his lifetime. Still drinking heavily, he traveled with his wife extensively from 1946 to 1949. Finally returning to Canada, Lowry decided to try his hand at writing screenplays even though he had no experience. He completed a 455-page script based on Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. It was the first manuscript Lowry had actually finished in almost six years.

The Last Years

By 1954, Lowry had been released by his publisher, Random House. One of his last unfinished works, October Ferry to Gabriola, takes place in the mind of unemployed lawyer, Ethan Llewelyn, as he journeys from Dollarton to Gabriola Island, just off the coast of British Columbia. The Random House editor complained about the book's lack of focus and clarity. Despondent over the termination of his contract, Lowry sought psychiatric treatment in 1955, but it seemed to do him little good. In February 1956, Lowry and his wife settled in Ripe, on the south coast of England. The couple argued. When Lowry threatened his wife with a broken gin bottle, she fled the house. She returned to their home in Ripe, England on the morning of June 27, 1957 to find Lowry dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Many of Lowry's unfinished and unpublished works were edited and published under the direction of his widow. Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, published in 1961, is a volume of seven short stories. Two of the stories drew attention: "Through the Panama" and "The Forest Path to the Spring," a recounting of Lowry's time in Vancouver, were heralded as Lowry's best work since Under the Volcano. Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, (1968), is an autobiographical novel of Lowry's return to Mexico to look for his friend Marquez. Lunar Caustic, (1968), also autobiographical, is based on the time Lowry spent in Bellevue. Named for silver nitrate, the substance once used to treat syphilis, the novella is a shocking story of alcoholic Bill Plantegenet's time in Bellevue Hospital and his encounters with three other patients. His unfinished novel October Ferry to Gabriola, (1970), was considered thin and much more a remembrance of Lowry's time in Vancouver than a complete novel.

Further Reading

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, 4th edition, edited by Bruce Murphy, HarperCollins, 1996.

Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131, edited by Susan M. Trosky, Gale, 1991.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15, edited by Bernard Oldsey, Gale, 1983.

Encyclopedia of World Authors, revised 3rd edition, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1997.

The Nation, December 11, 1995.

New York Review of Books, February 15, 1996.

World Literature Today, Autumn 1996. □