Thursday, 20 August 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #31: Malcolm Lowry

c 1940


This ticking is most terrible of all––
You hear the sound I mean on ships and trains,
You hear it everywhere, for it is doom;
The tick of real death, not the tick of time;
The termite at the rotten wainscot of the world––
And it is death to you, though well you know
The heart's silent tick failing against the clock,
Its beat ubiquitous and still more slow:
But still not the tick, the tick of real death,
Only the tick of time––still only the heart's chime
When body's alarm wakes whirring to terror.

In the cantina throbs the refrigerator,
While against the street the gaunt station hums.
What can you say fairly of a broad lieutenant,
With bloody hand behind him, a cigarro in it,
But that he blocks a square of broken sunlight
Where scraps of freedom stream against the gale
And lightning scrapes blue shovels against coal?
The thunder batters the Gothic mountains;
But why must you hear, hear and not know this storm,
Seeing it only under the door,
Visible in synecdoches of wheels
And khaki water sousing down the gutter?
In ripples like claws tearing the water back?

The wheels smash a wake under the jalousie.
The lieutenant moves, but the door swings to
What of all this life outside, unseen by you,
Passed by, escaped from, or excluded
By a posture in a desolate bar?
No need to speak, conserve a last mistake;
Perhaps real death's inside, don't let it loose.
The lieutenant carried it into the back room?
The upturned spittoons may mean it, so may the glass.
The girl refills it, pours a glass of real death,
And if that death's in her it's here in me.
On the pictured calendar, set to the future,
The two reindeer battle to death, while man,
The tick of real death, not the tick of time,
Hearing, thrusts his canoe into a moon,*
Risen to bring us madness none too soon.


*Author's note: Soma was mystically identified with the moon, who controls vegetation, and whose cup is ever filling and emptying, as he waxes and wanes. 

The Poet:  Clarence Malcolm Lowry, who wrote and published as 'Malcolm Lowry,' was one of the most uniquely gifted and consistently self-destructive British writers of the twentieth century.  His second novel Under the Volcano –– a harrowing, myth-based recreation of the final day in the life of an alcoholic British Consul living in a small Mexican town –– was rejected by twelve different publishers before going on to become a literary bestseller when it finally appeared in both the UK and the USA in 1947.  While the book, instantly hailed as a masterpiece by many critics, briefly made Lowry a world famous author its success did not encourage him to curb his own ferocious drinking –– a habit he'd adopted and had been enthusiastically indulging since the age of fourteen.

Lowry was born in the Merseyside town of New Brighton, close to the northern English city of Liverpool, on 28 July 1909, the fourth son of a successful cotton broker named Arthur Osborne Lowry and his wife Evelyn (née Boden).  He was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge, the expectation being that he would go on to attend that city's university and subsequently enter the family business.  Eager to avoid this fate and see something of the world before being forced to settle down, Lowry asked his father to allow him to defer entering Cambridge for a year so he could serve as a deckhand in the British Merchant Marine and, with his father's consent grudgingly obtained, shipped out for the Far East in May 1927 aboard the freighter the SS PyrrhusWhat he experienced during this voyage would serve as the foundation for his first novel Ultramarine, published in 1933 by UK publishing house Jonathon Cape Limited.

Arthur Lowry urged his son to pursue a diplomatic career following his return to England in 1928 –– a suggestion Lowry responded to by enrolling at Weber's English College in the German city of Bonn.  His stay in Bonn, while shortlived, proved to be a significant one in an artistic sense because it was here that he read and was, in his own words, 'overwhelmed by' the novel Blue Voyage written by  American poet (and friend of TS Eliot, among others) Conrad Aiken.  Lowry immediately wrote to Aiken, establishing a sometimes helpful and sometimes injurious friendship with the older writer that would endure for the rest of his life.  He went to the USA to visit and study with Aiken in 1929 before returning to England where, to keep his family happy, he finally did as they wanted and took his place at Cambridge.  Despite spending very little time at St Catherine's, the college he belonged to, and doing as little actual academic work as possible, Lowry nevertheless managed to graduate in 1932 with a third class honours degree in English Literature.  By this time he was already hard at work on Ultramarine, alternating periods of writing and obsessive revision with periods of sustained heavy drinking.

In 1933 Lowry accompanied Aiken and his wife to Spain where he was introduced to a young American writer named Jan Gabrial (born Janine Vanderheim in New York City in 1911).  Immediately smitten, Lowry set about wooing Gabrial, writing her long passionate letters whose frequency and intensity increased following his return to England for the June publication of his debut novel.  Gabrial and Lowry were married in Paris on 6 January 1934 and lived there until April, when Gabrial left her new husband for what would be the first of many times, explaining her hasty departure to their friends by insisting she had to return to America to care for her sick mother.  Lowry followed his estranged bride to New York in early 1935, spending part of his time there in the Psychiatric Ward of Bellevue Hospital in the hope of curing his by now chronic mental problems following a severe alcohol-induced breakdown.  (His time as a patient in Bellevue would inspire his posthumously published novella Lunar Caustic.)  'Malcolm was very seductive –– could take you over,' Gabrial would remember after they divorced in 1940.  'There could be periods of great lucidity –– then Walpurgisnacht!!!!'  (Walpurgishnacht is a German religious festival during which witches hold a wild party in celebration of the arrival of Spring, causing widespread chaos to erupt across the land.)

