By Words Obsessed
By Jennifer Howard
Oct. 15, 1995
"YOUTH plus booze plus hysterical identifications plus vanity plus self-deception plus no work plus more booze" was Malcolm Lowry's characteristically self-punishing assessment of the life he led up to the writing of Under the Volcano.
That "mescal-inspired phantasmagoria," set in the rank Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British ex-consul, took Lowry a decade to complete; it earned him a spot on 1947's bestseller list and a place among this century's greatest novelists. Its success was one of the things that sent its author-who, like Firmin, spent his life "balancing, teetering over the awful unbridgeable void"-tumbling finally into the abyss.
Anybody familiar with Under the Volcano has already taken a first-class guided tour of Lowry's private, alcohol-soaked hell. No biographer can match the infernal poetry of Lowry's creation; all that's left for Gordon Bowker to do, and he does it exhaustively, is to exhume the facts, as far as they are discoverable, from Lowry's endless rewriting of them.
Born in 1909 near Liverpool, Lowry came from uncomfortably bourgeois Methodist stock. His autocratic father, Arthur, held a top position at a cotton-broking firm; his mother, Evelyn, was "snobbish, small-minded and mean, with a few redeeming qualities." Lowry, the youngest of four brothers, was never close to either parent, though he depended on Arthur for financial support all his life. The boy wasn't much of a student, though at The Leys, his public school, he began to display literary leanings, reading widely and recasting himself as a "Rabelaisian" character.
Here the legend begins to fall into place, and the full-blown Lowry begins to emerge: booze-guzzling, women-fearing, scene-stealing, endlessly revising, a man prone to superstitions and coincidences and delusions and fits of childlike terror, who believed that the element of fire followed him around, who was just as likely to charm the pants off you as he was to swill your bottle of aftershave or have midnight shouting matches, naked, with your live-in maid. The young Lowry learns to play the ukulele and, more ominously, to drink; he makes ritual visits to Liverpool's Paradise Street Anatomical Museum, with its exhibit on "the dire consequences of venereal disease." (Bowker stresses Lowry's lifelong anxiety about sex.)
Though Bowker has disappointingly little to say about the fiction, he covers in journalistic detail the life itself, from Lowry's first sea voyage to his somewhat mysterious death by "misadventure" (alcohol and sodium amytal tablets were involved, leading some to suspect suicide). There's the first marriage, to New Yorker Jan Gabrial, whom Lowry took to live in Mexico; as the marriage disintegrated, the inspiration for Under the Volcano took shape.
There's the second marriage, to another American, Margerie Bonner, a failed Hollywood starlet with literary ambitions. Bowker plays up key relationships in Lowry's life, often casting them as negative influences. While an undergraduate at Cambridge, Lowry arranged to meet Conrad Aiken, whose Blue Voyage had deeply impressed him. Aiken became Lowry's mentor, a "Dark Angel" who, Bowker argues, contaminated Lowry with "a damaged psychology obsessed with the dark, corrupt, feculent world of the unconscious which he felt himself destined to explore.
"One suspects that the hell-bent Lowry, young as he was when he met Aiken, was already looking for someone to play Virgil to his Dante, and Aiken fit the bill nicely. Writing a famous defense of Volcano to his publisher, Jonathan Cape, Lowry confirmed his Dantesque ambitions: The book was intended as part of "a trilogy entitled The Voyage that Never Ends . . . with the Volcano as the first, infernal part, a much amplified Lunar Caustic as the second, purgatorial part, and an enormous novel. . . called In Ballast to the White Sea . . . as the paradisal third part, the whole to concern the battering the human spirit takes (doubtless because it is overreaching itself) in its ascent towards its true purpose.
"Aiken comes off badly, but Margerie Lowry emerges as the real villain of the piece. "Margie" does get points for being long-suffering: She typed manuscripts, offered editorial help, and picked up the pieces after binges. She also kept Lowry completely dependent on her, managing his money, forcing pills down his throat (vitamin B, she said, to help with the hangovers), threatening to leave him.
Eventually Margerie made Lowry abandon Dollarton, his beloved Eden near Vancouver, and took him back to England; he never finished another book. Bowker suggests that in England Margerie considered having her difficult husband lobotomized, and only abandoned the idea once Lowry's old friends discovered what she was up to. There's a dark hint, too, that she may have had a hand in his death; she was after all, in the habit of feeding him pills, and her story of the fateful night (June 26, 1957) was riddled with inconsistencies.
THESE ARE provocative speculations, but Bowker doesn't always organize his material persuasively. And certain claims-Aiken's "Dark Angel" designs on Lowry, for instance-need more substantiation; Bowker may be too credulous in accepting the mischievous Aiken's sinister version of events.
Still, this is an impressive and useful accumulation of material. Bowker seems to have left no archive unsearched in his hunt for the minutiae of Lowry's life. He draws on sources, including Jan Gabrial and Lowry's brother Russell, who seem not to have been available to Lowry's first biographer, Douglas Day. Day's Malcolm Lowry: A Biography (1973) is a happier book than Bowker's, better written and more inclined to give its subject the benefit of the doubt, despite some dated Freudian analysis; but Day relied heavily on Margerie Lowry's collaboration, which might have handicapped as much as helped him. Margerie died in 1988 and wasn't around to influence Bowker's work.
The living Lowry vexed and perplexed countless friends and relatives, and posthumously he remains resistant to analysis. Perhaps it's best to let him have the last laugh with his self-composed epitaph: "Malcolm Lowry/ Late of the Bowery/ His prose was flowery/ And died playing the ukulele."
Jennifer Howard is a writer living in Charlottesville.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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