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With a Notebook and a Ukulele

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I first came across Malcolm Lowry through a selection of his poems published in a series devoted mainly to American Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. But in this slim volume of idiosyncratic verse, every line, every image, spoke of the sea and sailors, of lost horizons, suffering souls and impending madness in a distinctly Anglo-Saxon voice. The words were not those of a rootless New York Beatnik but of a reincarnated Ancient Mariner.

The poetry led me to a collection of Lowry’s stories, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, lyrical meditations on sin and redemption written in British Columbia where he spent fourteen years living in a squatter’s shack on the shores of Burrard Inlet. There he also completed his greatest work, Under the Volcano, and several novels which remained unpublished during his lifetime. In fact, when he died an alcoholic’s death in a quiet Sussex village in 1957 none of his books were in print in English, and his publisher had abandoned him. And yet his writing career had taken off full of promise 24 years earlier with the publication of his first novel, Ultramarine.

Lowry was born in 1909, the son of a wealthy Liverpool cottonbroker, and grew up on the Wirral – ‘within sight and sound of the sea and ships’. His parents, devout Methodists, sent him to the Leys School in Cambridge where he wrote for the school magazine, discovered alcohol and jazz and began composing witty popular songs. A gifted, quirky, eccentric boy who believed that alcohol was a source of creative inspiration, he feared his autocratic father and despised his socially pretentious mother, while they in turn came to fear their increasingly drunken, unpredictable son.

For Lowry the sea represented escape, and a youthful obsession with Conrad, Melville and O’Neill led him to leave school at 17 to sign on as a deck-boy aboard a Liverpool freighter, the SS Pyrrhus, trading to the China Seas. His fat

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I first came across Malcolm Lowry through a selection of his poems published in a series devoted mainly to American Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. But in this slim volume of idiosyncratic verse, every line, every image, spoke of the sea and sailors, of lost horizons, suffering souls and impending madness in a distinctly Anglo-Saxon voice. The words were not those of a rootless New York Beatnik but of a reincarnated Ancient Mariner.