1936 saw the reconciled Lowry and Gabrial leave New York for Los Angeles and San Diego, from where they travelled to the Mexican town of Cuernavaca which was to remain Lowry's home until 1938.  It was in Mexico that he attained some measure of domesticity and began what was to be the eleven year process of writing Under The Volcano and getting it published –– a process often interrupted but never completely derailed by his drinking and Gabrial's decision to leave him, after pleading with him yet again to give up alcohol, in 1937.  Alone now and severely depressed by the fact that his wife had left Mexico with another man (although the man was not, as Gabrial's enemy Conrad Aiken unhelpfully suggested, her lover), Lowry began to drink like someone with a death-wish, eventually becoming such a problem for the Mexican authorities that they were forced to arrest him and suggest that, for his own good (and theirs), he should immediately leave the country.  (All these experiences would later find their way into the pages of Under The Volcano.)  

Lowry arrived in Los Angeles on 27th July 1938 and went straight to the new apartment Gabrial had rented upon her own return to California.  Although she did her best to help him find the psychiatric treatment she continued to insist he needed, her concern for his welfare did not extend to reconciling with him again.  After a period of largely unsuccessful treatment in a Californian sanitarium paid for by his family and an extended stay in a Los Angeles hotel also subsidized by parents without his knowledge, Lowry's visa expired and he left the USA for the western Canadian city of Vancouver, arriving there in August 1939.  

Vancouver was not, however, to be his final destination.  In 1940 Lowry moved to a small wooden fishing shack in the tiny town of Dollarton in the Canadian province of British Columbia with his new lover, a former silent film actress and mystery writer named Margerie Bonner whom he'd met in 1938 and who had loyally followed him to Canada, bringing his vast collection of uncompleted manuscripts across the border with her.  He and Bonner went on to marry in December 1941, soon after his divorce from Jan Gabrial became final.  

It was in the shack in Dollarton, with Bonner (who also drank heavily) acting as his editor, muse and nurse, that Lowry continued to work on what became the final version of Under The Volcano.  He completed the book on Christmas Eve 1944, working in the Toronto apartment of a friend where he and Bonner had gone to stay following the accidental destruction of their beachfront shack by fire.  

They rebuilt the shack the following year and continued to share it for the next nine years, leaving their remote corner of Canada to take trips to New York, Haiti, France, Italy and Mexico (from which Lowry was officially deported this time for public drunkenness and other anti-social behaviour).  It was here that Lowry worked on the books and poems that would not be published until several years after his death and collaborated with Bonner on an unproduced film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel Tender is the Night, all the while continuing to drink to excess as he'd done all his life.  

In time, the couple's formerly devoted relationship became severely strained and sometimes violent, with Lowry reportedly attempting to strangle his wife on at least two occasions.  Age and deteriorating health eventually obliged them to leave Dollarton in 1954 where, after a period of time spent travelling on the Continent again, they relocated to England and, following Lowry's short stay in yet another psychiatric hospital, rented a house in the Sussex town of Ripe.  

It was in Ripe, on 26 June 1957, that Malcolm Lowry died at the age of forty-seven of what was deemed by the local coroner to have been 'death by misadventure' brought about by the combination of barbituates and lifelong alcohol abuse – a verdict later challenged by his biographer Gordon Bowker and others who believed that the many inconsistencies in Bonner's version of what happened were her attempt to disguise the fact that she murdered him.  Bonner herself died in 1988 following a debilitating stroke, having established what, in the eyes of some critics, was a questionable career for herself as 'the widow of a genius' in the meantime.  Jan Gabrial, who remarried in 1944 and subsequently abandoned writing for a successful career in real estate, wrote a memoir about her life with Lowry titled Inside The Volcano: My Life with Malcolm Lowry which, at her request, was only published after her own death in 2000.

Click HERE to read a short essay about MALCOLM LOWRY and his 1947 masterpiece Under The Volcano by English novelist and linguist ROBERT McCRUM.  You can also click HERE to see what books by MALCOLM LOWRY are currently available.  (I strongly recommend The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry in His Own Words, edited by MICHAEL HOFMAN and published by New York Review Books in 2007.  This excellent book is the perfect introduction to LOWRY's sometimes difficult but never less than fascinating prose and contains generous selections from his fiction, poetry and letters, much of which is no longer available elsewhere.)   

Under The Volcano has never been out of print since it was published in 1947 and is still available, in both print and digital formats, via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #25: Josephine Miles
POET OF THE MONTH #5: François Villon 

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