Ultramarine, 1933, revised 1962; Under the Volcano, 1947
Lunar Caustic, 1968 (novella)
Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, 1968
October Ferry to Gabriola, 1970
Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, 1961
Malcolm Lowry: Psalms and Songs, 1975 (Margerie Bonner Lowry, editor)
Selected Poems, 1962 (Earle Birney, editor)
The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry, 1992 (Kathleen Scherf, editor)
Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, 1965 (Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry, editors)
Sursum corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, 1995-1997 (2 volumes; Sherrill E. Grace, editor)
Notes on a Screenplay for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” 1976 (with Margerie Bonner Lowry)
“By the end of the century,” novelist Anthony Burgess wrote in 1984, “Under the Volcano may be seen as one of its few authentic masterpieces.” Only this masterwork and Malcolm Lowry’s self-conscious first novel, Ultramarine, were published during his lifetime: His is a story of waste, self-destruction, and critical neglect. Ironically, interest was first revived because of his premature death by “misadventure”–defined in the finale to Lowry’s autobiographical myth of the Faustian romantic outsider as one who risks damnation for mystical vision, using alcohol as a shortcut. Interest has since been fueled by the posthumous publication of many works, most of them carefully edited by his widow. Like his hero in Ultramarine, Lowry was “a man who believed himself to live in inverted, or introverted, commas”; his life and his fictions are, to a great degree, inseparable.
Clarence Malcolm Lowry (LOW-ree) was born into a comfortable and conventional bourgeois existence on July 28, 1909, the youngest of four sons of Arthur Osborne Lowry, a prosperous Liverpool cotton broker, and his wife, Evelyn Boden. Both parents were somewhat somber Methodist teetotalers; nevertheless, Lowry’s childhood seems (in contradiction to some of his later claims) to have been happy, with his enthusiasms for jazz records and silent films much indulged. At eight he started preparatory school, followed by a stint at a minor public school, where he wrote comic stories for the school magazine. Before he went to the University of Cambridge, however, several events occurred which were to be of great importance for Lowry’s life and writing. Determined to get “experience” of the world (which he could then turn into a first novel), he worked in May, 1927, as a deckhand on the SS Pyrrhus, which was en route to China; in 1928 he spent three years at a college in Bonn, coming under the spell of German expressionism; and he spent the summer of 1929 with American writer Conrad Aiken, whose 1927 “before the mast” novel Blue Voyage influenced Lowry significantly.
Lowry had rebelliously engaged in bouts of heavy drinking at school. He left Cambridge not only with an undistinguished third-class degree but also with a reputation as a great writer and a great drinker. Until the end of his life, he was financially supported by his father, who tried to keep the checks large enough to allow Lowry to write but small enough to save him from drunkenness. By 1934, however, Lowry had set the pattern of binging, marginalized expatriation, and intense but isolated creative work that was to persist for the rest of his life. In 1933, in Paris, he met and married a young Jewish American writer, Jan Gabrial. Her left-wing political views influenced Lowry’s fictions of the 1930’s, particularly Lunar Caustic, a novella based on his experience of “drying out” at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1935. The next move was to Hollywood, where Lowry (unsuccessfully) attempted screenwriting. Then came the decisive move to Mexico in 1936.
In Cuernavaca, Lowry became fascinated with the Mexican awareness of death: A short story about the roadside death of an Indian was to become a central episode of Under the Volcano. Also in Mexico, Lowry’s marriage disintegrated. His subsequent descent into the alcoholic abyss indirectly resulted in his imprisonment in Oaxaca and his deportation in July, 1938. Back in Los Angeles, Lowry met another aspiring American writer, former silent film child-star Margerie Bonner. In 1940, in Canada, she became his second wife. The couple lived in a primitive seaside squatters’ settlement in Dollarton, British Columbia, until 1954. It was Lowry’s happiest and most productive period. There he rewrote Under the Volcano, in which Dollarton figures as the Edenic “Eridanus.” There also he became fascinated with black magic and the occult–a powerful influence on the finished novel. During a second short visit to Mexico in the winter of 1945-1946, he collected materials for two novels he would leave unfinished at his death: Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, and “La Mordida” (unpublished).
The voyage is Lowry’s most powerful archetypal image. His fictions are nightmare journeys of the soul in search of elusive redemption: It was his intention, through continual revision of his works, to knit them all together into an epic sequence to be entitled “The Voyage That Never Ends.” His works defy generic definition, mixing novel with autobiographical confession and with romance. In postmodern style before the postmodern period, they signal their awareness of their own artifice and of the weight of the literary tradition that has gone before. Some critics have called Lowry’s novels “metafictions”; Under the Volcano, the central novel, the writing of which is the very subject of Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, has been called a mosaiclike expressionist “anatomy of death.”
Yet the engagement of Lowry’s fictions with ideas, with symbolic and mythical patterning, and with writing itself does not prevent their functioning also on the level of well-drawn character, plot, black comedy, and richly evocative description. For example, the binges at the center of Under the Volcano and Ultramarine can be read both as “real” episodes and as symbolic descents into hell. Indeed, according to Lowry, Under the Volcano was “so designed, counterdesigned, and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry.” Its story of the death of love, of friendship, and of brotherhood–inevitably culminating in the death of doomed, drunken Consul Geoffrey Firmin–is compressed into twelve hours on the Day of the Dead, 1938, in a Mexico lurching toward chaos. Lowry laces his linear narrative with cinematic flashbacks and juxtapositions.
Published on February 19, 1947, Under the Volcano was an immediate success in the United States and Canada. Yet the numerous notices were not quite all laudatory. While one reviewer thought Lowry “a man who . . . can make the English language serve him like a slave,” another considered his “arrogance of mind” a “variety of literary decadence.” Meanwhile, recognition came slowly in England. By the time of his death, Lowry had become the neglected outsider of his own autobiographical myth: The two novels were out of print, and until the 1960’s Under the Volcano would remain an underground classic. The 1970’s and 1980’s, however, witnessed the growth of an academic industry entirely focused on Lowry’s one masterpiece; it was also made into a film in 1984.