The poetry led me to a collection of Lowry’s stories, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, lyrical meditations on sin and redemption written in British Columbia where he spent fourteen years living in a squatter’s shack on the shores of Burrard Inlet. There he also completed his greatest work, Under the Volcano, and several novels which remained unpublished during his lifetime. In fact, when he died an alcoholic’s death in a quiet Sussex village in 1957 none of his books were in print in English, and his publisher had abandoned him. And yet his writing career had taken off full of promise 24 years earlier with the publication of his first novel, Ultramarine. Lowry was born in 1909, the son of a wealthy Liverpool cottonbroker, and grew up on the Wirral – ‘within sight and sound of the sea and ships’. His parents, devout Methodists, sent him to the Leys School in Cambridge where he wrote for the school magazine, discovered alcohol and jazz and began composing witty popular songs. A gifted, quirky, eccentric boy who believed that alcohol was a source of creative inspiration, he feared his autocratic father and despised his socially pretentious mother, while they in turn came to fear their increasingly drunken, unpredictable son. For Lowry the sea represented escape, and a youthful obsession with Conrad, Melville and O’Neill led him to leave school at 17 to sign on as a deck-boy aboard a Liverpool freighter, the SS Pyrrhus, trading to the China Seas. His father pulled strings to make this possible on condition that he tried for Cambridge entrance on his return. He set off with a notebook and a ukulele, hoping to collect material for short stories and compose foxtrots during the voyage. Foolishly, in search of publicity, he gave an interview to the Liverpool Echo which ran the headline, RICH BOY AS DECKHAND: PREFERS 50S A MONTH TO THE ‘SILK-CUSHION LIFE’. Crew-members, reading this and resenting a public schoolboy going to sea merely ‘for experience’, while unemployed seamen were left hanging around the dock gates, decided to teach him a lesson. Throughout the voyage Lowry was picked on and bullied – handed red-hot plates by the cook, smothered with red lead, frog-marched to a Shanghai brothel and jeered at by the crew for being unable to perform in front of them. He returned home vowing to expose his persecutors in a book. This began as a straightforward account of his adventure, drawing on the many notes he had taken: of dockside scenes, names of bars, street signs, advertisements, newspaper headlines, old sailors’ stories, poker games and fragments of conversation. But then a chance discovery transformed the book and the course of his writing career. He came across Conrad Aiken’s Blue Voyage, a stream-of-consciousness novel about a transatlantic crossing seen from the viewpoint of a solitary passenger. It was a very literary, self-consciously Joycean novel, and it galvanized young Lowry. Here, he decided, was the style he needed in which to express his own mental suffering at the hands of his heartless crewmates. In 1929, having gained a place at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, he wrote to Aiken asking to be taught how to write novels; his father would pay. Aiken, an American poet, had been teaching at Harvard but had been dismissed after students complained about the ‘immorality’ of Blue Voyage. Short of funds, he agreed to take on the young Englishman, and Lowry worked his passage across to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There Aiken found himself confronted by a strangely brilliant youth plainly obsessed with him and his work. As an experiment he decided to ‘take over’ his young admirer and make him an extension of his own consciousness. Aiken, however, was a disturbing influence, unstable and alcoholic, and Lowry returned home strangely possessed by the poet’s malevolent spirit and doubly committed to hard drinking. On the voyage home he discovered Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On, another tale of suffering at sea, which gave him a structure and a Norwegian dimension for his own book, now called Ultramarine. Up at Cambridge he acquired the reputation of a ‘drunken genius’, famous for reading passages from his work-in-progress on pub-crawls around the town. Absent-mindedly he would abandon the pages as he read them, and friends would have to tour the city’s hostelries next day to retrieve them. By the time he graduated, Ultramarine had evolved into a highly experimental coming-of-age novel following the painful progress of Dana Hilliot, deck-boy aboard the SS Nawab (SS Oedipus Tyrannus in later editions), as he pines for the girl he has left behind and suffers the spiteful attentions of the crew. It also bears witness to Lowry’s breadth of reading, and was, he confessed to Aiken, a patchwork of quotations and allusions to the writers he most admired. In October 1932, having scraped a pass degree, he went to London, a young author with a book accepted by Chatto for spring publication. Meanwhile, he spent his time carousing around itzrovia’s pubs at his father’s expense with other young literary alcoholics such as Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, adding more tales of prodigious drinking to the Lowry legend. But for this accident-prone author, catastrophe was never far away. His editor, Ian Parsons, en route to Scotland, parked his open-top sports car briefly outside the Chatto office in St Martin’s Lane, with Lowry’s manuscript in a briefcase on the back seat. When he returned the briefcase had gone. Thinking that Lowry must have a carbon copy, he went on his way and broke the news to the author on his return. To his horror, Lowry had no carbon, having tossed it away when the final draft was typed. If Parsons was dismayed, Lowry was suicidal. He decided to do the rounds of his friends to wish them farewell before killing himself. Fortunately, visiting the old Cambridge crony who had typed the missing manuscript, he found that the carbon copy had been salvaged from the wastepaper-basket into which he had tossed it, and he returned to London in triumph. Jonathan Cape came up with an improved offer and published Ultramarine in June 1933. In Life and Letters Hamish Miles called it ‘one of the most striking works of imaginative realism that has come my way for a long time’; but V. S. Pritchett in the New Statesman thought it ‘self-conscious’, ‘metallic’, ‘monotonous and unrevealing’. The best review was a short one in the Illustrated London News which concluded: ‘You look down; the bottom is never reached, but the reflections are fascinating.’ Lowry was deeply depressed by what he saw as a poor reception for the book into which he had poured so much emotional capital over the previous six years. In 1935, having married an American girl, he left for New York, expressing disgust for ‘the non-creative bully boys and homosapient schoolmasters of English Literature’. Ultramarine is a truly poetic novel. Its use of the interior monologue invites comparison with Joyce. However, unlike Ulysses, which undoubtedly influenced Lowry, it does not attempt to inhabit the consciousness of more than one person but swings from the external life on board the Nawab to the elliptical wanderings of Hilliot’s consciousness through past, present and future around the focal point of a single day on which his innocence is lost. Hilliot is ‘a young boy chased by the furies’ and ‘living in introverted commas’, and his fascination with the infernal world of the stokehold, where sweating stokers (‘flaming nightmares, firelit demons’) feed the fires of Hades, adds a Dantesque dimension. For me it is a minor masterpiece, though a flawed one. Lowry’s short stories are probably the best introduction to his work, followed by Ultramarine, then Lunar Caustic, a brilliant novella set in a New York psychiatric ward. Under the Volcano is probably best left till last. The stories, some deceptively simple, offer an easy introduction to Lowry’s distinctive world of ideas and allusions; Ultramarine and Lunar Caustic are literary prologues to Under the Volcano, anticipating its greater density and intricate symbolism. In each of these books there is more than one great religious theme – the suffering sinner, the fall of man, the apocalypse, the redemption. Once one has learned to understand Lowry’s manner, his strange affinities and way with words, reading his work becomes ever more rewarding. Like Joyce, Lowry is a writer one can either become obsessed with or find unreadable. As a youth I was obsessed; now I am a fond and enduring devotee of someone I consider to be a grossly under-valued but ultimately great English novelist.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Gordon Bowker 2013


About the contributor

Gordon Bowker’s obsession with Lowry led to a biography of the author, Pursued by Furies, which appeared in 1993 and was reissued in 2009. He went on to write biographies of Lawrence Durrell (Through the Dark Labyrinth, 1996) and George Orwell (2003). His biography of James Joyce was published in 2011.

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